It’s climate change! And global warming! It’s two, two nightmares in one!

Waking up at the end of a sweaty, restless night thanks to these hot summer temperatures (which are going to be hotter still today), I encountered this peculiar little article about the words we use to describe our climate. I didn’t like it much.

We should stop calling it “climate change.” Now, before you object, bear with me, and let’s investigate the history of the term.
We used to call it “global warming.” Not so long ago. The big we, as in, all of us, because that is what the norm was. That’s the term which dominated public discourse, and you’d read it in papers and books and articles. Not the seemingly anodyne “climate change.”
That was a far, far more accurate term. And that was the problem.
Here’s little factoid for you. Do you know who invented the term “climate change”? Frank Luntz. The Republican “strategist.” Why? Because “global warming” was dangerous. Because it was true. Too frightening. Too true. Too real. Too self-explanatory, powerful, and strong. It had to be Orwellianized. It had to memory-holed. Doublespeak had to be crafted — to create the impression that there was some “debate” on this topic.

That first bit is inaccurate. We still call it global warming, in addition to the term “climate change”. It is true that Luntz, who happens to be one of the most despicable servants of the Republican party and is evil incarnate, proposed that the Bush administration avoid the term global warming and switch to climate change because “you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate” because that’s what Luntz does — he makes rhetorical tweaks to create confusion and promote dishonesty. He’s the Republican party’s Wormtongue. But his trick is to make the truth look false, and this is a case where he has taken the language of the truth and distorted it. The answer isn’t to abandon true statements, but to make that truth known.

What the writer of that piece was doing was suggesting that we be just like Frank Luntz, and that appalls me. No, I refuse.

The truth is that scientists use both terms to clarify the phenomenon they’re discussing, not to obscure it. So here’s NASA, explaining global warming vs. climate change, first defining global warming.

Global warming is the long-term heating of Earth’s climate system observed since the pre-industrial period (between 1850 and 1900) due to human activities, primarily fossil fuel burning, which increases heat-trapping greenhouse gas levels in Earth’s atmosphere. The term is frequently used interchangeably with the term climate change, though the latter refers to both human- and naturally produced warming and the effects it has on our planet. It is most commonly measured as the average increase in Earth’s global surface temperature.

And then climate change:

Climate change is a long-term change in the average weather patterns that have come to define Earth’s local, regional and global climates. These changes have a broad range of observed effects that are synonymous with the term.

Changes observed in Earth’s climate since the early 20th century are primarily driven by human activities, particularly fossil fuel burning, which increases heat-trapping greenhouse gas levels in Earth’s atmosphere, raising Earth’s average surface temperature. These human-produced temperature increases are commonly referred to as global warming. Natural processes can also contribute to climate change, including internal variability (e.g., cyclical ocean patterns like El Niño, La Niña and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation) and external forcings (e.g., volcanic activity, changes in the Sun’s energy output, variations in Earth’s orbit).

This is not Luntzian double-speak. Heating up the atmosphere increases climate variability, so in addition to record-breaking summer heat waves, we also get more tropical storms and the polar vortex.

The USGS also knows the difference.

What is the difference between global warming and climate change?
Although people tend to use these terms interchangeably, global warming is just one aspect of climate change. “Global warming” refers to the rise in global temperatures due mainly to the increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. “Climate change” refers to the increasing changes in the measures of climate over a long period of time – including precipitation, temperature, and wind patterns.

And here Phil Plait explains the terms.

I’ve known for years that the term “climate change” was in fact promoted by Republican strategist Frank Luntz, who suggested using it because it’s less “frightening” then saying “global warming”*. But as usual, facts won’t stop the talking heads at Fox News, who claim it’s a liberal term. I like how Media Matters (who created the video) put the actual clip with Luntz in at the end.
Ironically, Luntz has a point, though not the one he meant to make. The increase in heat trapped by greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t just make things hotter. It changes weather patterns, and can create droughts in one place and flooding in another. Over a long enough time, it will in fact change the climate, so the term is actually correct.

So don’t abandon “climate change”, use it with “global warming”. Just know what they mean.

Definitely don’t change your usage either to agree with or spite Frank Luntz, advisor to Newt Gingrich, though. That man is going to go down in history as one this generations greatest monsters, the Goebbels of anti-scientific propaganda. Fuck him.


  1. says

    I’ve been pretty resistant to calls to change how I use “gender” and “sex”. My uses are largely consistent with the anthropological and sociological definitions of their use in the 1990s when I first came out & when I first studied these phenomena as an undergrad.

    There have been a number of arguments to change my usage, with the most persuasive detailing how the two terms and specific short phrases involving them (e.g. “biological sex”) have been used to hurt trans people. Ultimately I’ve suck with my uses because the anthropologists were right: gender and sex are multifaceted concepts and those concepts are used differently in different contexts to make different points. Having a single, reliable vocabulary allows us to talk about the many different uses of those concepts. Even where a local context typically calls for use of a different word, if they express the same concept I can accurately describe and communicate the concept using my own unchanging language.

    This becomes useful (indeed, necessary) to fight gender and sex based oppressions, since it can otherwise be hard to see commonalities as local phenomena are described using different (and sometimes conflicting) language. This doesn’t mean that in the local context I won’t or don’t use the local, respectful language (I typically, though not always, do). It’s merely a statement that as important as social considerations can sometimes be, if we don’t take care with our language we can end up without a way to communicate accurate information necessary to change our world for the better.

    So it is with global warming & climate change. Yeah, Luntz is a pretty vile person. No, I don’t want to parrot his words. But if his words end up being words that correctly describe the concept I want to discuss, then avoiding those words lead to problems I’ve resisted in my anti oppression activism: allowing social considerations about uses in specific contexts to deprive me of a stable core language necessary to present information accurately in important other contexts.

    I’ve been told that not only can things occur such as temporary cold snaps exist that are more extreme than otherwise , but even a longer term average lowering of annual temperatures can occur in particular locations despite increases in global surface temperatures overall.

    On top of that, “global warming” (as PZ mentioned) does not include things such as changes in precipitation patterns or wind patterns that are most assuredly occurring.

    The globe is gaining more heat each year than it loses to space each year. Equilibrium will eventually be reached (even Venus eventually reached an equilibrium), but not enough time has passed from the release of greenhouse gasses for us to have reached it. We’re going to continue warming for quite a long time if we don’t actively pull CO2 from the air.

    But also, hotter air carries more water vapor (you can think of this as “water dissolved in the air”). If moist air hits land at its usual place, but that land is warmer than it used to be, the air may not cool right away. It is the cooling which reduces the capacity of the air to carry moisture that triggers rain. So the hot, moist air simply rushes past the locations where it might otherwise have fell, leading to drought. But that moisture has to go somewhere, and eventually it gets far enough north or high enough in elevation from convection or from topology and the air, now MUCH more moist than expected drops vast amounts more rain. The air, after all, not only started out with more moisture in it, but lost less along the way when it did not cool over parts of the land that might previously have promoted cooling (and thus drought).

    This all results in drier than normal conditions in some places and absolute monsoons (with accompanying flooding) in others. This isn’t described by the meaning of the words global warming, so with no apologies to Luntz, climate change it is.

  2. blf says

    The Grauniad has, for several years now, preferred to use the terms such as (but not limited to) “climate emergency” and “global heating”, Why the Guardian is changing the language it uses about the environment (May 2019):

    Instead of “climate change” the preferred terms are “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and “global heating” is favoured over “global warming”, although the original terms are not banned.

    “We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue,” said the editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner. “The phrase ‘climate change’, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”

    “Increasingly, climate scientists and organisations from the UN to the Met Office are changing their terminology, and using stronger language to describe the situation we’re in,” she said.

    The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, talked of the “climate crisis” in September, adding: “We face a direct existential threat.” The climate scientist Prof Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a former adviser to Angela Merkel, the EU and the pope, also uses “climate crisis”.

    In December, Prof Richard Betts, who leads the [UK’s] Met Office’s climate research, said “global heating” was a more accurate term than “global warming” to describe the changes taking place to the world’s climate. […]

    Earlier in May, Greta Thunberg […] said: “It’s 2019. Can we all now call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?”

  3. says

    Over here in California, it feels like the most significant change was not the temperature, but the fires, which are connected to climate change in a way I don’t really understand. In some ways, “global warming” undersells it.

  4. lumipuna says

    I don’t see how the term “climate change” implies more uncertainty, unless Luntz specifically wanted Republican propagandists to insinuate that. Like, “the climate is always naturally changing and we can’t know if the current warming is human influenced; it might even start changing back toward cold any day so let’s talk in generic terms”.

  5. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re @2:

    Bingo, answered my question before I could even ask. I was going to say I object to both terms in their removal of causal effect, and make it sound like inevitability from natural causes. I was going to ask for a term that included the fact that we are causing the change. Thank you for giving me the answer:
    Climate Sabotage emphasizes that the issue is one caused by people and can be stopped by changing our behavior.

  6. stroppy says

    Fussing over “climate change” v. “global warming” has provided trolls with yet another way to clog up conversation. And then there’s the oh-so-not-clever “Gorebal Warming” as in global warming isn’t real because “Al Gore is fat.”

    I seem to be hearing more “climate emergency” and “climate crisis” etc. regularly in the news, instead of giving denialists equal weight to actual science. About friggin’ time.

    lumipuna @ 7
    That’s pretty much it.

  7. whheydt says

    I’ve been spending quite a bit of time watching the volcano in Geldingadalur, Iceland on a YT channel with chat. A couple of times (including one last night), there have been people expressing alarm about the amount of visible gas emissions from the active crater.

    I am among those that have pointed out that, (a) this is a very small eruption, (b) the gas you can see is all, or nearly all water condensing (you can’t see the CO2, SO2, or HF), (c) the amounts being released are completely trivial compared what is released by human activity, and (d) this is all part of the natural planetary cycles.

    The one last night went on to ask, couldn’t scientists do something to stop the eruption? To which several of us comment, no way to do that.

  8. seachange says

    I also like climate catastrophe and global burning. IME they really work if you are talking to someone who thinks that correcting ‘global warming’ words to ‘climate change’ words is useful and the only thing that they have to do.

    If all they are going to do is use fun words, they should use the truly correct majorly fun ones to use on stupid naked apes.

    Human beings are irrational; sorry all you atheist folks, we are. Global warming AND climate change are words for rational action and this is not what will work. It is not speech-for-activation, and activation is seriously majorly it-must-happen needed.

    Therefore this article Dr Myers is quoting is masturbatory. It is not helpful, because it presupposes we can sit down and think about words because thinking about words is fun for another decade.

    We cannot do this.

    We cannot do this.

    We cannot do this.

  9. pilgham says

    @4 robertharvey. Thank you for pointing that out. It tends to shut down climate deniers pretty quick, IME.

  10. wsierichs says

    I’ve been calling it Global Scorching for some years. What’s happening in the Northwest proves how prescient I was. Unfortunately. Infuriatingly. Sadly.

    I say these because I think we’re way past the tipping point, the point of no return. I’m 68, so I won’t see the worst coming. I feel very very sorry for the young people who will live in a ruined world that they did not cause. I really really hope that I’m wrong, but the science is clear.

  11. robro says

    ahcuah @ #2 — Another term I’ve seen recently is “ecocide” which encompasses more than the climate.

  12. robertharvey says

    @13 pilgham It is, in my experience, largely ineffective. Rational arguments are poor ammunition against irrational beliefs.

  13. says

    It’s going to be darkly humorous (if terrifying) watching the next decade play out, because the consequences of climate change aren’t just the obvious.

    Just for example: essentially every location on or near the equator is going to become uninhabitable relatively soon. We are already seeing refugees fleeing climate crisis — but at some point, large enough chunks of whole nations will cease to be viable that said nations will have effectively nothing to lose. Since the entire “mutually assured destruction” strategy behind nuclear weapons is predicated on the idea that national governments don’t want to kill their people, it is going to unravel as soon as this reaches a nuclear nation, India being the most likely first one to go. When the larger part of India is going to die in some of the most horrible ways possible thanks to climate change, India has no reason not to attempt nuclear blackmail — “go ahead, strike back, our people will die a little faster and probably with less pain”. Then Pakistan, and maybe China.

    Then of course there’s the news released recently that the ocean’s ecosystems are collapsing faster than previously thought, and will be dead enough to cause massive disruption in human civilization within 25 years. That’s going to get the European nuclear nations involved, too. We’ll see just how long the non-proliferation treaty and NATO hold up in the face of mass starvation and death. Such fun!

    I figure that at least one and possibly both of the following are true:
    1. Within five years, there are going to be massive, formerly-unthinkable political uprisings which will unleash massive violence against the existing power structures of the west in particular
    2. Within 30 years, the human population will be dropping so quickly and dramatically, and from horrible causes, that instead of reaching 8 billion as predicted by many we will fall below 6 billion

  14. birgerjohansson says

    Look up “wet-bulb temperature ” and why you die if that rises to 35°C. It is pretty scary.
    There is a novel titled “Ministry of the Future” about the coming decades. Recommended.

  15. imback says

    #4, yes the IPCC started in 1988, and no way was Luntz involved. In fact, according to m-w, the term climate change was coined with more or less today’s meaning way back in 1854. Our case today is actually anthropogenic climate change or ACC (or AGW). But I think the terms climate sabotage or ecocide do serve well too.

  16. imback says

    we also get more tropical storms

    Whether tropical storms are getting more frequent is not clear. What is clear is tropical storms are getting more intense.

  17. ginckgo says

    I see this on Facebook et al so often, I’ve created a note on my phone ready to paste as response:

    “ Human activity causes increase in greenhouse gasses.
    Higher GHGs cause global warming.
    Global warming causes climate change.
    That is the science. You though, have fallen for the deliberate misinformation started by Frank Luntz in a 1997 memo to fellow Republicans, telling them to refer to ‘climate change’ as it sounds less threatening than ‘global warming’”

  18. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    As a chemist, we still send our samples out for NMR. MRI was a used in used in public relations to tell folks they wouldn’t glow green from atomic radiation they were scanned by the medical device.

  19. says

    I don’t care what you call it as long as we all agree that the climate is going to shit, and if we don’t do something NOW, it’s going to get a lot worse, faster than we can handle.

  20. says

    Whether tropical storms are getting more frequent is not clear. What is clear is tropical storms are getting more intense.

    I’m some random person with no expertise & I haven’t even done what a thorough lay person would consider a literature review of the topic, but that’s absolutely consistent with what I’ve read.

    There should be an increase in Cat 3+ storms.
    There should be an increase in Cat 4+ storms.
    It’s unclear whether there will be an increase in Cat 5 storms, since they’re already rare & that makes studying them difficult.

    But the literature indicates a lot of uncertainty about whether there will be an increase in all named storms (Tropical Storms + Hurricanes of any severity). So far as I’ve seen, data is still equivocal about whether we will get more total storms or just a greater % of storms escalating to Cat 3 & Cat 4 (and possibly Cat 5).

    That said, we did have a bumper crop of named storms in the last couple years, so I certainly wouldn’t count out an overall increase in named storms. It just isn’t a sure thing yet, given the state of our knowledge.

  21. fishy says

    I’m using electricity right now. I’m thinking of popping something in the microwave and having a treat. I don’t use a/c but the fan is nice. I think I’ll play the acoustic instead of the electric, today.