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.
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.