When I saw the cartoon below, I recalled that there have been times when I too was gently chastised for using the phrase ‘global warming’ and told that it was outdated and that the correct term was ‘climate change’. I was a little puzzled by this for two reasons. One is that I was unaware that there was some kind of shifting standard to be followed regarding usage. The other is that I felt that they referred to two different things so one could not replace the other.
Global warming is pretty specific and quantifiable and refers to the fact that average global temperature has been increasing with time. On the other hand, I always saw climate change as less well-defined (because climate is not as well-defined as temperature) but a consequence of global warming, and referred to the frequency shifts of major weather patterns with more extreme ones occurring more frequently.
The website Skeptical Science says that my sense that these two phrases were referring to two different things is justified.
Thus while the physical phenomena are causally related, they are not the same thing. Human greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming, which in turn is causing climate change. However, because the terms are causally related, they are often used interchangeably in normal daily communications.
The argument “they changed the name” suggests that the term ‘global warming’ was previously the norm, and the widespread use of the term ‘climate change’ is now. However, this is simply untrue. For example, a seminal climate science work is Gilbert Plass’ 1956 study ‘The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change’ (which coincidentally estimated the climate sensitivity to a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide at 3.6°C, not far off from today’s widely accepted most likely value of 3°C). Barrett and Gast published a letter in Science in 1971 entitled simply ‘Climate Change’. The journal ‘Climatic Change’ was created in 1977 (and is still published today). The IPCC was formed in 1988, and of course the ‘CC’ is ‘climate change’, not ‘global warming’. There are many, many other examples of the use of the term ‘climate change’ many decades ago. There is nothing new whatsoever about the usage of the term.
So both terms are correct and current and need to be used in the appropriate contexts.
Interestingly, it appears that Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz, who has made a career out of using focus groups to identify the best language to frame political issues to favor conservative causes, was someone who urged Republicans to adopt the phrase ‘climate change’ because it sounded less scary than ‘global warming’. He said this in a leaked memo where he suggested ways to steer people’s concern over the environment away from proposals that might hurt his clients, saying (p. 142):
“Climate change” is less frightening than “global warming”. As one focus group participant noted, climate change “sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale.” While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.
Incidentally the Luntz memo’s section on global warming and climate change (p. 137-142) provides a fascinating insight into how these operators try to manipulate public opinion on this important issue.