Is it time to retire the term 'global warming'?

By Leo Hickman – Thursday 5 August 2010 –

As its 35th ‘birthday’ approaches, is it now time to drop the politically charged and scientifically limited term ‘global warming’ for something else?

Melting Icebergs, Ililussat, Greenland
Melting water streams from iceberg calved from Ilulissat Kangerlua Glacier in 2006 Photograph: Paul Souders/Corbis

Anniversaries are always a fairly arbitrary (yet media friendly) reason for discussing any subject. But given the fact that some people, such as the folk at RealClimate, are already “celebrating” the 35th anniversary of the coining of the term “global warming”, which is marked this Sunday, it seems as good a time as any to assess whether the term is still fit for purpose.

Names are important (just witness the “sceptic” vs “denier” hoo-ha), so it does seem a valid question to ask. I strongly doubt whether Wally Broecker realised that when his 1975 Science paper was titled “Are we on the brink of a pronounced global warming?” he knew that the term would go on to gain such international traction.

I doubt, therefore, that he gave it much thought whether it would withstand the rigours of intense scrutiny and debate that it would attract over the coming decades. (Some of the comments beneath the RealClimate piece do note that other earlier papers used the term “global warming trend”, such as this one from 1961.)

The term is still near-universally used in the US, whereas “climate change” is more commonly used here in the UK. I’m not too sure why this should be the case (reader thoughts most welcome, but it seems likely that James Hansen’s use of the term “global warming” during his famous 1988 testimony to the Senate influenced the US media, and perhaps Margaret Thatcher’s use of ‘climate change’ in her famous 1989 speech did the same here). But the two terms are largely interchangeable in common discussion, even though climate scientists will rightly argue there are subtle, but important distinctions.

One often-heard criticism is that “climate change” was invented by “warmists” to hide a perceived inconvenient truth that global temperatures aren’t actually warming. In other words, “climate change” is a clever sleight of hand that acts as a catch-all for a bevy of climactic phenomena. This ignores the inconvenient truth that the term “climate change” actually pre-dates “global warming”. After all, the full title of Broecker’s paper is “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?”

There’s a nicely turned history of the two terms’ usage here on the Nasa website written by Erik Conway, a historian at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. It includes a paragraph on how, in the 1970s, the term “inadvertent climate modification” was common parlance. Thankfully, this was abandoned in 1979 when the National Academy of Science published its first decisive study of carbon dioxide’s impact on climate and chose to adopt the terms we still use today:

In place of inadvertent climate modification, Charney [MIT’s Jule Charney, the report’s chairman] adopted Broecker’s usage. When referring to surface temperature change, Charney used “global warming.” When discussing the many other changes that would be induced by increasing carbon dioxide, Charney used “climate change.” Within scientific journals, this is still how the two terms are used.

There have been some subtle tweaks made over the years, though. For example, on the blogosphere in particular, you will often see “AGW” used as shorthand, which adds the all-important clarifying prefix “Anthropogenic” to Global Warming.

There are also some prominent voices in the climate debate who do not particularly like the terms “global warming” or “climate change” because they don’t exude the urgency and reality of the subject they describe. For example, James Lovelock prefers the term “global heating”, whereas George Monbiot has argued that the term “climate breakdown” is a more accurate description.

Equally, on the other side of the fence, there are those who dismissively label the subject – or, rather, what they see as the mainstream reaction to the subject – as the “climate con”, “climate hoax”, “climate alarmism” or “climatism”.

Personally, I’ve never much taken to the term “global warming” (perhaps, it’s my British roots, or that, yes, it seems too narrow in its scope) so I’m happy to stick with “climate change”. I think we’ve reached a point now when we all know what we are talking about, even though the world will always be populated by the predictable pedants who love to crow that “the climate has always changed” when they know full well that what is being discussed is anthropogenic climate change. But, more importantly, to change the name now to something entirely new would only feed those conspiratorial minds that believe “climate change” is being intentionally used in some quarters in order to usurp “global warming”, in the way a corporation might undergo a rebranding to help dissociate itself from a previous mishap.

But what are you thoughts – which term do you prefer? Or perhaps you have a brand new moniker you wish to introduce to the world? And does anyone know when the term ‘climate change’ first emerged?

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