Sunday, April 23, 2006

Global warming vs. climate change

The popular news and entertainment media have been all abuzz about “global warming”. Time Magazine, Vanity Fair and the cable channel HBO have all had major features on the subject in the past two weeks.

They say global warming, I say climate change. Why the to-may-toes and to-mah-toes?

Most scientists prefer “climate change” - a short form for global climate change or human-induced climate change - to "global warming". The term global warming is not necessarily wrong. The planet is, and is expected to continue, warming. But it is misleading.

Two reasons. First, the observed and predicted changes in climate due to increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere include much more than an increase in mean temperature of the planet. You read about these things in the news every day: increases in hurricane intensity, reductions in mountain snowpack or increases in drought frequency. Second, the changes in climate are not globally uniform. The poles, for example, are warming faster thanks to a feedback that involves the melting of ice.

I know what you are thinking: Oh, those scientists are such sticklers for detail. They don't understanding marketing. Climate change is too nuanced, it sounds too innocuous sounding. Global warming has better optics. Scarier headlines, flashier graphics, a more ominous soundtrack.

I admit, I still think branding is something you should only do to cattle. But there is a danger of relying on the less accurate term.

The use of “global warming” and constant talk of “global average temperature” has led too many to imagine a very linear problem, that a great climatic switch has been flipped, and we are slowly warming by 0.0025 deg C every day until it is 3 deg C warmer everywhere. And they think, 3 degrees? that’s not so bad. It’ll be a bit hotter. I’ll get a tan.

Tell someone in my parent’s hometown of Winnipeg – a town famous for the expression “sure, it’s -40, but it is a dry cold” – that “global warming” is a problem and they will laugh. Tell them about more severe flooding, more droughts and the unthinkable, even more mosquitoes in the summer, and they will understand that climate change is a real problem.


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