Saturday, April 03, 2010

Global warming trumps climate change?

So much of the online climate "debate" is about effective communication, not science. Earlier this week, I met with a public opinion expert who critiqued the way many scientists and environmental groups speak about, er, climate change, no global warming, maybe the climate crisis, global heating, countdown to a meltdown, springtime for CO2, waterworld, the greatest threat facing humanity, well, you know what I mean.

The expert raised example after example of scientists, NGOs, government, etc. shooting themselves in the foot while talking about, um, the impact of human activity on the climate system. Take the oldest argument of them all: global warming or climate change?

At right is the Google trends graph of average worldwide searches for global warming (in blue) and climate change (in red). The top graph is standard Google searches, the bottom graph is news references.

The graph shows that "global warming" is far more common a search term. The average person is more likely to use and recognize the label "global warming", as evidenced by the search volume. But  "climate change" appears more often in the news. Why? In no small part because all the writers, and especially all the people quoted in the articles, say "climate change".

Now, we can argue the semantics of the different terms. Generally, scientists reject the term "global warming", because it is not used in the literature and supposedly "less accurate" because the entire planet is not warming at the same rate. I've used that argument many times, and now wonder if it may be a mistake to do so (as has been pointed out to me, "global" simply implies the whole planet is warming, which is true!).

Rights and wrongs of the different labels aside, the fact is that there is a disconnect here. We use a term that means less to people. And it puts scientists and others communicating the real scientific consensus at a disadvantage. Do a Google search for "global warming" and "climate change". With "global warming", the term the public is more likely to use, a "skeptical" site comes up second [note: search is done from Canada, others may find different results].


Anonymous said...

Seeing that the basic problem is the increased retention of heat by the Earth due to the greenhouse effect - I have no problem, speaking as a physicist, with the term 'global warming'.

I have a problem with what the 'skeptics' twist the term to mean though.

Anonymous said...

The as a physicist i am sure i can finally get an answer to my question.
Why is an open space like the earth is compared to a close space like a Greenhouse? it another example of "twist" the term to mean?

EliRabett said...

Well that's a long story. In short, a greenhouse works by cutting off convection. The greenhouse effect works by limiting radiation in a significant portion of the spectrum, so in one sense they are completely different, in another, limiting heat transfer, alike.

In short a language mis match which is good for downing a few beers at any time.

Simon Donner said...

Thanks Eli. "Greenhouse effect" is an example of an inaccurate term becoming acceptable inside and outside the scientific community because of constant usage. I'm not arguing that I prefer the term "global warming" to "climate change", merely that we should recognize which means something to the audience.

Anonymous said...
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Timothy Chase said...

May be a little late for a comment, but...

You are probably right that we should be using the term "global warming" if for no other reason most people feel like they have a better grasp of what that means. "Climate change" after all, is more abstract and might refer to warming or cooling, etc..

Then again, on a personal level I am reminded of how denialists try to spin it when a proponent of science uses the term "climate change." The denialist tries to argue that "alarmists" have switched to that term simply because the warming has stopped and now it is cooling -- which would count as evidence against global warming but as long as "alarmists" refer to climate change no evidence can count against it, etc.

And then I think about how it is possible to turn a perceived weakness into a strength. What if one were to say, "Not at all. If 'climate change' were simply about the temperature then we might refer to 'global warming,' but climate change is also about the drying out of the continental interiors, the expansion of the dry subtropics, the increased frequency of strong hurricanes, droughts during the summer and flash floods during the winter and spring, the rise in sea levels and so on."

In other words, it gives us the chance to introduce a variety of topics -- where these topics demonstrate that the science of climatology makes some fairly specific predictions regarding the consequences of increased CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere. What appeared to be a weakness -- which the denialist reaches for to turn against you ends up being something that you can turn against them. And rather than arguing fairly basic matters of vocabulary, how current usage disadvantage us, and how if everyone got on the same page (when at an individual level I have very little control over what everyone does but a fair amount of control over what I do), I can see an opportunity.

Perhaps we as individuals should look for more opportunities of this nature.