Burning Question

“Global Warming” or “Climate Change”: Which term do you prefer?

By Tobin Hack

In 2003, Republican pollster Frank Luntz’s consulting firm put together a memorandum recommending that the Bush administration use the term “climate change” rather than “global warming.”  “While global warming has catastrophic communications attached to it,” read the memo, “climate change sounds a more controllable and less emotional challenge.” Environmentalists from all corners got up in arms, and the skirmish earned serious media attention. Plenty decided to find out which term experts prefer.

To see what Laurie David, Michael Oppenheimer, and Steven Poole had to say, pick up our October/November issue, on stands now.

Ray Pierrehumbert:
Professor of Geophysical Sciences
The University of Chicago

Some scientists prefer to use “climate change” because when you say “global warming” there’s a tendency to think that means every part of the earth warms all the time, whereas in reality there are some parts that warm a lot more than others. Land warms more than the ocean. There would be even some parts of the earth that could cool for a little bit. And in terms of the impact of climate change, a lot of the big impacts are not from the warming alone, but from the changes in precipitation – floods in some places and droughts in some places. But as far as communicating with the public, “climate change” doesn’t communicate the urgency or the importance of the issue. “Climate change” sounds like it could almost be for the better, it could be a small thing, it could be a little bit here a little bit there. 

Eric Wolff:
British Antarctic Survey Glacier Chemist

I tend to use the term “climate change”. For many people around the world, the important impacts of what’s happening now and in the next century are not actually directly the warming. They’re things like the change in rainfall and change in sea level, which aren’t quite summed up in the phrase global warming. On the other hand, of course, “global warming” is term that everybody understands, whereas to most people, ‘climate change’ probably just sounds like the weather changing from day to day. So I appreciate the difficulty. Neither of the two terms is very good. When we’re in close scientific circles we sometimes talk about much more complicated terms like anthropogenic greenhouse warming [man-caused greenhouse warming], which is very user-unfriendly. To some extent, the issue is that the climate’s always changing, and there have been times when it’s warmed in the past. And I guess all climate changes— whether they’re manmade or not—are pretty uncomfortable for people. In the past people might have moved, but now they’ve nowhere to move to. I don’t know quite how you fit that into a very snappy term like ‘global warming’. 

James Hansen:
Director, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies

Global warming and climate change are both useful descriptions of what is happening.  On average, the world is slowly getting warmer.  But the changes that people notice are more regional, sporadic, and complicated. People are interested in the practical impacts of global warming, storm severity, effect on drought intensities, and forest fires in the West, frequency of "100-year" floods, etc., and climate change is a useful description of those effects. 

Bob Perkowitz
Founder and Chairman, EcoAmerica
There’s a direct linear relationship between carbon emissions, global warming, climate change, and catastrophic weather.  Just a couple of years ago, using “global warming” or “climate change” in casual conversation induced skepticism and required explanation.  Now, most people generally understand both terms and use them fairly interchangeably. Almost every adult in America has some personal experience with climate change, whether it’s less snow in Chicago to droughts in southeast.

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