Global Burning? How the Words We Choose Affect the Perception of Crises


Would we be doing more to save the planet from global warming if we had better phrasing? Jonathan Watts asks that question at The Guardian when he notes that the only time that governments have been able to overcome their pettiness was when scientists warned about an unexpected “hole in the ozone layer.”

It seemed to have a profound and galvanizing effect, and the level of intergovernmental cooperation that ensued was unprecedented.

Watts is making a good point. We are facing a planetary threat that dwarfs anything we have faced — World Wars included — and most people seem to think that buying compact fluorescent bulbs or a Toyota Prius will be enough keep climate change to a minimum.

There are many reasons why this is so, but using terms which  sound so benign, like climate change and global warming, is part of the problem.

Watts suggests that we start talking about global burning. G8 nations recently pledged to keep climate change below 2°C (3.6°F) in order to avoid dangerous tipping points that could lead to runaway global warming. That’s what he’s talking about. The problem is that we really don’t know how many steps we can make into the future before we start tripping over the tipping points.

If you live in central Canada and the US midwest, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that global warming is on hiatus this year. Folks in those regions have had relatively cold winter, and a coolish summer, but throughout the rest of the world —  especially  the world’s oceans — it’s been a scorcher, according to data just released by NOAA. For combined surface and water temperatures, 2009 is proving to be the second hottest summer on record. The oceans have never been as warm as they are right now at 62.5°F — a full 1.04°F above the 20th century average. That’s particularly worrisome because water takes a long time to warm, and a long time to cool. In fact, it takes five times more energy to warm water than land, and that warm water will influence land temperatures dramatically. What’s particularly interesting to NOAA researchers is that this spike in temperatures is occurring while we’re going through the deepest solar minimum in more than a century.

As climate models predicted some time ago, arctic amplification is occurring now, and temperatures there are rising disproportionately, and have been for years. Siberia, for example, is experiencing temperatures that are 5.4°F above normal, and that’s why the arctic sea ice is rapidly retreating. This year will go down as the third worst melt on record, a full 18.4% below the late 20th century average.

The headlines are likely to get more dire. NASA is predicting that el Nino and global warming will combine to set record temperatures for 2010 or 2011, and that the coming decade will be the warmest in human history.

Richard is a writer and editor based in Halifax, Nova Scotia who specializes in clean technology and climate change. He's the founder of One Blue Marble, a climate change activism blog and web site.

One response

  1. First, the tipping point for global heating is not some future conjunction of facts in environmental science. It was a sociological event, and we passed it decades ago. As pointed out in Limits to Growth in 1972, “Because of the delays in the system, if the global society waits until those constraints are unmistakably apparent, it will have waited too long.” Second, why has the IPCC ignored crucial science about human behaviour, such as how 100 rats behave when placed in a cage for ten, in its work?

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