By Mike Pile
The terms “global warming” and “climate change” describe two interrelated and similar — but scientifically different -- phenomena. But one term is increasingly used as the other is in retreat. When did this happen, and more importantly why? If environmental threats are among the foremost challenges of our time, the semantical — and emotional — differences between these terms are worthy of closer examination. So, let’s examine.
A simple Internet search returns variations on two themes:
My research finds a preference for “climate change” over “global warming,” with an increasing gap over time.
From 1995 through 2008, the two terms appeared more or less equally with two exceptions. In 2003, the year Luntz Global issued its recommendation that its clients use “climate change” instead of “global warming,” the former term enjoyed a spike. Around 2005-2007, the years before, during and after the release of “An Inconvenient Truth,” both terms see a significant increase in use, but “global warming” regains primacy. While it’s hard to conclude a correlation between frequency of use and these events, common sense suggests some relationship.
Beginning in 2008 and continuing through 2015, “climate change” reigns supreme, each year appearing more frequently than “global warming.” Furthermore, not only does it appear relatively more, its use grew overall — while the use of the term “global warming” declined. Indeed, there is a distinct preference for the term “climate change” over “global warming.”
So, why does the term “climate change” enjoy such pronounced use and seemingly at the expense of the term “global warming?”
We offer two hypotheses.
According to the text book definition and many people in the scientific community, “climate change” is more encompassing of the phenomena that we are witnessing, and is therefore technically correct. So therefore it becomes the careful choice of caring writers, speakers, researchers, entertainers, artists, opinion leaders, or anybody with a public forum. It is conceivable that a self-reinforcing feedback loop takes place, where thought leaders use the term, the consuming public in turn uses the term, and then thought leaders seeking to connect with the reading public continue to use it … until it becomes part of the vernacular.
An alternate view is that the choice of terms is based less on the scientific distinction and more on the powerful emotional differences between the two terms. Over the course of discussing this piece with writers, climatologists, and others we have heard that while “climate change” is benign, “global warming” brings out the internet trolls who point to record cold temperatures in Cleveland, snowfall in Alabama and citrus-killing frost in Florida. “Global warming” is clearly a politically charged term.
But this is more than anecdotal. A 2014 poll by George Mason University and Yale University found that the term “global warming” is more emotive, more powerful, and more threatening than “climate change.” The study concluded that: “Global warming generates stronger ratings of negative affect, i.e. bad feelings, than the term climate change.” Specifically, relative to “climate change,” Americans associate “global warming” with higher levels of risk, harm, and fear.
Here at Uppercase Branding, we’re not scientists, but we are word enthusiasts. Recognizing that the two terms are scientifically different we posit that, to most people, even engaged people (in their day to day consumption of information), the difference is subtle if not lost altogether. Indeed, the journalists at NPR have issued a statement that they will use the terms interchangeably.
As we face changes in our environment and the uncertainty in our lives that these changes foreshadow, using the right term is not merely an issue of semantic clarity — it is a moral imperative.
Emotionally, “climate change” and “global warming” are as far apart in meaning as they are close logically. Each is laden with different imagery.
The climate is changing. But it is changing because the oceans are warming. Global warming is the root cause. Global warming is specific and measurable: humans can comprehend and address specific and measurable.
“Climate change” reinforces the status quo. “Global warming” calls us to action.
Writers, policy makers, and sustainable business leaders who write and speak about the threats to the environment need to choose the right word. The right word, as Mark Twain wrote, is the difference between lightning and lightning-bug.
Image credit: Flickr/Jon Sullivan
Mike Pile is president & creative director of Uppercase Branding, a verbal identity consultancy that specializes in creating names for companies, products, features and any other thing that would benefit from a brand name.