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Can Two Words Save the Planet?

By 3p Contributor

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:

  1. Liberals tend to use the term “global warming” while conservatives use “climate change” — and by implication and inference, nefarious politics drive the agenda. Republican pollster and wordsmith, Frank Luntz, makes frequent appearances in the articles surfaced during these searches. And while he did not invent the term “climate change,” he is credited with encouraging its use among his clients.

  2. The terms mean two different things and have both been used and misused long before they became above-the-fold topics.

Brigham Young University’s Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) tracks the usage, among other metrics, of virtually every written and spoken word across many different types of media from news to academia to entertainment to political and policy speeches. Using COCA, we examined the usage frequencies of the terms “global warming” and “climate change,” year to year, from 1995 to 2015.

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.

  • “Climate change” is variable. Temperatures go up, they go down. The wind blows, the wind stops. Some years it snows more, some less, but it snows. California was parched in the ’70s, drenched later, parched again. It is cyclical. The great circle of life. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même. The only constant is change.

  • “Climate change” is natural. And what is better than nature? It is the natural order of things. Devoid of its usual context it is almost happily reassuring. It encourages us not to care.

  • “Global warming” is constant. As a term there is nothing variable about it; temperatures go up and continue to do so. Since NASA scientist James Hanson first brought it to the world’s attention in 1981, by any measure, from any starting point in time, over virtually any time period, Planet Earth has been growing warmer.

  • “Global warming” is a problem. Man-made or otherwise, it is scary. It tells us our collective goose is cooking. It beseeches us to care.

The term “climate change” evokes images of polar bears chilling on increasingly smaller ice floes until, possibly, things naturally change again and the bears return to bigger floes. With “global warming” we envision ice caps melting and polar bears dying.

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. 

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