Writers on the Range: Words matter when it comes to describing our warming world
September 6, 2017
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is in charge of the Forest Service as well as several agricultural and food-related research agencies, recently told its staffers to avoid using the term "climate change." The business-as-usual term "weather extremes" was recommended instead.
While dropping the word "climate" may seem like a defeat for those of us who remain convinced that human influences are harming the global environment, this federal directive made in the spirit of changing the narrative might be good advice. Could it be that the term itself has failed us?
Suppose for a moment you are in a restaurant and someone yells, "Help, she's having a heart attack!" Being a good person, you would no doubt spring into action, call 9-1-1, look for aspirin or a defibrillator, and so on.
Suppose that same person had instead yelled, "Help, she's having a myocardial infarction!" You would probably react the same way, but wouldn't you perhaps pause for just a second? Unless you're a medical professional, wouldn't you first have to engage in some type of internal translation? I would. The ailing woman might get better care at a hospital with such detailed wording, but the immediate danger she faces in the restaurant hides behind the wrong language.
Here's the problem: Although most Americans today say that climate change is a real and serious issue, most probably don't understand what the term "climate" means. The difference between climate and weather, the moving target of climate averages, and the intangibility of climate experience all make climate a problematic word to rally around. I know the Northwest has a rainy climate, and because I experience getting wet frequently, I know in my bones that this is true. But alas, the word "climate" can become jargon.
Yes, the climate is changing, but it is an acute global environmental crisis — global warming — that is touching the realities of daily life for millions of people around the world.
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Houston just turned into a gigantic and growing lake. Furnace Creek, California, the hottest place on Earth, posted its hottest July on record. Unprecedented peat fires burn in Greenland, extreme weather events across the globe abound, and they are tied not just to generalized climate change but directly to heat. The term "global warming" comes with baggage stuffed full of 30 years of politics, but for now it is the best we have.
Both global warming and climate change have been used to describe what's happening to the planet since the 1970s. Conventionally, global warming refers specifically to the rise of average global temperatures, and climate change refers more broadly to shifts in prevailing environmental conditions, including the odd spot that is getting colder.
As the 1990s and 2000s saw popular culture build concern for global warming, the issue got entangled in bitter politics. Because global warming was accused of sounding alarmist, some researchers hoped that the term climate change would sound more scientific.
But climate change has been the wrong phrase for the job because it is too scientific. It has failed to provoke urgency and been easy to pooh-pooh. (It's probably not a coincidence that a Republican political strategist recommended using the term "climate change" because he said "it is less frightening than 'global warming.'")
"Change" is a neutral term that does not convey that humanity is the culprit behind what's happening. After all, it is entirely correct that the climate is always changing — a frequent retort from climate-change deniers. Furthermore, many shifts caused by global warming are not climatic — think sea-level rise, ocean acidification and melting glaciers. This further confuses the terminology.
Al Gore has recently taken to talking instead about the "climate crisis." While I find this a laudable step, there is still a challenge with the word "climate" — we just can't touch the climate. "Global warming" and "global environmental change" both offer alternatives, but both have failed to catch on.
If I look south outside my window, I can see a small patch of dirty blue ice on a mountain in Denali National Park. Just eight years ago when I first came here, this patch was significantly larger and snow-white all summer long. Now there is a tan bathtub ring around what used to be a glacier. This change is personal, precise and experiential.
Words matter. Words invoke, connote and direct attention as we move through the world. Discouraging use of the term "climate change" might just turn out to be a good thing; as long as we continue to talk about the subject: Let's stick with global warming.
Alex Lee is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is an assistant professor of philosophy at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage.
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