Why I titled my book “Hell and High Water”

Andy Revkin of the NYT has a good blog post on one of the main problems with climate messaging by scientists, environmentalists, and the like. In short, it sucks!

One problem is the name “global warming” or “climate change.” It sounds like a vacation, not a crisis.

Indeed, one of the main reasons I titled my book Hell and High Water is that I thought it was a better term — more accurate of what is to come if we don’t act, more descriptive, more visceral — and I hoped (faintly) it might become more widely used. But other than being projected onto the Washington Monument by Greenpeace, nada!

Names do matter. As conservative message-meister Frank Luntz wrote a few years ago in an infamous memo that explains precisely how a politician can sound as if he or she cares about global warming but doesn’t actually want to do anything about it:

“Climate change” is less frightening than global warming. As one focus group participant noted, climate change “sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale.” While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.

So you should probably use “global warming,” but probably not waste a lot of effort trying to rename something that is deeply embedded in both scientific and popular usage. Also, I don’t think the name is the main problem. Revkin cites a marketing expert who said,

If the problem were called “Atmosphere cancer” or “Pollution death” the entire conversation would be framed in a different way.

But if that were true, how did the incredibly unsexy and unscary name “ozone depletion” drive international action to proatively ban chlorofluorocarbons, even winning the support of Ronald Reagan, nobody’s idea of an environmentalist? The answer is that “ozone depletion” actually leads directly to cancer and not in the distant future (and Reagan had had skin cancer).

Global warming was always going to be a tough sell, given its long timescale and mostly indirect impacts on human health, even without the incredibly effective disinformation campaign that has been waged for the past decade. Words do matter, though, and I will be publishing a detailed article later in the week that will delve into one of the biggest language mistakes I think scientists and climate activists have made….

14 Responses to Why I titled my book “Hell and High Water”

  1. john says:

    How about Climate Destruction?

  2. RhapsodyInGlue says:

    Given that research into global warming has been going on for some 40 years or more, I think it’s not really fair to say it was a mistaken choice of terms. All along there has been a balancing act of trying to draw attention to the seriousness of the problem without overstating the level of understanding and leaving the research upon to even greater criticisms of fear mongering than it has received.

    I’d fully agree in hindsight that these terms don’t do justice to the seriousness of the problem. Personally, I think the simplest and probably most effective strategy for activists is to not fight what has already been fixed in the public conscious and simply go with a little enhancement of the terms…

    Global Warming Crisis and/or Climate Change Crisis

  3. Jim O' says:

    The world is headed for an energy crisis in the very near future. Oil production has peaked globally just as demand has soared. Oil companies and analysts are just recently beginning to acknowledge the truth though politicians seem hesitant to bear bad news – sound familiar?

    Just as Global Warming has only broken through the right wing special interest funded propaganda machinery in the US these past few years, oil scarcity will soon (but maybe too late) garner the public’s and the pols’ attention.

    In terms of messaging these issues need to be joined. The big argument against carbon reduction has been economic, but the coming energy crisis will make the stagnation of the 70’s, recession, unemployment and high inflation look like a picnic.

    So while renewables are criticized as expensive in the US now (not in Germany or Japan) they look like a bargain when we peer not too far in the future. This is especially true if you consider the impact new jobs and the retention of petrobucks can have on our economy if we make clean energy production our national mission.

    Meanwhile, Big Coal ramps up its national advertising campaign.

  4. Tom says:

    How about Atmospheric Trauma?

  5. Danny Bloom says:


    Your title in the Greenpeace photo was all over the world that day, from the wire services, even made the front page of the Taipei Times in Taiwan, and in the Chinese-language papers here too.

    Since you like hard hitting words and images, I wonder what you think about my polar cities idea and images? Comment via email? Just send to danbloom AT gmail……

    To Hell and High Water. You are so right. But you know, I wrongly always thought that phrase “to Hell or High Water”…….mental lapse of mine!

  6. Steve says:

    As I commented on Andy’s blog too, I rather like “thermageddon”.

    And while we’re on the topic of language, how has industry gotten away with terming the emissions from the combustion of its products “indirect”…?

  7. says:

    How ’bout “trace gas hysteria”? Funny you didn’t mention Dr Lakhoff as you have surely taken his advice to portray a natural process (with some contribution from human activity) into a crisis.

    I’m curious what you think, why do co2 levels in the atmosphere decrease during the summer months in the arctic?

  8. Joe says:

    I’m afraid the only hysteria there is going to be is in a few decades when people realize just how much we have destroyed the planet’s livability.

    The Science is unequivocal that natural causes cannot explain most of the recent warming. You need to read the IPCC reports.

    Not sure what your question is driving at. As we have known for five decades, as one website put it, “The majority of the terrestrial vegetation of the earth is in the Northern Hemisphere, so more photosynthesis takes place in the spring and summer than in the fall and winter. The carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere begins to fall in the spring, and continues to fall through the summer months, as CO2 is removed by the vegetative cover of the north. In late autumn, at least in northern latitudes, much of this vegetation dies and decomposes, and photosynthetic activity drops to a low level; much of the carbon sequestered over the growing season is then returned to the air as CO2.

  9. Lou Grinzo says:

    My vote: “Climate chaos”.

    I like it because it hints at the wildly unpredictable nature of the changes we’ll see across the globe. Floods in some areas, droughts in others, etc.

    Lacks the man-made element, though.

  10. David B. Benson says:

    How about

    Climate Hell and High Water?

  11. Max Kaehn says:

    My favorite is “climate destabilization”.

  12. Ronald says:

    How about ‘drunk behind the wheel climate.’ Get it. No.

    Doesn’t really slip off the tongue very well either.

    If we’re sober driving, we might kill or hurt people with our driving, just like our pre-industrial 285 ppm CO2 level atmosphere. But a higher level CO2 level atmosphere would make the climate more dangerous, just like a drunk driver over a sober one.

    It is lame. (Actually, it’s my attempt at humor.)

    How about ‘ we had an acceptable climate, but now we screwed up the one we had because we were greedy and short-cited climate.’

  13. Ray says:

    How about “Brrr, we are all going to freeze to death”? Record setting cold worldwide…how can this be?

  14. Joe says:

    Seriously, Ray?