Humans are warming the globe and changing the climate. But what should we call it?
Tom Friedman has a new column, “Global Weirding is Here.” He mentions my new effort to post summaries of “the best scientific papers on every aspect of climate change.” Readers interested in that project should click here.
Friedman spells out why he suspects “China is quietly laughing at us right now” and why “Iran, Russia, Venezuela and the whole OPEC gang are high-fiving each other”:
Of the festivals of nonsense that periodically overtake American politics, surely the silliest is the argument that because Washington is having a particularly snowy winter it proves that climate change is a hoax and, therefore, we need not bother with all this girly-man stuff like renewable energy, solar panels and carbon taxes. Just drill, baby, drill….
Nothing better serves their interests than to see Americans becoming confused about climate change, and, therefore, less inclined to move toward clean-tech and, therefore, more certain to remain addicted to oil.
He urges the scientific community to get its act together, but understands that nothing that’s happened has changed our deep understanding of climate science. Unlike many in the media who write on this, he knows that there is no equating the few small mistakes of those who are striving to study, understand, and articulate the science and “the errors and wild exaggerations made by the climate skeptics.”
He restates his key thesis for action irrespective of what one believes on climate change:
We will import less oil, invent and export more clean-tech products, send fewer dollars overseas to buy oil and, most importantly, diminish the dollars that are sustaining the worst petro-dictators in the world who indirectly fund terrorists and the schools that nurture them.
What I’d like your input on is his first point:
1) Avoid the term “global warming.” I prefer the term “global weirding,” because that is what actually happens as global temperatures rise and the climate changes. The weather gets weird. The hots are expected to get hotter, the wets wetter, the dries drier and the most violent storms more numerous.
The fact that it has snowed like crazy in Washington “” while it has rained at the Winter Olympics in Canada, while Australia is having a record 13-year drought “” is right in line with what every major study on climate change predicts: The weather will get weird; some areas will get more precipitation than ever; others will become drier than ever.
Personally, I’ve never been thrilled with the term “global weirding,” mainly because “weirding” carries the connotation of “related to the supernatural” — with the origin of the word “weird” being “Middle English werde, fate, having power to control fate, from Old English wyrd, fate.”
There is nothing supernatural about what’s going on, and we don’t need any supernatural powers to control our fate.
Still, some people are using the phrase — and what’s happening does appear weird. For instance, as Stu Ostro, Senior Meteorologist at the Weather Channel, explained in his discussion of Georgia’s record-smashing global-warming-type September deluge:
Usually during that month when there’s wild weather, including precipitation extremes, it’s as a result of a hurricane or tropical storm. Not in 2009.
Just last month we had “The most powerful low pressure system in 140 years of record keeping” slamming the Southwest. Uber-meteorologist Dr. Jeff Masters explained that the storm was “truly epic”:
We expect to get powerful winter storms affecting the Southwest U.S. during strong El Ni±o events, but yesterday’s storm was truly epic in its size and intensity. The storm set all-time low pressure records over roughly 10 – 15% of the U.S.-over southern Oregon, and most of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah.
Global weirding has certainly hit Eastern Australia (see Dust Bowl-ification overwhelms Eastern Australia “” next stop the U.S. Southwest). As one scientist explained, “this drought is the first of its type, because we’ve never had droughts which have been so hot.” (see also Australian Scientists: “there are indications that climate change has worsened this recent drought.”) That’s why I call it a “global warming type” drought (see Must-have PPT: The “global-change-type drought” and the future of extreme weather).
And while extreme weather events were predicted to become more common by climate scientists, nobody predicted that climate change would drive a bark beetle infestation that is now devastating the West, leading to massive wildfires that release huge amounts of carbon dioxide, in an unexpected carbon cycle feedback (see “Oldest Utah newspaper: Bark-beetle driven wildfires are a vicious climate cycle“).
GLOBAL WARMING VS. CLIMATE CHANGE
Some of the desire for a different phrase is the perceived inadequacy of “global warming” and “climate change.” Since the warming is slow (at first) and happening faster in some places than others, we’re still going to get cool weather — especially in winter (!) — and many of those who do climate messaging fear that undercuts those who use “global warming.”
Others believe “climate change” is more scientifically accurate, but too bland.
Amazingly the anti-science Heritage Foundation recently offered this piece of amazing revisionism:
No snow, too much snow. It does not matter to the enviroleft crowd. For them, global warming always is to blame. That is the whole reason the movement made a deliberate decision earlier this decade to stop calling it “global warming” and start calling it “climate change.” That way they could expand the universe of terrible things they could plausibly blame on global warming.
Let’s set aside the fact that “too much snow” has one main cause (lots of moisture in the atmosphere, but, typically, weather that isn’t too cold) whereas “no snow” can have an entirely different cause (too warm) — both of which can be influenced by human emissions of greenhouse gases (see Massive moisture-driven extreme precipitation during warmest winter in the satellite record).
Heritage’s claim is, unsurprisingly, almost exactly backwards. They apparently didn’t even read their own link, which goes to a 2008 essay by the Bush Adminstration’s NASA titled “What’s in a Name? Global Warming vs. Climate Change.” That essay noted the Union of Concerned Scientists, which is typically thought of as a pro-environment group, was still using the term “global warming.” As the article explains it was scientists like Wallace Broecker and later Jule Charney (who chaired the “first decisive National Academy of Science study of carbon dioxide’s impact on climate” in 1979) who brought focus to “climate change”:
Its first use was in a 1975 Science article by geochemist Wallace Broecker of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory: “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?”
… Charney adopted Broecker’s usage. When referring to surface temperature change, Charney used “global warming.” When discussing the many other changes that would be induced by increasing carbon dioxide, Charney used “climate change.”
Just how opposite-to-the-truth is Heritage’s claim? It was GOP strategist and wordmeister Frank Luntz who counseled in a confidential 2003 memo that the Administration and conservatives should stop using the term “global warming” because it was too frightening:
It’s time for us to start talking about “climate change” instead of global warming and “conservation” instead of preservation.1) “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.
I myself often use Hell and High Water, since that is a more accurate description of what is to come. But it didn’t catch on [note to self -- get over it already!] and, in any case, that phrase is more aimed at describing the world post-2040 if we don’t get off of our current emissions path.
EcoAmerica wanted to use the lame phrase ‘our deteriorating atmosphere’, but that was primarily a way for them to not talk about the subject at all.
Frankly, I don’t care what term you use as long as you talk about what’s happening and the science behind it:
We are engaged in a multi-year messaging struggle here. The planet is going to get hotter and hotter, the weather is going to get more extreme. One of the reasons to be clear and blunt in your messaging about this is that even if you don’t persuade people today, the overall message will grow in credibility as reality unfolds as we have warned. To shy away from telling people the truth because they don’t want to hear it or they think it’s liberal claptrap is just incredibly un-strategic. Some groups, like EcoAmerica, doesn’t want people to talk about “global warming.” And “” even worse “” they don’t want people to talk about extreme weather, which, as I have previously argued, is in fact the same thing that the climate deniers want “” see “Why do the deniers try to shout down any talk of a link between climate change and extreme weather?” You must tell people what is coming, not just because it is strategic messaging, but also I believe because we have a moral responsibility.
One final point. The warming, weirding, and change we’ve seen so far is from a little over 1°F rise in global temperatures in recent decades. If we listen to the anti-science do-nothing crowd and keep on our current emissions path, we face 10 times that warming this century, which is gonna make whatever weirdness we’ve seen appear rather mundane.