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And whatever you say, don't mention 'sea level rise'! Miami Beach, Florida. Photo: Elido Turco via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
And whatever you say, don't mention 'sea level rise'! Miami Beach, Florida. Photo: Elido Turco via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
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Lost for words? If 'climate change' and 'global warming' are banned ...

George Marshall

19th March 2015

The state of Florida has banned employees from using the terms 'global warming' or 'climate change'. But as George Marshall writes, it shouldn't have bothered. 'Climate change' sounds curiously reassuring and even 'global warming' has a comforting ring. How about 'climate chaos' or 'global heating'?

Other proposals have included 'global weirding', 'global climate disruption' and Al Gore has contributed neologisms like 'climate chaos', 'climate crisis' or, more recently 'dirty weather'.

Reports have emerged that Florida's Department of Environmental Protection has an "unwritten policy" prohibiting staff from using the terms 'climate change' or 'global warming' in their communications.

But my own findings suggest that if Candie Fuller, the DUP's Inspector General, wants to play down the dangers of planetary heating caused by our emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, she would be far better off sticking with these terms. Neither is anything like scary enough!

A US survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that the term 'global warming' appears to create a stronger sense of threat, greater proximity and greater desire for action than its long time sibling phrase 'climate change'.

The Yale survey is fascinating (well for those of us who fixate on such things anyway), showing that people regard 'global warming' as more serious than 'climate change' and are more confident that it is happening.

Especially revealing is that 'global warming' has stronger proximity: People are more likely see it as harming them and their family and more likely to say that it is happening now and affecting current weather.

Curiously - and I checked - the polling was conducted during a period of colder than average weather which could have been expected to disadvantage the term 'global warming'.

This is just the latest skirmish in a long running debate about which of these two competing terms should dominate that has rolled along ever since the US scientist Wallace Broecker coined both of the core terms in a single 1975 article 'Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?'

Confusing the issue?

Environmental campaigners hate both terms and seek, intermittently, to introduce new phrases (discussed by Andy Revkin here). Earth scientist James Lovelock for example, complains that 'global warming' sounds like "a nice duvet on a cold winter's day" and advocates 'global heating'.

Other proposals have included 'global weirding', 'global climate disruption' and Al Gore has contributed neologisms like 'climate chaos', 'climate crisis' or, more recently 'dirty weather'.

Seth Godin, a communications specialist, wondered whether calling it 'atmosphere cancer' or 'pollution death' might not have garnered more concern. It's unlikely, since to anyone conservative the terms sound outrageously biased and to anyone else they sound like heavy metal bands.

Having two terms generates confusion and has led to a politicised battle to promote the term that each side assumes will serve its interests. In the late 1980s, the US and Saudi Arabia lobbied in the world climate negotiations for the language of early resolutions to be changed from 'global warming' to 'climate change' on the assumption that this sounded less emotive and, more importantly, had less connection to the burning of fossil fuels.

In a notorious internal memo to Republicans in 2003 communications consultant Frank Luntz argued that the term 'climate change' sounds more moderate and controllable. As evidence he cited one focus group participant saying that 'climate change' "sounds like you're going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale."

The Bush administration duly followed his advice, and President Bush adopted the term 'climate change' in all subsequent speeches. Ironically climate deniers now accuse environmentalists of seeking to suppress the phrase 'global warming' because, they claim, temperatures are no longer increasing.

So, even if the overall picture is that people respond more strongly to the term global warming, there are important underlying divisions. Dr. Ashley Anderson at Colorado State University, one of the authors of the Yale research, said last year in an interview with Carbon Brief:

"The differences in interpretations of the two phrases tend to fall on political lines, with Republicans being less likely to believe 'global warming' is happening than 'climate change' ... while Democrats would rate 'global warming' as more serious than 'climate change'."

The real gulf is one of understanding, not nomenclature

The new Yale figures suggest that 'global warming' may have a greater advantage with Republicans than previously thought, but this still hides a much greater problem - that the difference in attitudes associated from the rival terms is tiny compared with the yawning gulf between people who think that it (whatever it is called) is happening or is not happening - or whether they even care.

In my view polling on climate change can never provide a complete picture because it calls on people to give an opinion on a topic that, in reality, most of them give little if any thought to.

This Yale survey, for example, found that over a third of people thought that the issue - whatever it is called - it should be a "high or very high priority for the president or congress". But when the Pew Research Centre asked people last year to rank 'global warming' (it used that phrase) among 20 other issues that could be a priority for the president it came in at the bottom.

Pew has been asking this question every year since 2001 and, even at the peak of public concern around 2007, global warming has never moved off bottom slot, way below such front-of-mind issues as economy, health and deficit, but also below such intangibles as "dealing with the moral breakdown" and "reducing the influence of lobbyists".

So, yes, people care a bit, and they may care marginally more than that with slightly different terminology. But the critical consideration remains the cultural priming around the issue as a whole.

More divisive than gun control, abortion or the death penalty

This raises a number of other issues about language that I would have liked Yale to ask: to what extent do people personally identify which either phrase? Can they describe who they think uses each phrase? Which phrase do they associate with their own social in-group and which do they associate with outside groups?

It is most revealing that, when invited to choose "a word that comes to mind", the strongest response, by far, was "naysaying"- that is to say, the strongest association for either term was with social meaning and conflict rather than the scientific content.

This follows closely on research by the University of New Hampshire that found that 'climate change' (it used this phrase) is now a more politically divisive issue than gun control, abortion or the death penalty.

In a way then, a little terminological ambiguity is an advantage in the polarised framing war surrounding this issue. I very much hope that communicators do not take the lesson from this that they should all talk from one phrasebook about 'global warming'. As soon as we do, that phrase will become irrevocably poisoned by its association with advocates and, every time it is used, will reinforce the cultural battlelines.

And, in any case, does it really matter? Although neither phrase is ideal, neither is disastrously bad either and both have sufficiently bland emptiness that they allow new people to fill them with their own meanings.

In the end names become associated with the associations we put on them. Things often thrive with bizarrely inappropriate names. 'Radio Shack'? 'Craig's List'? Sometimes you just have to work with what you have and concentrate on giving it the social meaning that creates conviction.

But back to Florida, reports of heavy-handed curtailment of free speech among environmental employees can only reinvigorate both terms. And if staff are not to speak of 'climate change' or 'global warming', then what? 'Climate chaos'? 'Global heating'? Now we're talking!



George Marshall is a writer and campaigner on global heating, forests and energy, the founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network, and blogs at Climate Denial.

Petition: 'Investigate climate censorship in Florida'.

This article was excerpted, in part, from George Marshall's book, Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, published by Bloomsbury.


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