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What’s in a name?

May 5th, 2010 · 3 Comments

No matter the word put against it, humanity is driving change in climate and other aspects of our living space. For decades, scientists, scholars, and public opinion pollsters have sought to place a name against the phenomena.

Global Warming … Climate Change … Global Change … Climate Chaos; Climate Disruption … Climate Catastrophe … Climate Crisis … Climaticide

These are just a few of the names applied, each with its strengths, each with its weaknesses.

This is a discursive diary. A discussion rather than a fully annotated / linked effort at some form of ‘definitive definitional discussion’.

What’s in a name?

Calling something by its ‘true name’ can be enlightening and can foster, with just a few syllables, a uniting understanding enabling collective effort. (”Victory Garden” anyone? Note that just as Victory Gardens helped defeat Nazism, they can help us deal with Peak Oil and mitigate catastrophic climate chaos.) And, framing can just as easily enable falsification and confusion to enable bad policy to become reality (Death Taxes? Clear Skies? No Child Left Behind? Compassionate Conservative?). The issues surrounding humanity’s impact on the climate system lead to much effort to drive the framing, to create those few syllables that can help tilt the discussion toward an understanding of the need for collective action or, as powerfully, foster delay and inaction.

Global Warming is a scientifically accurate term to be able to discuss the increase in Earth’s average temperature that has accelerated in the past few decades, with the majority of that change attributable to human activity (fossil fuel burning and other green-house gas (GHG) emissions, deforestration, black soot from wood / other burning, black roofs, etc …).

While accurate, it is also limiting: not all the changes are necessary viewed by lay people easily as temperature related. (Acidification of oceans, changing flora due to CO2 increased concentrations, flooding, etc …) And, the term can create confusion amid a snowstorm or cold weather event or a few years of reduced heat loads (after all, this is mainly, not fully, driven by humanity — there are natural cycles and events on top of which human action is overlaid). And, while it is “global warming”, this does not mean that a region will not have cooling relative to past records for years, even as the rest of the globe warms.

Climate Change is also an accepted scientific term (after all, it is International Panel on Climate Change, isn’t it) which enables discussion of any long-term change in the expected pattern of weather (the climate) in a region or globally. This is, in some ways, a more ‘neutral’ term. Many Climate Realists find this a distressing term because it was so embraced by conservative pollster and framing expert Frank Luntz as a preferred term for Republican politicians and ideologues to use to make it easier to confuse people with “change is natural” type arguments.

“Change”, however, enables discussion of shifting climate without a focus on ‘warming’ and thus has the potential to reduce debate over cold weather patterns.

Global Change was formerly defined in the US Global Change Research Act of 1990 as “Changes in the global environment (including alterations in climate, land productivity, oceans or other water resources, atmospheric chemistry, and ecological systems) that may alter the capacity of the Earth to sustain life.”

Here we have the benefit of being able to capture disparate elements, but the definition is so broad that it goes well beyond ’simply’ the issues of changing temperature and, related, CO2 atmospheric (and ocean) levels.

Climate Chaos Here, we are not talking about the free online game, but a term developed to attempt to highlight the unpredictability of the changes we are driving and, therefore, underlining the value / importance for acting to forestall these conditions because it will be hard to support modern human civilization in a chaotic climate which creates unpredictability for agriculture and

Climate Disruption As per our Presidential Science Advisor, John Holdren, Global Climate Disruption is a better term because “Global warming is a misnomer. It implies something gradual, uniform, and benign. What we’re experiencing is none of these. “Global climatic disruption” is a more accurate description.”

Climate Catastrophe is a stronger term, seeking to raise the blood level of concern, to help people understand the catastrophic impacts global warming / climate change / climate chaos is already having on the world system and humanity, to help foster support for stronger and swifter action. This faces push back from quite cautious scientists arguing that “catastrophe” is not the language of science and is used by skeptics/deniers to make fun of Climate Realists. One interesting issue is what is “catastrophic”. If, 30 years ago, one had described a scenario where human-action risked 30% or so of species going extinct, have to imagine that most people would consider that catastrophic. Now, that sort of extinction rate falls within ‘if we’re luckly, it might not be worse than that’ type modeling and discussion. If one asks Bengali farmers already losing their fields and productivity to salt water intrusion, they likely would call the situation already catastrophic. Thus, “catastrophic” is a moving definition and situational dependent.

Climate Crisis is, again, a term seeking to communicate urgency, as something requiring addressing. The homepage for An Inconvenient Truth is Climaticide Climate Crisis.NET. But, the term suggests a momentary challenge (crises pass, no? Mid-life crisis, anyone?), that there is a solution point at which time we can then move on.

Climaticide is a term developed by Johnny Rook and explained in Why call it climaticide? The power of calling things by their true names.

Climaticide is a term that I coined several months ago to describe the human-driven destruction of our Holocene-epoch climate, the climate in which our civilization has developed, thrived and prospered, and which we now threaten to irrevocably alter without regard to the consequences. …

I use the term Climaticide because it is the true name of the crisis that threatens us. As the poet Thich Nhat Hanh has shown, calling things by their true names makes us aware of their complexity and wary of simplistic solutions.

Climaticide speaks to the destructiveness of what is happening and, perhaps more importantly, provides a much direct statement of causality. Like homicide, genocide, fratricide, -ide, this is a statement of action, of human action. This is a strong term, but it doesn’t brook any compromises for laying blame where blame is merited. But, like other terms, it is far from ’scientific’. To start with, as per JR: “Now, obviously, we will not destroy climate per se.” Thus, nearly by definition, the term is inaccurate. However, “what we may do is destroy the climate to which we are so well adapted.” Thus “the” climate at risk is the general parameters in which humanity has developed and thrived. Thus, we place our own future vitality at risks through sabotaging the climate.

A moment for a thought from a friend …

world war
first attested 1909 as a speculation, probably a translation of Ger. Weltkrieg. Applied to the first one soon after it began in 1914. World War I coined 1939, replacing Great War as the most common name for it; First World War first attested 1947. World War II so-called since 1939; Second World War is from 1942.

Until WWII, there was no need to call The Great War “WWI”. Maybe it’s possible to frame the naming (for wider audiences) of the Climate phenomenon that way? It’s got a lot of names because modern humans haven’t experienced anything like it.

In summary …

Each of these terms has its strengths, its power, and its challenges. Johnny Rook’s Climaticide has the power of attributing causality. Climate Change and Global Change have the value of opening the dialogue space. Global Warming is, well, simply true.

Global Warming … Climate Change … Global Change … Climate Chaos; Climate Disruption … Climate Catastrophe … Climate Crisis … Climaticide … What, after all, is in a name?

Tags: Energy · Global Warming · catastrophic climate change · climate change · environmental

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tweets that mention What’s in a name? -- Topsy.com // May 5, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ClimaTweets. ClimaTweets said: [Get Energy Smart] What’s in a name?: No matter the word put against it, humanity is driving change in climate and… http://bit.ly/cV7uUL [...]

  • 2 tnt // May 21, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    Climate change. A couple of words bantid for a few decades. However, there is the evidence of subtropical cottonwood trees that have been washed up in the “cuttings”, samples of the North Slope Drilling since the 1960s showing that the polar regions of the north arctic has undergone climatic changes over the last 10,000 years. Antarctica was once a subtropical region of the earth. Climate change is old hat, by at least 10,000 years .

    Harvey — You truly don’t mind wearing your ignorance on your sleeve.

    1. Find anyone who works re climate change who does not understand that the world changes.

    2. Hmmm … “Climate change is old hat” — actually, by millions of years (and, depending on definitions, billions but will stay with hundreds of millions).

    Harvey — the issue is the degree to which humanity’s thumb is tipping the scales and messing with the Earth’s natural system.

    Sorry mister Gore, you should get a new life.

    Har Har. Odessa Texas. An old oilfield hand.

  • 3 C4: The explosively dangerous Climate Cliff // Dec 14, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    [...] decades, climate scientists and those concerned about what scientific work is telling us have struggled with the right terms to describe what humanity is doing to the planetary climate system and to, in just a few words, [...]

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