Skip to content

Nobody changed the name from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’

July 18, 2013

This is a repost from Skeptical Science of a new ‘basic’ level rebuttal of the myth “They changed the name from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’

What The Science Says: The terms ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ have been used interchangeably for several decades.

Before we talk about the ‘name-change’ myth, it is worth considering what the terms actually mean.

‘Global warming’ is the temperature increase produced by adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Energy arrives from the sun in the form of visible light and ultraviolet radiation.  The Earth then emits some of this energy as infrared radiation, which is prevented from radiating into space by greenhouse gases (GHGs). Just a tiny amount of GHGs – less than 1% of the atmosphere (excluding water vapour) – keep the Earth around 33°C (59.4°F) warmer than it would be without them.

Greenhouse gases act like a blanket, keeping in some of the sun’s warmth. Increasing the amount of GHGs through burning fossil fuels is like wrapping the Earth in a thicker blanket. This increase is ‘global warming’:

‘Climate change’ is a consequence of global warming. As the temperature goes up, the extra energy changes all the patterns we are familiar with. Global warming destabilises the weather, the seasons, rainfall, humidity, and of course the ice at the poles. This destabilisation is called ‘climate change’. (The term is also used to describe the long-term effects of global warming).

Where did the terms come from?

The term ‘global warming’ was first used in a 1975 Science article by geochemist Wallace Broecker of Columbia University. He wrote a paper called “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming”. (Note the use of the term ‘climatic change’). Here’s NASA historian Erik Conway on the significance of the term:

“Broecker’s term was a break with tradition. Earlier studies of human impact on climate had called it “inadvertent climate modification.” This was because while many scientists accepted that human activities could cause climate change, they did not know what the direction of change might be. Industrial emissions of tiny airborne particles called aerosols might cause cooling, while greenhouse gas emissions would cause warming. Which effect would dominate?

For most of the 1970s, nobody knew. So “inadvertent climate modification,” while clunky and dull, was an accurate reflection of the state of knowledge”.

Source: NASA, What’s in a Name? Global Warming vs. Climate Change

The term ‘climate change’ has its origins further back in time. In 1956, the physicist Gilbert Plass published a seminal study called “The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change”. In 1977 the journal Climatic Change made its first appearance. Within another decade, the term ‘climate change’ was in common use, and embedded in the name of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was formed in 1988.

UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave a speech to the UN in which she used the term ‘climate change’ a year later in 1989. It’s worth quoting, since the paragraph in which it appears is as relevant today as it was then:

“In some areas, the action required is primarily for individual nations or groups of nations to take. But the problem of global climate change is one that affects us all and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level. It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay. We have to look forward not backward, and we shall only succeed in dealing with the problems through a vast international, co-operative effort”.

The Skeptic Argument Unravels

Unfortunately, it’s hard not to see this skeptic argument as rather foolish. It should be clear by now that the terms predate most of the warming, so claiming there has been some kind of switch seems strange, when for example it was used in the name of the IPCC in 1988.

The media have not helped much in this respect. ‘Global warming’ has a ring to it that appeals to editors. It’s dramatic in a way that ‘climate change’ is not, so it’s hardly surprising the media should choose to use it. If there’s been a switch to climate change, perhaps it was a response to the realisation that warming was not the only result of interfering with the climate.

According to Google Books, the usage of both terms in books published in the United States has increased at similar rates over the past 40 years, although ‘climate change’ is gaining in popularity:

Ironically, the change may also have been accelerated by politically-motivated spin doctors. This is advice from a Republican political consultant who advised President Bush, talking about changing the name for political purposes:

“It’s time for us to start talking about “climate change” instead of global warming and “conservation” instead of preservation…“Climate change” is less frightening than “global warming”…While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge”.

Source: Republican Political Consultant Frank Luntz, 2003

Claims that the terms have been switched imply a cover-up. The premise is that scientists were wrong-footed by local cooling and a slow-down in surface temperature increases. To cover this failure, the scientists started talking about climate change instead of global warming, because the former could encompass cold weather, where the latter clearly did not.

As you can see, the premise fails on a simple level: both terms have been used for a long time. It fails too because there has not been a hiatus in warming, just a change in location with more energy now being stored in the oceans in the last decade. Scientists do not have anything to hide, or cover up.

‘Climate change’ is the best term to use when talking about the effects of global warming. Responsible sections of the media may use ‘climate change’ more often these days because it is more accurate and more apt. All parts of the climate are affected, from the melting ice to extreme weather. The climate will get hotter in some places, colder in others. Rainfall will increase in some places, decrease in others. In other words, the stability of the climate is being affected, and ‘climate change’ is the umbrella term that encompasses all the different effects of global warming.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. John Russell (Twitter@JohnRussell40) permalink
    July 18, 2013 9:26 am

    And of course, neither term covers the true catastrophic potential of the human-caused green house gas increase, which also includes ‘ocean acidification’ which has dire impacts on the future acidity of the oceans.

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    July 20, 2013 6:28 am

    Hi John – you’re quite right. We don’t spend enough time on ocean acidification, which is strange not only for the profound danger it poses to the ocean food chain, but also because it’s an incontrovertible aspect of climate change. Irrespective of arguments about climate sensitivity etc, it really isn’t possible to argue the basic chemistry of dissolving CO2 in water to produce carbonic acid. So far, the oceans have absorbed about half of all anthropogenic CO2, and the rate we’re putting it into the atmosphere is increasing globally.


  1. AGW: Science Editorial on Risk, and Impossible Expectations of Climate Change Deniers | The Lost City of Carcosa

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: