Wherefore Art Thou, Climate Change?
OK, let’s start with a bit of a language lesson.
Juliet is not pining for an absent Romeo when she says “wherefore art thou Romeo?” You knew that, didn’t you? I mean, if you’re a native English speaker after about 1750, you should have been exposed to this fact at some point. She is not saying “where the f are you Romeo” she’s saying “look, this is too hot for stupid old feuds to get in our way”.
Well, education isn’t what it used to be.
Look at the transcript!
No, Juliet is discussing Romeo’s name; she is asking why he has the name he has, such that her family had a sworn undying and unconditional enmity toward him. She movingly entreats him to “deny his father and refuse his name”, and asks “what’s in a name?”
And speaking of “too hot”, well, we who are wrapped up in the sustainability/futurism have a nomenclature problem too. So we may say, “wherefore art thou climate change”.
Now we are being mocked for “changing our minds” about what to call “it”. What “it”? The question presumes that “global warming,” “climate change”, and “climate disruption” all meant the same thing. So it’s just the wrong question.
In the late 60s, we teenagers trolling for dimes and quarters from friendly neighbors would say “it’s for the environment”, and the old folk at the door would smile and holler to their spouse “They’re collecting for the ecology, honey, bring me a few coins from my wallet, would you?”
Under the circumstances, it would seem a travesty to correct the nice old folk for their scrambled etymology.
Environment, ecology, what’s the difference. Let it slide.
We Need To Be More Careful Nowadays
But we didn’t have a bullshit industry arrayed against us. Collecting for “the environment” was a good thing, andnobody was poised to mock the entire move toward environmental responsibility, which seemed like a broad consensus at the time. Nixon signed EPA into existence, right?
Now fast forward to what “global warming”. This is the entire structure of the energy sector that we are talking about. So when someone like me advocated for using “global warming” to mean, and only to mean, “a tendency of a particular (probably spherical) body’s mean surface temperature to increase.”
You will recall that (*) way back in 2004 I wrote an article on RealClimate arguing that scientists should avoid saying the phrase “global warming” except in narrowly defined cases where the topic at hand was exactly the mean surface temperature. Specifically, that “global warming” should not be synonymous with “climate change”.
If someone asks me in my capacity as a climate scientist whether I “believe in “global warming”, they are not asking the question in a literal sense. They are asking “what am I to make of this confusing topic called “global warming”?
In the end they are usually asking some combination of questions like 1) whether greenhouse gases are accumulating? 2) whether the greenhouse effect is established science? 3) whether global warming has been observed? 4) whether future climate change is expected to be big enough to worry about? 5) whether cooling at a single location falsifies the “theory”? 6) whether to expect super-hurricanes? 7) whether the Gulf Stream will shut down instantly glaciating Scandinavia and Britain? 8 ) how you can model climate when you can’t predict weather? etc. Often they will bounce incoherently from one to another of these sorts of exasperatingly-missing-the-point sorts of question.
Once in a while someone will have more sophisticated questions like 1) what’s the magnitude of the anthropogenic forcing compared to natural forcings? 2) what’s the lag time in the system response? 3) what is the magnitude of the most disruptive plausible scenarios? 4) what’s the likelihood of the discontinuous shifts in system regime? etc., When I hear people asking the right questions it makes my day, but it’s pretty rare.
What people outside the field universally don’t mean by “global warming” though, is “a tendency for the global mean surface temperature to increase”!
Therefore I suggest to my colleagues that we avoid the phrase in public communication. We should be talking about “climate”, “climate forcing” and “climate change”, and about the “scientific consensus” and the “policy implications”. It might be wise, given the present confusion, to go so far as to publicly use expressions like “increasing average surface temperature” when we mean “global warming” in the literal sense.
To the public and the press, I suggest three things. First, define your terms carefully when talking to a scientist and tolerate the scientist’s insistence on doing so. Second, try to stick to one subject at a time. Finally, among the questions you should be asking scientists is “what are the most important questions?”
Unfortunately, things have gotten much worse. We have some sort of a hiatus or near-hiatus in global mean surface temperature; this is not really a scientific mystery – if anything we have too many explanations; if they all pan out the underlying rate of change of surface temperature is actually on the high side! But it’s certainly true that the behavior of the system is not captured by the CMIP ensembles.
I claim that sloppiness with nomenclature has allowed bad things to have happened in the public discourse.
The First Bad Thing – The Kick Me Sign
First, because of the overemphasis on “warming” deniers have something to deny, at least in the short run. They do not believe or do not choose to believe that we understand the system well enough to be certain that CO2 accumulation is a major forcing. Physical understanding dismissed, they say everything is based on “models” of dubious value. And if all eyes are on global temperature changes on decadal scales, although the models never claimed much skill in this matter, reality is in fact unfolding on this dimension more slowly than anticipated. So they get to say that our “global warming theory” has been falsified.
See this smug tweet, which tries to posit this sort-of-failure as three different points in evidence that Not-The-IPCC. (When I pointed out that this person had made the same point three times, by the way, the reply was “No, I don’t think I did. Something wrong with your reading comprehension?”)
Now this is hardly dispositive, because models are primarily scientific tools, not prognostic devices. Failures are just as informative as successes, and there have been many successes in the model world. But as long as the actual trajectory of the world doesn’t diverge too far from that described in 1979 by the Charney report, the core ideas of how human activity will change climate remain actually far more robustly verified than they are challenged.
The Second Bad Thing – Shifting Goalposts
Because we rolled over and played dead and allowed the Charney report predictions to be called “global warming”, the temptation is huge to say not only that “global warming has not stopped” (fair enough) or “global warming has not slowed down” (sort of arguable) but even “global warming is proceeding as predicted”, which goes too far. To say the missing heat is unexpectedly in the deep sea is probably correct. (Kevin Trenberth rarely makes categorical statements without very strong evidence)
But to say this means that “global warming has moved to the oceans” is flat out moving the goalposts. “Global warming” is a trend in planetary “skin” (surface) temperature. It always has been a trend in skin temperature. To say it’s still happening because it is something else opens up the side of sensible advocacy for decarbonization to ridicule. If we had really used sensible nomenclature, distinguishing between “climate change” and “global warming”, we could sensibly say “we think the slowdown in global warming is temporary, and climate change is happening faster than ever”. But because the words are seen as synonymous, that sounds insane.
A Third Bad Thing – Overly Broad Connotations
Confusion is by no means limited to the denier end of the spectrum. Almost everywhere in the world, natural ecosystems are in stress or decline. Climate stress is, as yet, only a small contributor to this decline. This problem is every bit as crucial as anthropogenic climate change is, and is related, but it’s very different. But the more concerned end of the spectrum has taken to calling all of this “climate change”, and that simply adds to the confusion. When confronted with deniers, they are baffled, as they see evidence of decline everywhere. But that is not primarily climate related in most places. Yet. This further stokes the fire of our incapacity to communicate.
Climate Disruption – A Third Name for a Third Thing
Both climate change in general and global warming in particular, of course, happen naturally. Indeed, human-caused climate change would be a small concern if it were comparable to normal natural changes. The problem, of course, is that the change is becoming very rapid, and in the context of a civilization that arose during a period of unusually stable climate, especially threatening. One could default to the clinical “anthropogenic” prefix, and the deniers are fond of referring to “AGW” (anthropogenic global warming), specifically as a “hypothesis” or a “theory” in which they disbelieve. But if it’s hard to get people worked up about “change” or “warming”, it’s especially hard to get them worked up about a mouthful of latin or its three letter acronym.
Presidential science advisor John Holdren has stepped up to the rescue with a name that captures the nature of the problem and avoids denier nitpicking smoothly; it is “climate disruption”. This is excellent as a name not for the specific phenomenon of surface warming or the general phenomenon of climate change nor for the contemporary human-caused versions thereof, but for the problem we ought to be discussing; the real problem at hand. The problem is that human activity is now large enough as to disrupt the climate system, and it shows every sign of getting worse for decades to come; possibly centuries or even longer. It is humanity doing it, and it is necessity for humanity to summon the maturity and responsibility to stop doing it.
We certainly don’t need to be nitpicking about tree rings under the circumstances. It’s not about “global warming”; it’s about how much we should allow ourselves to disrupt the lives of future generations for our own convenience. It’s an ethical question, and “disruption” is the right word or what we are doing.
Of course, this allows for still more mockery… (this egregious cartoon appeared in the Austin STatesman-American, our mixed blessing of a daily paper which actually publishes readable articles but on the whole is a paragon of false balance).
Social Science Muddies the Waters Again
Anthony Leiserowitz, responsible for infecting people’s minds with the (in my opinion counterproductive) “six Americas” paradigm (a topic for another time, perhaps) has also invoked Romeo and Juliet in addressing this question, which he does in a disturbingly shallow way with a poll.
We found that the term “global warming” is associated with greater public understanding, emotional engagement, and support for personal and national action than the term “climate change.”
Right? He compares them as if they meant the same thing! And he explicitly believes, apparently, that in the future, the two terms may become interchangeable, and that as the public learns that science prefers “climate change”, therefore the gap in poll responses they produce is likely to narrow. (!)
Okay. I think the Yale boys get their social science badly wrong, but this is just getting the whole basis of the investigation wrong. Don’t believe me? Listen to Mike Mann and Richard Alley.
This is always a frustrating discussion to many of us in the climate science community, because to us, these are two equally appropriate, complementary terms that describe different aspects of the same phenomenon. Global warming is perhaps the single most robust response of the climate system to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. The underlying physics is very simple—we know that the surface of the Earth must warm in response to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. But there are many other response of the climate to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations that are equally or more significant from a societal impacts standpoint. Sea level rise (which is a result of the warming of the oceans, the melting of the ice), shifting wind and ocean currents, changing rainfall and drought patterns, changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme meteorological phenomena, these are all potential impacts of human-caused greenhouse warming of the planet.
have used both terms, choosing the one that is more appropriate. (You can see this in, e.g., my book Earth: The Operators’ Manual; I paste the two relevant entries from the Index below…) Burning fossil fuels and releasing the CO2 to the atmosphere turns up the planet’s thermostat, causing global warming (or, more accurately, globally averaged warming; warming will occur unless a cause of similar-sized or bigger cooling is also introduced). The global warming in turn will cause many other climate changes, including an increase in the most intense rainfall events, expansion of the subtropical dry zones, drying of many grain-belt regions in summer, etc. The global warming is very strongly supported by physical understanding, a range of models, and fingerprinting exercises with recent data; the others I mentioned are strongly supported. Global warming from our greenhouse gases is part of climate change, but it is so well understood that failure to call it out specifically deprives readers or listeners or viewers of important information.
“Global warming” and “climate change” and “climate disruption” are useful related concepts.
They do not mean the same thing!!!
Use the right tool for the job! Use “climate disruption” when the topic comes round to policy, and use it when it is time to bring the topic around to a policy discussion. Which is more often than not. “Climate disruption”, more often than not, is the phrase you are casting about for.
And I would propose “environmental disruption” for the ecological piece of the puzzle, overlapping but not identical with climate disruption, and related to but not identical with the “sixth extinction” problem which is one of its consequences.
The Information Deficits are Huge
Also, this reconfirms a perennial point of mine. Selling climate change is not like selling soap. There is no information deficit in selling soap, but as long as people are confused, moving them on the less-concerned to more-concerned axis is worthless. We are not far enough on the well-informed to poorly-informed axis to even bother.
It pains me to live in a world where it is worth saying this, but here it is. Using the right word for any particular occasion is a better idea than trying to decide which word is “better” after their distinction in meaning is lost.
In conclusion: to’jaso. (**)
(*) Ingles: You will recall that: Nobody but me remembers that…
(**) Canadian: To’jaso: I told you so.
Image stolen from Bob Crumb and thanks a lot, kid!