Loose Climate Change

Bill Safire, my nemesis, writes about change in his most recent On Language column. He leads with an overview of politician’s perpetual calls for it, from Dewey in ’48 through Obama (“Change We Can Believe In”) and Romney (“Change Begins With Us”) seeming to almost quote each other.

He then heads for shakier ground with the term “global warming” and how it is being slowly supplanted by the phrase “climate change.” He speculates it may be a desire to be “less judgmental,” then decides it’s part of the inexorable march (or ensorcelling, as he puts it) of “change.”

In fact there is a scientific basis to the shift. According to Dr. Kristina A. Dahl, a scientist at Rutgers’ Climate and Environmental Change Initiative (and my wife), on average global temperatures are indeed warming, and fast. But “on average” is the key, since conditions in a given place can change in a number of ways: changes in temperature (almost always upward), but also in precipitation, storm patterns, or conceivably, in some areas, cooling (though the emerging consensus, she says, is that there is so much CO2 in the atmosphere that Europe and the Northeastern U.S. won’t cool much, if at all, even if thermohaline circulation shuts down. There will be no Day After Tomorrow). Safire finds citations for both “global warming” and “climate change” at least as far back as 1957. The recognition of other types of related climate change in addition to warming led to the related coinage global weirding in 2002.

So the use of “climate change” is preferred by scientists to “global warming” because it is more accurate. This is born out anecdotally by job searches for each phrase. A search for “global warming” generally returns activist and advocacy-type jobs, which often make scientists shudder. “Climate change” tends to return jobs of a more technical or scientific bent, fields where technical accuracy is more valued.