Fixing climate change won’t be easy. In fact, we haven’t even stopped arguing about whether we should call it “climate change,” or “global warming,” or the new, dark-horse entry, “climate disruption.”
This isn’t good news, folks. It’s been more than two decades since the world’s scientists and policymakers first focused on greenhouse gases and their impact. If we had all given birth to a child in 1988 and hadn’t yet figured out what to name the baby, it wouldn’t be a good sign that we’d figured out the parenting thing.
Wallace Broecker, a pioneering climate researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Observatory, coined the phrase “global warming” in a 1975 peer-reviewed paper in the journal Science. (Note that’s the same year that Newsweek published a cover story on the possibilities of “global cooling.” Climate deniers like to point to this 34-year-old, non-peer-reviewed piece as evidence that climate science is uncertain.)
An explanatory piece on NASA’s website offers more information, if not more clarity, on the name game. Before Broecker’s paper popularized “global warming,” the main descriptive phrase was “inadvertent climate modification.” I suspect this was a result of the scientists, lawyers, and bureaucrats locking the marketers out of the room. NASA scientist Jim Hansen’s landmark testimony before the senate in 1988 locked “global warming” into the lexicon for quite a while.
John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor, saw the two paths diverging in the climate woods and decided to hack his way through the forests on a new one. “Climate disruption” is the phrase he’s favored for the past couple of years, on the theory that it more fully describes the range of impacts that we expect. All this would be well and good, Dr. H., if it were the scientists who needed convincing. But with polls consistently showing high levels of skepticism among the public, and fossil fuel interests and political hacks seeking to exploit that skepticism, it’s the public that needs convincing. And changing names every few years won’t get the job done.
If you don’t believe me about the false hopes of re-branding, consider these four examples:
Prince: Born Prince Rogers Nelson, changed his performing name to Prince. In 1993, he changed his name to a nearly-untypeable set of symbols, rendered on a keyboard as “O(+>)” but pronounced “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.” Forced to change his name back to “Prince” in 2000, possibly due to low web traffic on www.theartistformerlyknownasprince.com.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Or as they’re known to millions in the Southern California Hispanic market, Los Angeles de Los Angeles de Anaheim. Founded in 1961 as the Los Angeles Angels, they moved to Orange County in 1965 and became the California Angels. Disney bought the team in 1997 and changed its name to the Anaheim Angels out of a desire to make the city more famous. Disney sold the team in 2005 and the new owner, seeking to re-link the team to the country’s second-largest media market, put “Los Angeles” back in the name, whereupon the city of Anaheim unsuccessfully sued its own ballclub. The team is now famous for blowing multiple playoff series to the Red Sox.
Environmental Defense Fund: The four decade-old, highly respected group uses the law and economics in the name of protecting the environment. In 2000, marketing consultants persuaded EDF to drop the “Fund” from its name on the theory that “Fund” made them sound less altruistic, less activist, and more greedy. In the past year, following in the footsteps of Prince, they’ve returned to their old name. Perhaps as the leadership of Environmental Defense aged, they discovered that “E.D.” has more than one meaning. So they added inches to their name, and are back to the Environmental Defense Fund. But remember, if the name doesn’t change in four hours, call your doctor.
Sean Combs, a.k.a. P. Diddy/Puffy/Diddy/Puff Daddy/Sean “Puffy” Combs: I rest my case.
But back to climate change. Even the skeptics are arguing about what to call it. Fox News crackpot and my former CNN colleague Glenn Beck sees something sinister in the interchangeability of the phrases “global warming” and “climate change.” Beck says it’s a plot on behalf of the Eco-Industrial Complex to enslave us under a regime of environmental responsibility. Frank Luntz, the Republican imagemaker, says he prefers “climate change” since focus groups identified it as the less threatening term. (And therefore, the one policymakers could more easily ignore).
Finally, a blogger named Jeffrey Guillermo analyzed newspapers’ use of the terms a few years ago and found that they were interchangeable. The New York Times, for example used “global warming” 88 times and “climate change” 112 times in a three-month period.
My prescription for all of this? Call it climate change. Call it climate change very often. Or just wait fifty years or so and call it global tragedy.
Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)