Climate change vs. global warming: How to talk sustainability risk

Climate change vs. global warming: How to talk sustainability risk

climate change global warming environmental language
Language goes a long way to convey the urgency (or lack thereof) associated with climate issues.

There is growing concern in sustainability circles that efforts to reverse or mitigate the effects of Earth’s changing climate are not gaining momentum fast enough to match mounting risk factors.

That’s despite over half the general US population saying that they worry "a great deal" to "a fair amount" about our climate, according to a Gallup poll.

One reason for the disconnect increasingly supported by research: the language we use to describe the problem, which has climate hawks speculating that perhaps the issue could use a name change to something that elicits greater emotion, —and thereby more effectively spurs action.

Today, "global warming" and "climate change" are used differently and mean different things to different people. In particular, global warming appears to communicate a greater threat and generate a stronger sense of urgency than the seemingly less threatening term climate change. 

While global warming is a bit of a misnomer, a Yale project on Climate Change Communication found that global warming generates stronger feelings of negative effects and stronger perceptions of personal and familial threat, especially among Republicans. Yet, according to Gallup, only 36 percent of Republicans worry about the issue, compared to 49 percent of Independents and 83 percent of Democrats.

Meanwhile, Yale found that climate change actually reduced issue engagement by Democrats, Independents, liberals and moderates, as well as a variety of subgroups within American society, including men, women, minorities, different generations and across political and partisan lines.  For Gallup, the numbers were relatively the same for both terms.

Upping the urgency

When analyzing Google searches for global warming and climate change, the latter has been far less commonly used over the past decade.

The initial preference for global warming  could be attributed to the politicization of the term, as well as Al Gore’s release of An Inconvenient Truth.

More recently, climate change has been gaining currency far more rapidly than global warming, nearly closing the gap in 2014. When looking at more recent year-over-year trends, global warming as a search term has leveled off  at roughly 450,000 average monthly searches.  Meanwhile, climate change  has seen a 48 percent increase in average monthly searches. 

But why has the use the term global warming fallen out of favor? Are there reasons beyond scientific accuracy?

In a secret memo to George W. Bush prior to the 2002 mid-term elections, Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster and strategist addressed the marketing aspect of this issue when he wrote:

“It’s time for us to start talking about climate change instead of global warming... climate change is less frightening than global warming. As one focus group participant noted, climate change 'sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale.' While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge."

While the term climate change is significantly more accurate for describing the situation than the term global warming, it's still not as specific as it could be. John Holdren, the White House Science Adviser, recommended that the topic be called 'global climate disruption.' He feels, and many agree, that this new term will better raise awareness of the true issues at hand.

The term global climate disruption does, indeed, describe the changes occurring on Earth more accurately and concisely. Across the globe, climates are changing. Temperatures in key areas are rising, precipitation patterns are changing and air circulation patterns are shifting. The change is not restricted to temperature, and it's a true disruption — not just a change.

Meanwhile, the phrase climate instability has started appearing in media reports about UN climate topics and World Bank forums. Security and economic instability have long been topics that have the ability to garner attention from those with the means to effect change, especially in business. Some believe using words tied to security and instability may get those with power and influence to stop sitting on the sidelines and take action.

Psychiatrist Dr. H. Steven Moffic surmises we should take a page from television news reports and play off Maslow's hierarchy of psychological needs in which safety needs are second only to biological needs, such as food and sleep.

“Psychologically speaking, I've long thought that global warming and climate change were terms that were too benign to elicit more concern on the part of the public," he has written.  "As time has gone on, and climatologists seem to connect the recent increased intensity of destructive weather events like wildfires, hurricanes, etc. to longer-term climate change, it seemed to me, at least as a psychiatrist, that climate instability might be more evocative."

Whether we continue calling it 'climate change' or another term, those of us fighting to save the planet from irreversible change have a responsibility to continue to refine our terminology to keep it both accurate and engaging.

Combating changes to the climate cannot happen until we’ve captured the hearts and minds of a wide variety of populations and demographics.

At Sustain:Green, we’re doing our part by giving consumers an easy way to reduce their carbon footprint through a MasterCard rewards program of carbon offsets and fund rainforest preservation. Our hope is that by using the card, more people take to heart what’s happening to our planet and feel empowered to take action beyond what credit card they choose to use.

If, as a global society, we choose to not take responsibility on climate change, catastrophic weather events may force our hand, giving us devastation we cannot ignore, but are too late to reverse. Thankfully, we may still have time to turn back the clock and perhaps we should start with a new term.