Language Matters: Why I Say ‘Climate Change,’ Not ‘Global Warming’

I am a huge fan of clarity in language. There are a number of different reasons for this. One of the key reasons is that I like people to know what I am talking about, so I try to use mutually accessible terms, or to define terms when I use them so that there can be no confusion. If someone thinks I’m talking about cherries when I am talking about oranges, it’s going to make both of us really confused when we try to have a discussion; we may even accuse each other of being mutually obtuse, or mutually ignorant, and other such things. Whereas if we use clearly defined and accepted terms and confirm that we are talking about the same thing, it adds a lot of clarity. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a brisk argument with someone, only to realize halfway through that not only are we talking about the same thing, we are also on the same side, so, yes, clarity is a good thing.

There’s another reason, though, which is that language can be highly weaponized. If we use weaponized terms, even if we don’t use them in a weaponized way, we play into opposing arguments. The climate change versus global warming language is a great example. There are people who want to deny that climate change is occurring. From their perspective, the term “global warming” is like manna because it allows them to say “but how can you say there’s global ‘warming’ when the Northeast just experienced an unprecedented winter storm and it was really cold.”

Now, one could argue that these people know full well that when someone talks about “global warming,” it’s a reference to climate change as a whole, not just global warming. However, this is not always the case. It’s especially not the case with people who are new to the debate and the language. For someone who¬† has just started to explore the concept, when they hear a statement like “global warming isn’t happening because it was really cold in Europe last winter,” that argument may be taken at face value. And, of course, “global warming” is its very own phenomenon, so technically the two terms should not be used interchangeably.

Simplistic arguments win wars, people. There are a whole lot of reasons for this which I don’t really want to delve into right now, but suffice it to say that if I can avoid a simplistic or circular argument by choosing my words with more care, I am going to do my best to do just that. In part because I personally find such arguments really exhausting and immensely boring. When I say “climate change,” I don’t leave the door open to the “but global warming isn’t really happening” cheap shot. Call it covering my flank, if you will.

I think it’s critical to use the most accurate language I can, and to update my language to reflect changing language norms. I used to say “global warming” as a catchall to talk about climate change, but I don’t anymore, because it’s not accurate. And if I want to seriously engage people, I want to be accurate and crisp and clear so that they cannot hide behind linguistic semantics.

Global warming is an aspect of climate change. It is, indeed, a contributor to climate change, because warming has triggered a bunch of different events. But not all of those events are literally “warming,” which is why “climate change” is more accurate, because it reflects all of the climate trends which are being observed right now. And, also, by talking about “climate change,” I can be clear that I referring to all of these trends as a whole, and when I say “global warming,” I am talking about one specific aspect of a changing trend.

These trends include things like cold weather along the Atlantic, the result of changes in the circulation of the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, extremely cold winters in places like Britain are predicted in climate change models. The fact that Britain was really cold this winter is actually evidence to support the theories that a shift in the global climate is occurring.

Other trends are things like flooding and more severe hurricanes in some regions of the world, paired with drought and desertification in others. Weather patterns are all interconnected, and they are changing in lots of different ways as the world changes. What results in freezing temperatures in one place might cause warmer ones in another, and overall temperature averages can go up while winters in some specific locations get colder.

I say “climate change” because that is what is happening. Our climate is changing. This cannot be disputed, because it’s been clearly demonstrated along a number of metrics. Change. Is. Happening. The question which is up for debate is not “if,” but “how.” If we can determine the how of it, we might be able to figure out what kinds of actions, if any, we should be taking to address it.

Address it we must, because the world’s population is already reacting to the climate shift. Despite the naysayers who want to act like nothing is happening, changes are occurring, and we are having real world repercussions right now. Like the creation of climate refugees, people who are driven out of their homelands by climate shifts which make it too difficult to survive. Maybe they can’t farm because there’s no water. Maybe they can’t fish because the ocean temperature is warmer and the fish species they are accustomed to can’t survive. Maybe their homes are underwater.

We need to be developing a two pronged approach to deal with real problems right now and to study the how of climate change to start perhaps engaging in some more long term solutions. If I can say “climate change” and skip the whole debate about whether “global warming” is really happening so that we can get to the core of the problem and start addressing it, so much the better, you know what I’m sayin’?

One Reply to “Language Matters: Why I Say ‘Climate Change,’ Not ‘Global Warming’”

  1. I so agree with you on precise language to avoid rhetorical shenanigans, *wordnerds of the world unite* but I’ve never thought about this subject in terms of language, so this was definitely an eye opener for me.

    And I have one minor correction to make:
    That last European winter you refer to still is, and there’s no end in sight.
    We have a thick layer of snow and I’m in the coastal region where it’s traditionally milder.
    There’s of course a downside to having an eye for detail, one might end up splitting hair, or getting stuck on irrelevant bits. Sorry if that’s just been the case.

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