It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Use Your Words

Guest posting.

Received in email via Richard Pauli with request to redistribute. I completely agree. -mt

After the Associated Press Stylebook mistakenly proclaimed,  "Global warming and climate change can be used interchangeably."  I had to protest.

Feel free to send it again, or edit and send to your newspaper.   It really irks me to see this confusion hanging on.   And it's more bothersome that AP is promoting the mistaken usage.   I usually avoid shaming campaigns, but here they deserve to be called out on their language.      

I sent this to AP via their contact page:
just want this confusion corrected.  Please forward as you like.  Cut and copy and even add your name:

An open message to the Associated Press,  

I write concerning your illogical conclusion that global warming and climate change are equivalent phrases.   They are not and it makes the Associated Press seem misinformed.   You have an awesome responsibility to differentiate these two meanings and you should rise to that challenge now - before it becomes even more embarrassing for you to correct.

Global warming is the average of what is happening to the entire globe, the global average temperature is rising.  The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research says that over all land and ocean surfaces, averaged temperatures warmed roughly 1.53°F in the last century (

Some scientists prefer the term 'global heating.'   But global warming is typically measured in degrees change to the global average temperature of the earth.

Global warming is not the same as climate change.

Climate is usually a regional reference to a series of weather events for that region.  Weather is one event, climate the aggregate of many weather events.   No matter how strange or extreme is a weather event,  when measured and recorded, then it becomes part of the defined climate for that region.  Climate change is often discussed as destabilizing trends in weather events. 

Climate change is not the same as global warming.

Climate change is a way of saying the data set that defines climate is moving outside of the statistical norms of what it used to be.   As such, meteorologists and climatologists might regard climate as a few decades of weather - sometimes 35 years.  If weather is in the region and date range of the defined climate, then we cannot exclude any weather event from the definition of that climate.   The climate of the Mediterranean differs from the climate of Iceland.   Both may be changing, but in their own ways.  

Climate does not cause weather.   Numerous weather events define a climate. 

No weather events can exist outside of the data set that will define the climate for that region.  If we have many weather events that are anomalous then soon we can say the climate has changed - all because the average of all the weather data has changed.    

We cannot say that climate influences a weather event.  It's just like the stock market where past performance is no indication of future performance.  Climate is made up of weather experiences in the past, not the future.  

  Over the last few years, or few months or few decades,  there have been noticeable statistical changes that allow us to say the climate for the region has changed.  "Florida's climate has changed a little since the 1960's... it's a little bit hotter."   Or "The Midwest climate has changed a little in the last decade, a little more stormy." 

Climate change is different than global warming.  The globe is made up of many different regional climates.   "New England's climate differs from California's".

They should not be called equivalent.  It is a mistake to say, "global warming is the same as climate change".    I have to echo the objections to using terms like "warming"  which connotes comfort.  It isn't.  It's heating.    And climate is not changing like it always did,  it is destabilizing like it never did before. 

Climate change and global warming share only the attribute of change.  A journalist for a regional news outlet may write about a specific local climate.   That should not be confused with talking about changes to global warming average temperatures across the whole planet.

I think it's vitally important for the Associated Press to demonstrate understanding of these two terms.

Thanks for your attention to this matter,

Richard Pauli


William Connolley said...

I don't think you can define either GW or CC merely from reading the words, and deducing their combined meaning. Any more than you can read the name of a political party as "Democrat" or "Republican" and deduce from that, with no other context, what they stand for.

GW and CC mean what we define them to mean, which comes in part from what people use them for. Wiki uses GW for the current stuff, and CC for the more general stuff; that's just a convention.

Michael Tobis said...

I've long advocated that the scientific community should come up with fixed definitions for terms and not tolerate the rest of the world muddling them up.

"Global warming" should refer to a change in a particular metric. The recent shell game of changing that metric from global mean surface temperature to ocean heat content has never sat right with me - we call it "moving the goalposts" hereabouts. But it is a term which in any case ought to have a specific technical meaning.

"Climate change" of course is a stupid name for a problem.

I advocate "climate disruption" as a shorthand for "anthropogenic climate change". This can be criticized for assuming the consequent (that ACC is excessive). Perhaps "climate disruption" is better defined as "excessive anthropogenic climate change", and some may choose to argue whether it has started yet or is in the cards at all.

The lack of clarity in the public conversation on this matter traces in no small measure to the lack of clarity in the words used to describe the various aspects of the problem.

This is important. It is stupid to treat the terms as eqiuvalent, and loses many shades of meaning.

I recently saw a fairly serious essay about a particular observed climate shift (iirc, seasonal distribution of American tornados), include phrasing like "is this seasonal shift in tornado occurrence due to climate change?".

That is literally equivalent to "is this climate change due to climate change?".

Um, no.

It is no wonder we are so bad at collectively reasoning about the problem when our vocabulary is such a mess. (*) Words are the tool of thought and discourse. Precision and consensus on meaning is needed.

(*) There are other important factors, of course.

Neven said...

I always say that climate change is caused by global warming to explain the difference, but maybe that's too simple.

Susan Anderson said...

I got so annoyed by all the distraction I lather rinse repeat with this:

The accumulation of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in earth's atmosphere is adding energy (heat) to the system (global warming) which is disrupting the planetary circulation (climate change).

For a visual (hemispheric so half), here: