"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, June 18, 2007

Climate Change and its Evil Twin 'Global Warming'

Inel briefly discusses the success of an egregious skeptic's article entitled Global Warming and its Evil Twin 'Climate Change' claiming that the expression "climate change" is a conspiracy by alarmists to confuse weather and climate. (!) I have also heard greenies claiming that "climate change" is a conspiracy by big business to make everything sound neutral and non-threatening.

In fact "climate change" is a meaningful expression, and "global warming" is hopelessly confused by polemicists.

"Global warming" is a problematic term because scientists and the public mean different things by it, and what the public means by "global warming" is much closer to what scientists mean by "anthropogenic climate change". Global warming is only one of the easier to predict and easier to understand anticipated consequences of changes in greenhouse gas forcing.

While it is irritatingly incorrect to have every severe weather event attributed to anthropogenic change, that doesn't mean there is anything dishonest or manipulative about the phrase "climate change".

Quite the contrary. The expression "global warming" is being used manipulatively by the people who are professionals at manipulating language.

(One often sees disreputable people accusing their decent opponents of exactly their own favorite tactics. The opening scene of the movie "Thank You for Smoking" has a classic example.)

The whole concept of "do you believe in global warming" is intended to mystify, as if in a conversation about economics you asked "do you believe in inflation"? Given that "global warming" means "a rise in mean temperature", "an anthropogenic rise in mean temperature", "anthropogenic climate change", "observational detetction of rise in mean temperature", "observational confirmation of anthropogenic causes of climate change", "scientific theory about anthropogenic climate change", etc. etc., it gives people who are trying to confuse the conversation ample opportunities for sleight of hand.

I explained this in a (largely futile) feature article on RealClimate (my one and only) a couple of years back and advocated that scientists avoid the phrase "global warming" in public communication. It may have had some small effect. Some people do talk about AGW or "anthropogenic global warming", which avoids some of the semantic pitfalls.

There is also the risk that people think "global warming" is "the problem", so it can be solved straightforwardly if not cheaply by an equal and opposite dose of anthropogenic global cooling. Sigh. No it can't, because global mean temperature rise is a prominent symptom, but accelerating climate change is the problem.


Anonymous said...

Simple concept, but I think I am still trying to wrap my head around the your implication that:

we should be shaping conversations more around "global mean temperature rise (being) a prominent symptom, but accelerating climate change (being) the problem."

Here's why -
If global mean temperature rise is but a prominent symptom (of, let's call it a *climate disease*, or "accelerating climate change," as you did) then how is it that accelerating climate change is occurring without the very "prominent symptom" of Global Warming.

In other words, I am not convinced that there would even exist many measurable, or at least any appreciable, "climate change" without the actual warming.

I think I understand the fundamental precept behind your assertion (rising GHGs being -the- real driver) .. and I can assuredly concede that the warming is a symptom of -that- but in the day to day, colloquial conversations within public arenas, I might be concerned that promoting the fact that global temperature rise is not the problem in and of itself, could also be taken way out of context, misused and abused, as well.

Penny for your thoughts? It's not gold, but hey, it still could be a lucky penny lol ;)

Michael Tobis said...

The plausible scenario where we could get a lot of change soon without much warming is this one:

We could add enough aerosol or orbiting particles or something to the system to keep the temperature constant. We may actually end up doing this to keep the ice sheets intact.

Nevertheless, we will get changing vertical and horizontal temperature gradients and shifting weather patterns. The risk is that we'll act with geoengineering to avoid the sea level problem and then just be faced with other second order problems which will continue to accelerate (meanwhile addicting ourselves to massive climate control operations).

I think we are stuck with the words "global warming", but we need to be aware that they are used in a dozen ways, and that all sorts of traps are set around them. The best thing for people who know what they are about to do is tread very carefully around those words and avoid them when possible.

The best answer to "Do you believe in global warming" is probably "It's pretty much certain that human activity is changing the climate and causing it to warm." Answering just "yes" does too much to dignify the question if it's sincere. It also leaves you vulnerable to all sorts of rhetorical tricks if the question is bait for a denialist argument.

EliRabett said...

Anthropic climate change is a descriptive but not very useful in talking to the public. Eye's have closed immediately after Anthropic.

I use manmade climate change and when appropriate global warming. I might use global warming as the base, for example, you have all heard about global warming, a huge problem for the future, but that's just a name that we can apply to a serious issue. Let me tell you more. . . but it captures one of the central issues.

Michael Tobis said...

I really think Sriver and Huber's paper is the missing link. A whole lot of loose ends were tied up by this result. I hope people notice the extent to which the climate system is more understandable with this result than without it, so I am happy to have an excuse to plug it again.

The excuse to mention it here is this: in Chris Mooney's coverage of their work, Matt Huber pipes up to elaborate. He uses the expression 'global warming' to mean anticipated anthropogenic climate change, but he puts in between quote marks!

That is, he uses the phrase the way it is used in popular discourse, moving the communication along, but quietly notes that it is a problematic phrase.

Matt, you are a scholar and a gentleman.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

FYI, many kids seem to think of global warming and climate change as a "manmade pollution problem" that needs to be solved.

One reason I remarked about the popularity of that denialist propaganda piece was that the title was noteworthy while being totally irrelevant to the story (evil twin is the opposite of good twin, not its equivalent), the idea is tacky, and the first sentence had keywords that are easy to track, to see how the message spreads. So, I did.

Before that propaganda surfaced, I had been asked to write an environmental story based on Cinderella, with the step-sisters representing denialists and Carbonella being the environmentally friendly heroine. While researching that famous tale, beyond modern day Disneyesque versions of Cinderella, this is what I found:

Cinderella's nature and her tiny carbon footprint

Michael Tobis said...

Inel, yes, my point was a bit peripheral to yours, though I thought you deserved credit for starting the train of thought.

Still, I agree with you that this particular piece of propaganda is not especially well crafted. That it spreads anyway is interesting and alarming.