You say ‘global warming’, I say ‘climate change’

Posted by on July 04, 2011

Here in the UK we had a spell of unusually cold weather at the end of last year –  the coldest December in over 100 years. People who don’t accept the idea of climate change could hardly conceal their delight, as they asked: ‘Where’s your global warming now, then?’. The mistake here is to confuse weather and climate: the weather refers to conditions at a particular time, and – in the UK, at least – the weather’s well-known changeability provides one of our favourite topics of conversation. The climate, on the other hand, is about the ‘big picture‘: the way the weather looks (and changes) over the long term. But as James Geary pointed out in an earlier post, global warming is a problematic term. He quoted research showing that, although global warming and climate change refer to the same phenomenon, the choice of words affected people’s position on the subject. Interviews with Republican voters in the US revealed that 60% accepted climate change was happening, but only 44% believed in global warming. As the researchers pointed out, the problem with ‘global warming’ is that it  ‘entails a directional prediction of rising temperatures that is easily discredited by any cold spell’. Which is exactly what happened here last December.

Not surprisingly, then, the environmentalist lobby prefers the term climate change, whereas their conservative opponents tend to use global warming. The latter expression has in fact been in decline in recent years. A little research on the excellent Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) shows that global warming was a more frequent term than climate change during the 1990s, and for most of the noughties, the two expressions were equally common. But in the last two years, things have changed dramatically: climate change overtook global warming in 2010, and the data for 2011 year shows that it is now four times more frequent (occurring about 49 times per million words of text, as against global warming‘s 12.6 per million).

As always, the words we choose are important. The climate change debate can get quite heated, with the sceptics, for example, portraying their opponents as Luddites, tree huggers, or ‘beardy environmentalists’. On the other side, those who accept the consensus of scientific opinion use derisive language to talk about those who don’t, often referring to them as ‘deniers’. This is a highly emotive word: though occasionally found in other contexts, it was until recently almost always used in the context of the Holocaust. So if you describe someone as a ‘climate change denier’, you’re not simply saying that they have misunderstood the science – you are taking the moral high ground, and implying they are no better than someone who denies the existence of the Holocaust.

It’s a short step from moral disapproval to the use of language more typical of religious discourse. Green campaigners predict an impending apocalypse, a climatic Armageddon, and even refer to biblical climate change – prompting the other side to accuse them of being climate evangelists or zealots. Martin Palmer, who has a foot in the religious and theological camps, has compared the idea of carbon trading (where you effectively buy the right to pollute) to the sale of indulgences in medieval Europe (a system that allowed the rich to pay to have their sins forgiven). It will be interesting to see what further linguistic novelties this debate generates. Our ‘What’s your English?’ theme is moving on now, but we’ll still be keeping an eye on green English.

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