Global Warming vs. Climate Change: Origin Myths

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I’ve heard again and again the story of how we used to call it “global warming” then we called it “climate change” for one reason or another. I have honored esteemed colleagues who have their beliefs about the origins and shifts of these terms, and in some cases, they even have some documentation of how these terms came to be used, when, and why. However, my own version of this history is almost always different from theirs, and different from what I hear reporters, activists, writers, and others say.

Briefly, here is my version of the story. Originally it was called climate change, mainly because the people who studied it were looking at the long term, and warming was only one direction in which climate changed. Then a subset of people started looking much more closely at anthropogenic global warming, and started to use that term where appropriate. But even then, the basic theory and much of the empirical evidence related to the study of global warming came from the broader field of climate science, which studies change in climate and its causes (aka climate change). So, there are two axes of understanding here. One is the broader field of climate change of which global warming study is a part, and the other is the broader theoretical framework of climate change, of which global warming is a more narrowly defined application.

But that’s not what anybody else says, and most of the origin stories are much sexier, involving secret meetings and conspiracies to control the message pro or against the science of climate change, er, global warming. And I do not doubt that at least some of these stories are at least partly true. But they are not stories that accurately describe or explain the origin of the uses of either term. At best, they are stories about attempts to shape the narrative by emphasizing or choosing exclusive use of one term or another for one reason or another.

The term “climate change” clearly predates “global warming.” This is because paleoclimatologists and the like were studying climate change for a long time. In the Google Ngram view, below, you can see spikes in “climate change” that related to key events in this study, including mainly its use in official government publications. In my own memory, climate change was used in scholarly work because those studying it were often looking at long term natural change.

The term “global warming” rose in common use and out-did “climate change) from the late 1980s onward. Like this:

As noted, every culture seems to have its own origin stories. Note that most cultures have multiple origin stories. For example, the six days of creation is the Abrahamic origin story for all things, the Garden of Eden story is the origin of sin and key moral distinctions, while the story of Noah is the origin of geographical diversity, and the tower of Biblos is the origin of linguistic diversity, etc.

Those interesting in climate change have an origin story that refers to the terms “global warming” and “climate change.” The important and valid hierarchical relationship of those terms are not important, but rather, the way the terms were manipulated, in these stories. The most recent version I heard went like this:

Anthropogenic global warming can cause changes in the major air currents such as jet streams, which can then cause extremely cold conditions to encroach into North America, causing a severe cold snap. It is for this reason that we chose to the term “climate change” rather than “global warming.”

This is a nice origin story, but there are a couple of things wrong with it. For one, the recognition of the phenomenon mentioned in story is very recent, dating to just the last few years, so it can not possibly explain anything about the two terms’ use. Second, even the phenomenon itself, the rise of quasi-resonant rossby waves caused by arctic amplification, is recent, much more recent than all the different stories about the origin of these terms, or changes in their use.

It is often said that “climate change” was thought up by right wing science deniers of one sort or another, in order to defuse the notion of humans causing change in the weather. But as the ngrams above show, and my own experience attests, this simply isn’t true. Many of us who were looking at changes in climate were talking about “climate change” long before we even knew there were people denying it. I remember that my first for-the-public piece on this, years after my first foray into relating change in climate to human prehistory (I was doing that in the early 1980s) occurred in about 1990, as a piece for a local newspaper, and it was titled “Bla bla bla Global Warming bla bla bla” (cant remember the details). And, I remember choosing global warming because it seemed to be the emerging term of preference. I used the term “global warming” in my first major series of blog posts on the topic, in 2007. And, at the time, I explicitly distinguished between the terms on the basis of their actual scientific meaning, because they are different. I said (two quote myself):

So what is this an introduction to? I plan to systematically go through a number of topics related to Global Warming (and more broadly climate change, to some extent) and provide up to date information and description. What are the components of “forcing,” what are the greenhouse gases, and why do some matter more than others? Why is sea level so important, and so incredibly interesting? What is the link between overall climate pattern and important events such as hurricanes and tornadoes, or whether we have a lot of snow or very little in a given winter? And so on.

I’ve always viewed this whole issue as a major distraction, but one I’ve always wanted to do a quick blog post on. So there it is.

A much more important point than all of this is to use, in developing messages, clear, strongly worded, scientifically accurate phases with action words in them. Like, “human-caused climate chaos” and “greenhouse gas pollution, released by humans, causing our planet to overheat” and so on.

Feel free to suggest your own ideas in the comments below!

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7 thoughts on “Global Warming vs. Climate Change: Origin Myths

  1. Someone, I can’t think who at the moment, likes “HIRGO” — for Human-Induced Rapid Global Overheating.

  2. The first directly relevant scholarly title I know of nicely encompasses this. It’s Dr. Broeker’s “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?”


    “If man-made dust is unimportant as a major cause of climatic change, then a strong case can be made that the present cooling trend will, within a decade or so, give way to a pronounced warming induced by carbon dioxide. By analogy with similar events in the past, the natural climatic cooling which, since 1940, has more than compensated for the carbon dioxide effect, will soon bottom out. Once this happens, the exponential rise in the atmospheric carbon dioxide content will tend to become a significant factor and by early in the next century will have driven the mean planetary temperature beyond the limits experienced during the last 1000 years.”

    That was published in August, 1975, in “Science”.

    1. Yes indeed, and note that both terms are used there.

      As a rule, in science, subtract a few years from anything the ngram viewer gives you. Wally’s article is in a peer reviewed journal, not covered by that Google database. You need to wait for the book, which is not as timely!

    2. Broeker nailed it, didn’t he? Not bad at all for 1975.

      [OMG an edit feature [sinks to knees, weeping]. ]

  3. I have here a copy of the 1982 edition of ‘Atmosphere, Weather & Climate’ by Roger G Barry and Richard J Chorey

    which on page 333 Chapter 8, C 2 Short-term fluctuations puts ideas together:

    “Remarkably, the causes of observed climate changes during the last few centuries….The key to these atmospheric variations must be linked to the heat balance of the earth-atmosphere system …”

    I agree that Broeker had nailed it his warnings about prodding the beast went unheeded by those with the influence to do something.

    As politically events across the globe take a decided downturn with a strengthening of right wing even fascist grip on the zeitgeist I am not sanguine about humans getting to grips RSN (Real Soon Now) with the multiple wicked problems we have created.

    Edit function tested, Brilliant.

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