This week we said goodbye to Wallace Smith Broecker. The scientist, who was 87, was one of the early proponents of the discussion around climate change and is credited with popularizing the term ‘global warming’.
We must thank Broecker for his work. But should we thank him for his terminology?
As US Climate Denialist in Chief Donald Trump is so keen on demonstrating, ‘global warming’ as a term is open to misuse and misinterpretation. ‘Warming’ can sound quite appealing to those in colder climes and does not speak to the complexities of fluctuation in temperature and weather patterns globally.
Which is why the environmental community has since rallied around the phrase ‘climate change’ instead. A quick poll on our Twitter account put the phrase way out ahead as the favourite. When asking the same internally at Good Energy the view was the same.
Google Trends tells us that worldwide it is now the dominant phrase which people search for. But it is only relatively recently that that has been the case — since around 2016. And it has never hit the heights that searches for ‘global warming’ did in in 2007.
Worldwide Google searches for ‘global warming’ vs ‘climate change’
All of which is not to say that ‘climate change’ as a term does not have flaws. The 2019 Oscar Best Picture nominee Vice offers a viewpoint on this, through the lens of another right-wing US politician. In the movie, its protagonist former Vice President and experienced oil company executive Dick Cheney attends a focus group on the topic. A Republican pollster asks the group “Instead of global warming, which we all agree sounds very scary, we call it… climate change?”
The suggestion being that the shift from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ was influenced by the Republican Party and — by extension — the US oil and gas lobby. Inarguably Cheney was more covert in his channels of influence than Trump is today, but this still seems conspiratorial. Perhaps we will see more in the director Adam McKay’s next project, which he has strongly suggested will focus on climate change.
If ‘climate change’ is also problematic, what else is there? Terms like ‘climate breakdown’, or ‘environmental breakdown’ if you widen the scope, leave less room for positioning as positive. Increasingly the phrase is given a prefix, as in ‘man made’, ‘catastrophic’ or ‘dangerous’ climate change, which do a similar job.
For the time being the consensus is that ‘climate change’ works. It is accurate, has high awareness and understanding. And right now, as we are seeing real traction on the topic through movements like the schools strike, may not be the time to open up the debate. But you can’t help but wonder what impact Broecker’s choice of words have had — if he had coined ‘climate change’ rather than ‘global warming’, would the world have sat up and taken action any faster?