Is 'Global Warming' the Right Term to Use?

The average yearly minimum of Arctic sea ice is now shrinking by 13.2 percent per decade. Kathryn Hansen/NASA

Whenever there's a cold snap, a big snowstorm or even just a chilly day in spring, you can hear the smug gloating of climate change naysayers as they titter on sarcastically about global "warming."

For those who care about facts — 18 of the 19 hottest years on record all have occurred since 2001, including the top five of 2016, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2014 — it's easier to grasp the concept that Earth is gradually warming up, but that along with the overall rise in temperature come other extremes, such as unusual cold snaps and blizzards in spring.

For this reason, many people use the broader term "climate change" instead of "global warming." Although the result of global climate change is a warmed globe, the fluctuations that occur during the process have many impacts.

More than warmth

"What we have is more extremes," Michael Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy, told Minneapolis' WCCO-AM in 2013. "Severe drought would be an impact, severe flooding would be an impact, straight-line winds would be an impact, more forest fires would be an impact, rising sea levels would be an impact," he said. "So warming doesn't describe all the impacts."

Meanwhile, the Fox News set asserts that "liberals" switched from "global warming" to "climate change" when they (the "liberals") realized the planet wasn't really warming up. In fact, it was Republican consultant Frank Luntz who advised Republicans in a 2002 memo to use the term "climate change" because "'climate change' is less frightening than 'global warming,'" reports Media Matters.

The term "climate change" has been used in scientific literature for decades, at least as far back as 1970, as evidenced by a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled, "Carbon Dioxide and its Role in Climate Change." The idea that scientists or environmental advocates collectively "switched" from one term to the other is a myth.

In general, scientists use "global warming" when discussing the overall increase in global temperatures; they use "climate change" when referring to the other impacts that greenhouse gas emissions are causing. Which has led to some confusion.

A climate crisis

A satellite view of California's Camp Fire on Nov. 8 caught using the Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8. (Photo: NASA)

It seems this distinction is too nuanced for some people to grasp, which is why the more inclusive "climate change" could be a better choice. While it may clear up some confusion, however, it's also a clinical-sounding phrase that doesn't necessarily convey a sense of urgency. (It also inspires some climate deniers to correctly point out that Earth's climates have always changed, apparently believing this will disprove the more extreme changes now being fueled by human activities.) Instead, recent neuroscience research suggests we'd be better off with a different term entirely.

In a 2019 experiment by SPARK Neuro, an advertising consulting agency in New York, both "climate change" and "global warming" failed to grab people's attention. Rather than surveying people about their opinions — which can be unreliable, especially for familiar terms like these — the experiment used electroencephalography (EEG) and galvanic skin response (GSR) data to see how people reacted to various terms.

The group tested 120 people, divided evenly among political orientations. Of six terms tested, "climate change" and "global warming" fared the worst, while "climate crisis" and "environmental destruction" got the biggest emotional responses.

"Environmental destruction" actually triggered too much of an emotional response from Republicans, however, and could have a "backfiring effect," as SPARK Neuro CEO Spencer Gerrol tells Grist. Yet "climate crisis" seemed to hit the sweet spot, sparking the kind of emotional response that promotes a sense of urgency and helps people pay more attention.

The percentage of Americans who see climate change as a serious problem is already increasing, and roughly two-thirds of the country now agrees that action is needed. Nonetheless, that action is still lagging far behind the problem, and Gerrol believes the language we use to describe the problem could be holding us back.

"People understand that something is not working about climate change," he says, "and that some change needs to be made."