Getting to the bottom of climate-change lingo
Remember when you first heard about that big hole in the ozone? Remember how they called it “the ozone hole”? Man, life was good then.
Now everyone’s talking about global warming. Or, actually, climate change. Or … uh … anthropogenic forcing?
What we’ve got, to most people’s ears, is global gibberish. This scientific lingo isn’t just confusing the way, say, particle physics is confusing. It’s also politicized beyond belief. Industry groups, politicians, scientists, and activists battle over terminology, wresting phrases from each other left and right. Onlookers are left scratching their heads: is this science, or mud wrestling?
As the rhetorical stew thickens, it gets harder to keep track of the relevant words and phrases. So I’ve prepared this handy guide to some of the more confusing, contentious, and complicated terminology.
Global Warming or Climate Change?
Back in the 1890s, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius was the first to theorize that the industrial revolution would one day lead to warming. Being a chilly Swede, he welcomed it. Today, most environmentalists and journalists use the phrase “global warming” as shorthand for the theory that the planet’s average temperature is rising. But others prefer “climate change,” since the trend encompasses many things; Europe, for instance, could get colder as others sweat.
Industry backers also like the second term. According to conservative pollster Frank Luntz, “while ‘global warming’ has catastrophic connotations attached to it, ‘climate change’ suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.” In other words: don’t warm-y, be happy.
Everyone loves snuggling under a blanket on a chilly night. It’s like curling up with a kitten, or donning a T-shirt fresh from the dryer. Oddly, this cuddly metaphor has also been adopted by some environmentalists to explain the threat of global warming. Think of it this way: gases like water vapor and carbon dioxide act like a blanket in the atmosphere, keeping us all cozy. But if we introduce excess CO2 by burning fossil fuels such as oil and coal, it’s kind of like using a down comforter in the middle of summer. Not enough heat escapes — and you wake up panting like Paris Hilton.
Urban Heat Island Effect (UHIE)
Imagine the famously seedy Manhattan disco Studio 54 on a summer night during its heyday in the late 1970s. Next, picture a couple in the suburbs enduring another depressing dinner together, as if each day were something out of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. The point being: urban areas are much hotter than their surroundings.
In this case, the term refers to temperature. UHIE, caused by pavement and buildings absorbing and trapping solar energy, is occasionally confused with global warming. However, scientists say its impact on the earth’s degree-surge is negligible.
OK, the “anthropogenic” part refers to us. The “forcing” refers to changes in the environment that could force the climate to shift, like, oh, releasing billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Basically, this phrase — which is mainly used by climate researchers — can be loosely interpreted as “human-made doom.”
A handful of researchers pooh-pooh anthropogenic forcing as a cause of global warming. One of the most notorious skeptics, Dick Lindzen of MIT, also believes that no scientific study has yet demonstrated a conclusive link between smoking and lung cancer.
Climate modelers plug data into computers to predict the future. No crash diets or facial tightening creams are required (although, come to think of it, that might help). Models are controversial, partly because their predictions are only as good as the information that goes into them. And partly because everyone knows the local weatherman can’t even tell us what’s going to happen on Tuesday. But they’re the only tools we’ve got for estimating what the temperature on Miami Beach is going to be in 2050 — or whether Miami Beach will still exist.
This dramatic graph, one of America’s Top Models, depicts the earth’s temperature dating back to the 10th century — a relatively flat line followed by a blade-like spike in the 20th century. Sure, it looks cool, but scientists disagree about its accuracy (as they do about most things). Nevertheless, nearly all climate scientists say there’s solid evidence for warming in the 20th century, and they are preparing for things to get hotter still in the 21st. In the words of Wayne Gretzky, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”
The cheery idea here is to prevent the carbon dioxide generated by power plants from accumulating in the atmosphere by putting it somewhere else: in the oceans, underground, in Dick Cheney’s undisclosed location. Sequestration solutions include fertilizing the oceans with iron to grow more plants that “fix” carbon, and pumping CO2 into oil and gas wells to stimulate production. (Hey, wait a second …) For now, it’s unclear whether any of these ambitious ideas will actually work on a mass scale.
What do The Grateful Dead and my old next-door neighbor have in common? They both favored an “acid solution.” Which meant something way different to them than it does to oceanographers. As it turns out, too much CO2 in seawater leads to greater acidity (think lemon juice). This trend in the oceans toward an “acid solution” makes it harder for things like coral reefs to grow. Which is, like, a total downer for fish and stuff, man.
OK, I just made this up. It stands for What Would George Orwell Do? In all his ruminations on the future, Orwell couldn’t have imagined the opaque terminology of global warming. (Personally, I think he would have had a good giggle over it.) The author held out hope for clarity, and in the essay “Politics and the English Language,” he gives this advice: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
Unless, he might have added, you’re trying to confuse the hell out of people so that nothing gets done.
Get Grist in your inbox