‘Climate change’ and ‘global warming’ are not scary-enough terms
Andy Revkin of the NYT has a good blog post on one of the main problems with climate messaging by scientists, environmentalists, and the like. In short, it sucks!
One problem is the name “global warming” or “climate change.” It sounds like a vacation, not a crisis.
Indeed, one of the main reasons I titled my book Hell and High Water is that I thought it was a better term — more accurate of what is to come if we don’t act, more descriptive, more visceral — and I hoped (faintly) it might become more widely used. But other than being projected onto the Washington Monument by Greenpeace, nada!
Names do matter. As conservative message-meister Frank Luntz wrote a few years ago in an infamous memo, that explains precisely how a politician can sound as if he or she cares about global warming but doesn’t actually want to do anything about it:
“Climate change” is less frightening than global warming. As one focus group participant noted, climate change “sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale.” While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.
So you should probably use “global warming,” but probably not waste a lot of effort trying to rename something that is deeply embedded in both scientific and popular usage. Also, I don’t think the name is the main problem. Revkin cites a marketing expert who said:
If the problem were called “Atmosphere cancer” or “Pollution death” the entire conversation would be framed in a different way.
But if that were true, how did the incredibly unsexy and unscary name “ozone depletion” drive international action to proatively ban chlorofluorocarbons, even winning the support of Ronald Reagan, nobody’s idea of an environmentalist? The answer is that “ozone depletion” actually leads directly to cancer and not in the distant future (and Reagan had had skin cancer).
Global warming was always going to be a tough sell, given its long time scale and mostly indirect impacts on human health, even without the incredibly effective disinformation campaign that has been waged for the past decade. Words do matter, though, and I will be publishing a detailed article later in the week that will delve into one of the biggest language mistakes I think scientists and climate activists have made.