Because we never got the language right.
Let’s face it, the terms greenhouse effect, global warming, climate change and even climate crisis have never passed the basic tests for effective marketing and communications. When I wanted to raise money to protect native plants in CA, I relied on our botanists to tell me what was endangered, but I didn’t let them write the appeal. “Send your money now to protect the endangered Vandenberg monkey flower” only gets you so far.
Instead I followed some basic rules. My simple marketing formula asks, who is your audience, what do you want them to do, how do you want them to feel? It is no secret that action comes from an emotional response. So what are the typical responses to our climate change language?
Greenhouse effect: I do appreciate that in 1901 Nils Eckholm tried to find a common term for his discoveries about the interactions of certain gasses in the atmosphere and the temperature of the planet. Scientists do try to relate to the rest of us. But as climate communicators, how does this score? Are you picturing a stone walled greenhouse with glass panels on the top half? full of tiny pots with green sprigs? Stop that! This image is too lovely. No one is picturing a corrugated metal building on fire with everything in it dying. Greenhouse effect is a fail in warning us of disaster.
Which is why we don’t talk much about it anymore.
Global warming: Describes what happens when the greenhouse gets too hot. The temperature of the earth, air and water goes up. What do people picture? Warm hot chocolate, fuzzy warm sweaters. Or if they think of weather they think of the warming of spring weather. Water skiing instead of ice fishing, ships going over the poles … And, how could it be global warming when we are getting blizzards in Texas? Fail.
Climate change: There is a great deal of confusion over the difference between the terms global warming and climate change. It seems clear to me that global warming (an increase in temperature) causes the climate to change, thus being two distinct but related phenomena. However, climate.gov and nasa.gov have different explanations- different from mine and different from each other. Both do agree that climate change is the preferred term, as they claim it is more inclusive (for different reasons).
As Republican consultant Frank Luntz famously advised in his 2002 memo to Pres. Bush, “the phrase global warming should be abandoned in favour of climate change” … along with a litany of other marketing tactics, which have now become accepted terms of the debate, so much so that even NASA doesn’t question them.
Luntz was only partially correct, thinking that global warming was stronger than climate change as neither invokes action. To be fair, I am Monday morning quarter-backing here. Almost 20 years later, I don’t have to guess at the impact of this language, we are all living with it’s failure.
But whining is not winning. What language should we use?
Global heating instead of global warming. Yes, benign associations are still possible, you can be heating up the baby bottle or leftovers. But unlike warming, heating denotes fire and the word hot. Warming will never be too hot, but enough heating and you have cooked your steak or burnt the pizza.
Climate crisis has become the de facto substitute for climate change as the people who actually listen to scientists have started to freak out. We are indeed in a crisis situation, but there are several problems with using climate crisis: 1) Crisis is over-used. People have heard about everything from the housing crisis, financial crisis, credibility crisis … We have become numb to the word. 2) Crisis does not reflect what most people in the US are experiencing. A few extreme weather events do not look like a crisis to most people. 3) Climate means weather over time, therefore you are talking about a weather crisis, which seems like an oxymoron to many people. Weather is just weather.
Climate disruption is a better term. Disruption is abrupt, it is negative. It takes into account both warm and cold weather extremes. Disruption leads to the host of climate consequences from extinctions to sea level rise. It gets to the idea that we are messing with a system that has been disrupted. There is a balance that has been disrupted. Disruption is not the consequence itself, but is the cause of the other consequences.
Climate consequences. As explained above, climate disruption causes climate consequences. We don’t really have a word that points to all the negative side effects of heating up the planet, sea level rise, flooding, extreme precipitation, extinction, biodiversity loss, more insects in the wrong places, more disease, crop failures leading to hunger and so on.
Try out these phrases:
Global heating is pushing our eco-systems to a fever level.
Fossil fuels have caused climate disruption, as temperature, rainfall, hurricanes and tides run amuck.
Climate disruption is causing the breakdown of ecosystem services necessary for humans to thrive.
Climate consequences are happening more quickly and with more intensity than predicted.
As for the Vandenberg monkey flower…
Their tiny yellow heads wave in the breeze just a few inches above the sandy mounds of dirt in Lompoc. These fragile yellow flowers, the Vandenberg monkey flower, are so rare that only a dozen of these little clumps of flowers have been identified. With new developments being built on their little handful of dirt, where will they go? Will they be able to survive anywhere else? Help us discover the secrets to their survival so that their tiny beauty continues to make our corner of the world unique.
See the difference?