The Question of Climate Terminology

The Question of Climate Terminology

Starting this month, we are going to be tackling—one at a time—the seven reasons why the American public is not adequately engaged in addressing climate change. You may have noticed that one thing not on our list is climate terminology, despite the fact that the most common question I’m asked during climate communications and behavior change training sessions is: “Is it better to say ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’?”

It’s not that climate terminology doesn’t matter—it certainly does—but as we track different framing approaches and assess what’s working, it’s important to put the word choice question into perspective. My response typically involves an explanation of how the answer is dependent upon the target audience since what motivates one group of people may turn off another. But I also try to make it clear that picking the right word can only do so much, that it is only one part of a successful engagement strategy.

The fact that the decades-old terminology question is still up for debate is an indication of just how vexing the overall issue of climate change/global warming is. It’s not an easy thing to explain, especially since–despite the popularity of the Weather Channel and the efforts of climate scientists—climate literacy among the public remains quite low.

Unlike say acid rain or the ozone hole that describe the result of specific ill-fated actions, the concept of human activities causing greenhouse gases that result in planetary calamity is not an easy concept to grasp let alone describe. On top of this, the problem poses an unprecedented risk—which we’ll address in the coming weeks—and as such, even those who care are ill prepared when it comes to sorting out what a changing climate means for their lives and what are the most effective responses.

It’s not surprising then, that the two most common terms to explain the problem have their limitations. “Global warming” is a more widely known term and used more by the average American, but this term limits understanding to a rise in temperature, versus larger climate disruption impacts, and is subject to disparagement when things literally aren’t so hot. “Climate change” is both preferred by those who identify themselves as environmentalists because it’s more accurate and by opponents (the Bush Administration was notorious for this) who try to associate the issue as being a natural phenomenon that is not caused by humans and as a result, does not require significant action.

As a result, back in 2009, we at TRIG’s Social Capital Project tested some alternatives term as part of Climate Crossroads and while “climate disruption” in particular showed promise and has started being used somewhat in public discourse, more research is needed to assess to what degree the term actually helps build understanding. For a more comprehensive look into climate terminology and how it’s audience/values specific, we have put together this collection. We also created a tip sheet to help you determine what language is best for your audience.

But again, I want to emphasize that finding the right word for a given audience is only the beginning of what needs to be a very long-term strategic communications proposition where we consider how the frames we use now and the ways we engage the public will set us up for communications that need to happen in the future. Given that we are facing the need for a monumental shift in human behavior change to move away from our dependence on fossil fuels and a consumption-driven economy, a holistic approach is required, one that considers the role of everything from peer and neighborhood organizing and support groups to recognition of the psychological dynamics of the issue and how to move people through a process of understanding.

This is a huge task, particularly given that the media landscape and our communication technologies continue to evolve at a staggering pace and the rules of the game keep changing, making it hard even for experienced practitioners to keep up with what works and what doesn’t. For now at least, we will continue to use the terms “global warming” and “climate change” interchangeably in our efforts toward “sharing what works” (our motto)—with a little “climate disruption” in the mix as well.

We want to know which term you most commonly use—so Climate Access members please check out our poll.