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They didn't change the name from 'global warming' to 'climate change'

Posted on 16 July 2013 by gpwayne

This post is a new 'basic' level rebuttal of the skeptical argument: "They changed the name from 'global warming' to 'climate change'"

What The Science Says: The terms ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ have been used interchangeably for several decades.

What do these terms really mean?

Before we talk about the ‘name-change’ myth, it is worth considering what the terms actually mean.  

'Global warming' is the temperature increase produced by adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Energy arrives from the sun in the form of visible light and ultraviolet radiation.  The Earth then emits some of this energy as infrared radiation, which is prevented from radiating into space by greenhouse gases (GHGs). Just a tiny amount of GHGs - less than 1% of the atmosphere - keep the Earth around 33°C (59.4°F) warmer than it would be without them.

Greenhouse gases act like a blanket, keeping in some of the sun’s warmth. Increasing the amount of GHGs through burning fossil fuels is like wrapping the Earth in a thicker blanket. This increase is 'global warming':


'Climate change' is a consequence of global warming. As the temperature goes up, the extra energy changes all the patterns we are familiar with. Global warming destabilises the weather, the seasons, rainfall, humidity, and of course the ice at the poles. This destabilisation is called 'climate change'. (The term is also used to describe the long-term effects of global warming).

Where did the terms come from?

The term ‘global warming’ was first used in a 1975 Science article by geochemist Wallace Broecker of Columbia University. He wrote a paper called "Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming”. (Note the use of the term ‘climatic change’). Here’s NASA historian Erik Conway on the significance of the term:

"Broecker's term was a break with tradition. Earlier studies of human impact on climate had called it "inadvertent climate modification." This was because while many scientists accepted that human activities could cause climate change, they did not know what the direction of change might be. Industrial emissions of tiny airborne particles called aerosols might cause cooling, while greenhouse gas emissions would cause warming. Which effect would dominate?

For most of the 1970s, nobody knew. So "inadvertent climate modification," while clunky and dull, was an accurate reflection of the state of knowledge".

Source: NASA, What's in a Name? Global Warming vs. Climate Change

The term ‘climate change’ has its origins further back in time. In 1956, the physicist Gilbert Plass published a seminal study called "The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change". In 1977 the journal Climatic Change made its first appearance. Within another decade, the term ‘climate change’ was in common use, and embedded in the name of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was formed in 1988.

UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave a speech to the UN in which she used the term 'climate change' a year later in 1989. It’s worth quoting, since the paragraph in which it appears is as relevant today as it was then:

“In some areas, the action required is primarily for individual nations or groups of nations to take. But the problem of global climate change is one that affects us all and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level. It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay. We have to look forward not backward, and we shall only succeed in dealing with the problems through a vast international, co-operative effort”.

 The Skeptic Argument Unravels

Unfortunately, it’s hard not to see this skeptic argument as rather foolish. It should be clear by now that the terms predate most of the warming, so claiming there has been some kind of switch seems strange, when for example it was used in the name of the IPCC in 1988.

The media have not helped much in this respect. ‘Global warming’ has a ring to it that appeals to editors. It’s dramatic in a way that 'climate change' is not, so it’s hardly surprising the media should choose to use it. If there’s been a switch to climate change, perhaps it was a response to the realisation that warming was not the only result of interfering with the climate.

According to Google Books, the usage of both terms in books published in the United States has increased at similar rates over the past 40 years, although ‘climate change’ is gaining in popularity:


Ironically, the change may also have been accelerated by politically-motivated spin doctors. This is advice from a Republican political consultant who advised President Bush, talking about changing the name for political purposes:

"It’s time for us to start talking about “climate change” instead of global warming and “conservation” instead of preservation…“Climate change” is less frightening than “global warming”…While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge".

Source: Republican Political Consultant Frank Luntz, 2003

Claims that the terms have been switched imply a cover-up. The premise is that scientists were wrong-footed by local cooling and a slow-down in surface temperature increases. To cover this failure, the scientists started talking about climate change instead of global warming, because the former could encompass cold weather, where the latter clearly did not.

As you can see, the premise fails on a simple level: both terms have been used for a long time. It fails too because there has not been a hiatus in warming, just a change in location with more energy now being stored in the oceans in the last decade. Scientists do not have anything to hide, or cover up.

'Climate change' is the best term to use when talking about the effects of global warming. Responsible sections of the media may use ‘climate change’ more often these days because it is more accurate and more apt. All parts of the climate are affected, from the melting ice to extreme weather. The climate will get hotter in some places, colder in others. Rainfall will increase in some places, decrease in others. In other words, the stability of the climate is being affected, and 'climate change' is the umbrella term that encompasses all the different effects of global warming.

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Comments 1 to 10:

  1. Here is one such example provided by Anthony Watts:

    "Global warming" suggests a steady linear increase in temperature, but since that isn't happening, proponents have shifted to the more universal term "climate change," which can be liberally applied to just about anything observable in the atmosphere.

    Climate Change without Catastrophe: Interview with Anthony Watts,, 11 March, 2013

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  2. Thank you for this posting.  I don't know why, but it seems that there's been a big uptick lately in the number of claims that "we" changed terminology as some sort of ploy to fool people.

    Given how quickly we're losing ice just about everywhere on the planet, I guess we were VERY persuasive...

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  3. The premise is wrong for a third reason. According to the OED, the term 'warming' means gentle heating, and nothing about temperature

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  4. The expression 'climate change' probably doesn't include the effects on the seas and oceans. For the ocean ecosystem, a slight warming probably already makes a big difference, appart from the acidification due to the CO2. If more heat goes into the oceans .. how much would that speed up sea level rise? Of is that insignificant?

    So if atmospheric warming has been less, with more heat going into the oceans, that doesn't mean we can be happy and pretend that the oceans have been saving us this past decade.  The fact that humans don't live in the sea doesn't mean that we are completely independent from what goes on in the sea, and especially the biodiversity in it.

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  5. I've used the Google ngrams viewer many times to combat this myth, but there's something interesting: Virtually all of the increase in usage of "climate change" has come from British English.

    The viewer allows you to choose American English, British English, or just English, which I presume combines the two. The image in this post is for English. If you run it for American English, you see something quite different:

    Clearly the two terms have been in nearly equal use in the US for decades; there's been very little change. But here's the one for British English:

    All this makes me think that Frank Luntz is not the cause for the overall increase in the usage of "climate change," no matter how pleased he is with himself about that memo:

    Unless, of course, he has a huge fan club in the UK.

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  6. Nichol: Generally speaking, when scientists use the term "climate change," they mean changes to the "climate system." I suggest that you review the IPCC definitions of "climate", "climate change", and "climate system" presented in the SkS Glossary.  

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  7. Nichol - the heat being transported downward and poleward by the currently intensified wind-driven ocean circulation may be shielding us from more warming of global surface temperatures but, based on past observations and modelling, it is unlikely to persist. The global weather tends to oscillate between periods where heat is stored in the deeper ocean layers (negative Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation), and periods where it remains in the surface layers (postive IPO). A long-term warming background climate does not cause La Nina or El Nino (which are largely responsible for this natural variation) to disappear.

    The following images should make this clearer - the variation is unrealistically smooth, but it's just for illustrative purposes.


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  8. Nichol, there are some excellent points about this in "Winds of Change'' by Linden. Also Cullen, and maybe the latest Rolling Stone.

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  9. According to the WORLD World Metorological Organization Climate is 30 year Weather average.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] The use of "all caps" is akin to shouting and is prohibited by the SkS Comments Policy.

  10. I can concede that the terms "global warming" and "climate change" have been used interchangeably for decades, but the fact that Frank Luntz suggested using "climate change" instead of "global warming" is a sure indication that one term is less likely to promote activism than the other, and activism on the problem of global warming was never what Luntz advocated nor has it been a feature of conservatism for nearly a decade.

    I'm going to stick with the term "global warming" unless it becomes repetitive. It is the cause of climate change, not the reverse. I want people to be alarmed about it. I want them to do something themselves and insist their representatives in government do something about it, also. If it didn't matter what it was called, Luntz would never have written what he did. What we call things matters. It can make all the difference. Luntz knows this. We should, too, if we care about making a difference.

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