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Climate Change: the Terminological Timeline

Posted on 27 August 2014 by John Mason

It is often said that a picture speaks a thousand words. The run of pictures below, it is hoped, will do a little more. They exist as a counterpoint to that laziest of claims - that, a few years ago, "they (the IPCC, Greenpeace, the Committee for Compulsory Implementation of Agenda 21 - take your pick) changed 'global warming' to 'climate change' because (insert pet theory here)".

Skeptical Science has of course published a detailed rebuttal to the talking-point here. But it's important to remind readers that an attempt to make that change in terminology actually occurred - but not by those who are usually accused of the act. Neither was it done for the reasons typically claimed by the opposition: in fact exactly the opposite. In 2002, prior to the mid-terms, the G.W. Bush administration (not exactly famous for its environmental track-record) sought advice on policy communication. It came, from Republican advisor and strategist Frank Luntz, in a long memo (PDF extract here), which included the observation:

"The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science."

Luntz went on to advise:

"The terminology in the upcoming environmental debate needs refinement, starting with “global warming” and ending with “environmentalism.” It’s time for us to start talking about “climate change” instead of global warming and “conservation” instead of preservation.

1.  “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 there you have it. The only recorded attempt to emphasise "climate change" over "global warming" was to make the latter feel a bit cuddly to prospective Republican voters in 2002. But next time you run into someone trying to suggest otherwise, something that happens multiple times every day, simply link to this page and invite other readers to come and see for themselves. The following images are screengrabs mostly from PDF copies (available via Google Scholar) of peer-reviewed papers going back to the mid 1950s and ending in 1977, when an actual journal called Climatic Change was launched - oh, and don't forget to remind your protagonist of what "CC" stands for in IPCC (founded 1988).

Contrarians may take no notice, but many other readers will be quite capable of making their own minds up, if given checkable evidence. In all but one instance, they can do just that by clicking on a screengrab - they are linked straight to PDF copies of the papers concerned.












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Comments 1 to 10:

  1. Thank you for putting this together.  As you say, a picture(s) is worth a thousand words.

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  2. Thanks for an interesting article, John.

    You can use the Google Books Ngram tool to search for word frequencies over time within books. A simple search of "climatic change" (blue), "global warming" (green) and "climate change (red) from 1980 to 2008 looks like this:

    For a bigger and more readable version click here.

    As John's selection of papers suggests, "climatic change" was the term of choice prior to 1988. Its usage peaked in 1991. "Climate change" and "global warming" both took off in 1987 (around the founding date of the IPCC), with "climate change" becoming the dominant term in the mid-1990s (before the "pause" started).

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  3. A more bulk approach to the analysis can be provided by the Google Ngram, which tracks relative usage of terms in books:

    The Ngram is started in 1896, the year of Arrhenius' famous paper on the greenhouse effect.  In the entire 113 years shown, in only three years does "global warming" get more use than does "climate change", in 1948 and 1950, and again in 1991.   

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  4. Nice work by Tom and andy.  Of course, Tom meant 1886 rather than 1986.  For my wn contribution to the list of old CC references:

    T. C. Chamberlin, Journal of Geology, October-November, 1897, A Group of Hypotheses Bearing on Climatic Changes


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  5. Rocketeer, 1896 actually, but it has been corrected.  Thanks.

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  6. Interesting Ngram results there. Can the same tests be applied to the mainstream media?

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  7. Just an historical correction:  The actual title of Wallace S. ("Wally") Broecker's 1975 paper in Science is "Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?"--that is, "climatic" rather than "climate".  (I just copied and pasted that title here from my PDF copy downloaded from the Science online site.)

    In a further historical note, that 1975 paper was not the first appearance of the term "global warming" in the scientific literature, as was asserted by Stefan Rahmstorf in his 28 July 2010 RealClimate post "Happy 35th birthday, global warming!".  I cannot account for the term not being found earlier according to the ISI database search Stefan cited in that posting.  But in a short time with Google Scholar I found and verified at least three prior to 1975; my search was not exhaustive, so there may be others even earlier.  The earliest of the three I found was:

    J. Murray Mitchell Jr. (1961). "Recent Secular Changes of Global Temperature", Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Volume 95 [Issue topic: "Solar Variations, Climatic Change, and Related Geophysical Problems"], pages 235 -250, October 1961. [The term "global warming" appears in the half-page Introduction, viewed at]

    Mitchell was reporting an update he performed as a follow-on to Willett's 1950 report of global temperature rapid increase in the early 20th century up through a pentad centered on 1937 (1935-1939), which had still strongly increasing temperatures.  Mitchell used Willett's methodology (but with corrected latitudinal weighting, and extended it with data for the 4 pentads centered on 1942, 1947, 1952, and 1957 (1955-1959).  Thus, ironically he was using "global warming" to describe what Willett observed, but the added span of data in Mitchell's analysis fell in much of the 1940-1975 mid-century "hiatus", so he was finding that slight "global cooling".

    But even though Broecker's 1975 paper is not the first instance in the scientific literature of "global warming", it may well be the first coupling of a form of "climate change" and "global warming" in the title of a scientific paper, and title aside, it is a seminal paper whose 35th birthday was noteworthy.

    My nit-pick on the subject of Broecker's 1975 paper's title aside, I add my thanks to John Mason for this posting.

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  8. John Mason @6, just to books in the Google Book collection.

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  9. GP Alldredge, thanks. I've figured out what happened here. The original paper published in Science had "climatic" in its title. It was later incorporated into the book, "Climate change: critical concepts in the Environment (vol.1) published in 2002, where the term "climate" is instead used. Luntz must have nobbled the publisher!!

    The link on that screengrab now points to the relevant Google Books page, as it was wrongly pointing to some much more recent NASA document. Trying to do too many things at once, as usual!

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  10. And just for completeness, here's the abstract in Science:

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