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Climate Hustle

What's in a Name?

Posted on 6 January 2011 by dana1981

There have long been claims that some unspecificed "they" has "changed the name from 'global warming' to 'climate change'".  In reality, the two terms mean different things, have both been used for decades, and the only individual to have specifically advocated changing the name in this fashion is a global warming 'skeptic'.

Global Warming vs. Climate Change

Both of the terms in question are used frequently in the scientific literature, because they refer to two different physical phenomena.  As the name suggests, 'global warming' refers to the long-term trend of a rising average global temperature, which you can see here:

'Climate change', again as the name suggests, refers to the changes in the global climate which result from the increasing average global temperature.  For example, changes in precipitation patterns, increased prevalence of droughts, heat waves, and other extreme weather, etc.  These projections of future global precipitation changes from the 2007 IPCC report are an example of climate change:

Thus while the physical phenomena are causally related, they are not the same thing.  Human greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming, which in turn is causing climate change.  However, because the terms are causally related, they are often used interchangeably in normal daily communications.

Both Terms Have Long Been Used

The argument "they changed the name" suggests that the term 'global warming' was previously the norm, and the widespread use of the term 'climate change' is now.  However, this is simply untrue.  For example, a seminal climate science work is Gilbert Plass' 1956 study 'The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change' (which coincidentally estimated the climate sensitivity to a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide at 3.6°C, not far off from today's widely accepted most likely value of 3°C).  Barrett and Gast published a letter in Science in 1971 entitled simply 'Climate Change'.  The journal 'Climatic Change' was created in 1977 (and is still published today).  The IPCC was formed in 1988, and of course the 'CC' is 'climate change', not 'global warming'.  There are many, many other examples of the use of the term 'climate change' many decades ago.  There is nothing new whatsoever about the usage of the term.

In fact, 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:

And a Google Scholar search reveals that in the scientific literature, the term 'climate change' was in use before the term 'global warming', and has always been the more commonly-used term in scientific publications:

No Reason to Change the Term

Those who perpetuate the "they changed the name" myth generally suggest two reasons for the supposed terminology change.  Either because (i) the planet supposedly stopped warming, and thus the term 'global warming' is no longer accurate, or (ii) the term 'climate change' is more frightening.

The first premise is demonstrably wrong, as the first figure above shows the planet is still warming, and is still accumulating heat.  Quite simply, global warming has not stopped.

The second premise is also wrong, as demonstrated by perhaps the only individual to actually advocate changing the term from 'global warming' to 'climate change', Republican political strategist Frank Luntz in a controversial memo advising conservative politicians on communicating about the environment:

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”. 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 to sum up, although the terms are used interchangeably because they are causally related, 'global warming' and 'climate change' refer to different physical phenomena.  The term 'climate change' has been used frequently in the scientific literature for many decades, and the usage of both terms has increased over the past 40 years.  Moreover, since the planet continues to warm, there is no reason to change the terminology.  Perhaps the only individual to advocate the change was Frank Luntz, a Republican political strategist and global warming skeptic, who used focus group results to determine that the term 'climate change' is less frightening to the general public than 'global warming'.  There is simply no factual basis whatsoever to the myth "they changed the name from global warming to climate change".

This post is the Intermediate rebuttal (written by Dana Nuccitelli [dana1981]) of the skeptic argument "They changed the name from global warming to climate change".

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Comments 1 to 35:

  1. A friend of mine brought up this argument a short time ago.

    You have to admit the perverse beauty of this myth. It's a PR masterpiece. Once it's spread, every time the guy hears "climate change" he thinks "aha! I knew it wasn't warming anymore!".

    Just by mentioning climate change, you make the media work to strengthen doubt, without one single piece of data or evidence. No evidence that warming stopped, no evidence that the name had been "changed". Nothing. Just PR.
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  2. We are in an age of global climate destabilization, anthropogenic heating, and beginning biological extinctions.

    Climatologists offer one phrase, but oceanographers another. We may have radically understated the situation. This is the end of a too brief Anthropocene. By inventing a descriptive term for it, we help process what is happening.

    One way to evaluate this change is to measure all the changes against statistical deviations. And then assign a moniker to encompass all the changes outside of norms.

    This is the Hockey Stick Extinction
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  3. Exactly Alexandre - it's an attempt to support one myth (global warming stopped) with another myth (they changed the name). Skeptics are building up a mythical house of cards, stacking one myth on top of another!
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  4. In the spirit of graph based nit-picking...
    If you do the Ngram for UK English and US English you will find that CC is still on the rise in the UK although GW is dying out... so global warming isn't actually global, but climate change is!

    British English
    American English

    I hope this doesn't fuel any "global warming" skepticism!!
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  5. just observation- it does seem climate change has replaced global warming in the media. Not sure why and doesn't seem like it makes any difference either way. Just curious- do most folks think this is mainly based on push from fringe skeptics, media, or some other source?
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  6. 5, reluctant skeptic,

    Regardless of history or intent, I do think that "climate change" is more appropriate, particularly to the man-on-the-street who is going to (idiotically) look at the most recent snow storm/cold snap/whatever and say "what global warming?"

    The point is that global warming doesn't necessarily mean warming everywhere or in the same proportions, and it doesn't mean "no more winter." It also can mean things completely (seemingly) unrelated to temperature, like floods, droughts, and more.

    Climate change is a lot easier to explain as far as an individual's experience with it, because it implies all of the nasty things that go along with global warming: precipitation changes that result in more or harsher droughts, more/harsher flooding, ecosystem changes, altered growing seasons and plant/crop viability, arctic ice melting, etc., etc.

    So regardless of who started it, to me "climate change" is a far superior moniker when discussing the ramifications of global warming, both to peoples as a whole, and the individual.
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  7. I think "climate disruption" is also descriptive, especially of current happenings in the Northern Hemisphere.
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  8. I try to use both terms together, thinking it helps clarify the distinction in the mind of readers. I use the words 'climate change' mostly when referring to changes in local / regional climates.

    For example, there is a distinctly changing climate in my part of the world as a result of global warming from human emissions of greenhouse gases. The climate has shifted to being hotter and drier, and when it does rain it buckets down much more heavily than it used to do. Records are frequently broken - heat records and rain (intensity) records. There are more frequent and damaging fire events. All this is now happening just as has been predicted for many years by our nations climate scientists. (I first heard the predictions in the 1970s, they've been refined over the years since then but are more or less in the same ballpark.)

    I mainly rely on measurements from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (which has excellent on-line records going right back), although I'm old enough to have also observed the changes over my lifetime of more than 60 years and maintain a backyard weather station.
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  9. Personally I prefer to use global warming because the term identifies the source of the problem and is closer to the CO2 culprit. Though ideally it would be nice to use the term "CO2 climate change" so that the fossil-fuel villain is clearly identified as opposed to some natural event such as El Nino.
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  10. I've used climate change in my journalism for the last 15 years because that's what climate science uses. In Canada global warming was rarely used back then or by any other country if I recall correctly. It's a far more popular term in the US and often used incorrectly. And seems to be part of the public's confusion about climate change.

    I like Lovelock's term "global heating" better than GW. And given the extremes "climate disruption" might be better than CC.
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  11. Isn't this subject some what dated nowadays by White House science adviser John Holdren's reported 'name change' back in Sept 2010 ie ??
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  12. Jim Simpson - that's the whole point surely, that in the scientific literature both terms are old (in fact 'climate change' is older), and both have a specific meaning. Skeptics have indeed twisted the meaning by suggesting that there has been a deliberate change, but there has not been such a change. "Global Warming" applies very nicely to graphs of global or hemispheric temperatures, but not to very much else predicted to happen within a warmer world - floods, droughts, sea level rise, ocean acidification, unusual winter weather patterns etc.

    Actually, I prefer terms such as global climate disruption/destabilisation, as they begin to get across the concept of unusual and perhaps destructive weather patterns and weather events that are the inevitable result of more energy and water vapour in the atmosphere. Politically at least, "warming" was fine for what happened in the '80s and '90s, but it doesn't cover what is happening now, which includes both warming and the emergence of consequent events. As long as the general public only think it's about 'warming' they have the wrong idea about what is happening and is going to happen. As a result, in Britain, very few connections are being made between unusual winter weather and warming, and some talk of poor summers indicating cooling - of course the global picture is unmistakeable, but the local expression may be a different form of climate disruption than rising temperatures. Many in Britain would like 'warming', but they naively don't comprehend what comes with it, and even worse when the global warming isn't expressed across the British Isles!
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  13. Hiding the Spike!

    I notice that the above Ngrams only start in 1979. Looking at the full scale I found a spike at round 1900! Now that's clearly before the industrial revolution and this must prove that both GW and CC and not caused by CO2.

    warmists might try to look at the books at the books in this selection and will probably suggest that it's largely a glitch in the google but wouldn't this just prove that science is unreliable?

    I've looked at some of the book and notice that many entries are due to sentences like: "be subjected to wet and cold, change of climate, change in occupation, increased or decreased work"... now "climate, change" happens quite often in this spike... to often to be coincidence... this, I believe, is the work of aliens, or the New World Order, or aliens working with the NWO...

    Apologies, I'm feeling quite flippant these days, please feel free to delete this post as being off-hominem.

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  14. @13 and spike.

    I haven't investigated but maybe this is an explanation:

    1896 was the year that Svante Arrhenius proposed the theory of greenhouse gases and climate change.
    One would expect some activity around then.
    In 1900 Knut Ångström launched a critique and in 1901 Arrhenius replied.
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  15. Using Google scholar and searching for Svante Arrhenius gives a number of references, including 'Worlds in the Making'.
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  16. @14 A facts based argument, eh?
    Oh no you don't! You must be being paid $millions to cover up the truth!
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  17. > ...they refer to two different physical phenomena.

    This simply is not true. 'Global warming' is the common name for 'anthropogenic climate change'. The two can and are used interchangeably because they refer to the same phenomenon: rising global temperature - and associated effects - due to human-produced CO2e.

    The constant chatter over semantics and definitions is a distraction that the deniers want to encourage - because it's another ploy to avoid talking about what it all means. Don't keep falling for it.
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  18. BlueRock #17 - you're talking about how the terms are commonly used by the general public. I'm talking about what they actually are. Physically they are different phenomena.
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  19. BlueRock@17

    'Global Cooling' would also cause 'Climate Change'.
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  20. John Chapman, #9:

    Personally I prefer to use global warming because the term identifies the source of the problem and is closer to the CO2 culprit.

    Global Warming may be the cause but climate change is the result. It is better, in communicating with the layman, to speak of the results first and then mention the cause.
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  21. BlueRock #17:

    The constant chatter over semantics and definitions is a distraction that the deniers want to encourage - because it's another ploy to avoid talking about what it all means. Don't keep falling for it.

    I believe that we'll see how deniers will want to discourage the issue when we turn the table on them.

    By repeating, over and over again, the fact that it was a Republican "wordsmith", with the distinction of being the first known person to have actually used the phrase 'Orwellian' in a positive sense, we'll reveal how morally and intellectually bankrupt they are.
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  22. While climate change might be the result of global warming (or cooling), on it's own it does not infer an anthropogenically forced "long-term trend of a rising average global temperature" which is something that can occur due solely to natural forcing. No wonder Joe Public has such a hard time trying to keep abreast of the issue.
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  23. @ Ron Crouch #22. As you imply, humans are unnatural. They are not animals. They do not affect other animal species at all, nor any other living or inanimate natural matter. Building fences to keep out wild dogs or rabbits is silly. Animals are natural and will respond solely to natural forcing and ignore barriers put up by artificial humans. Humans cannot force water to take an unnatural path. The dams that humans build for redirecting and moderating river flows are a total waste of money. Building levees to hold back sea or river water is a joke. The rivers and seas only respond to natural forces and humans are not natural. As for agriculture - how natural is that? We don't eat natural food, it's all artificial, just like humans.

    Everyone knows that humans and all they touch are artificial and divorced from earth, just like Crouch says. We were manufactured from synthetic elements and plonked on this planet, and told that no matter what we do we will be unable to change 'nature' for better or worse. So no matter how much we try to mess up the planet, the planet will survive (even if the artificial humans don't).

    (OTOH if humans were natural, then they would be part of nature and would contribute to forcing along with all the other forces of nature. What a crazy idea!)
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  24. Ron Crouch

    But climate change is not happening 'on its own' and it infers nothing - the role of humans in global warming and climate change has been directly observed in changes in Earth's radiation balance. All this in the complete absence of a competing theory - there's no evidence that natural forcing is behind it all.

    Perhaps Joe Public would have fewer problems keeping abreast if people stopped trying to confuse the issue by making statements that ignore the actual state of knowledge.
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  25. Sout@23

    Your comment is way off topic and couldn't be more wrong.

    Humans are natural and what they do is natural. Beavers dam rivers, they use knowledge and materials to do that, even if it isn't the same level as humans.

    Just about everything you wrote in that comment is completely wrong. But this isn't the place to discuss it.
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  26. Further to my comment @25, some of what sout stated was correct. It depends a great deal on the interpretation of the word 'natural'.
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  27. Ville - I believe sout's posting reads much better as a satire:

    "OTOH if humans were natural, then they would be part of nature and would contribute to forcing along with all the other forces of nature. What a crazy idea!"
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  28. #24 Anne-Marie

    That's not what I'm saying. The term global warming on it's own does not infer the requirement that an anthropogenic component be present, global warming can occur totally independent of a human finger print. I'm not disputing that what we are experiencing is Anthropogenically Exacerbated Global Warming. So basically I'm saying that the proper useage of terms is relevant to a particular discussion in order to allay any perceived confusion for the uninformed.
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  29. #23 sout

    Don't understand how you get such inference from that. Don't read into things things that are not there. If your going to discuss these issues then spell it out in black and white so that readers who might be less informed than yourself can't possibly construe your comments to mean anything else other than that which is expressed. If terms are interchangeable in casual conversation that's all fine and dandy, but here science is being presented and therefore it is imperative that the correct terminology be used in order to properly educate the uninformed.
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  30. If I might be permitted.

    I just want to express to those of you who do not know me that if there is anyone on the face of this planet who has absolutely no doubt that humans are affecting the climate, it is me. In fact it is my own personal belief that James Lovelock's vision of the future is optimistic. That's how little faith I have in humanity waking up and smelling the roses in time to save their precious butts.
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    Moderator Response: [Daniel Bailey] I have gone over your comments posted since May and I believe you. The more I read on new studies coming out leads me to reluctantly conclude Lovelock may well be right.
  31. @ Ron Crouch and Ville -

    Ron, like, Anne-Marie, I obviously misinterpreted your post. My apologies.

    Ville - yes, it was a probably poor attempt at sarcasm or maybe satire. IMO humans are as much a part of nature as any other part of nature. We are forcing extremely rapid climate change to the severe detriment of ourselves and all other plant and animal species on earth.

    Deniers often say that climate change is natural (true) and that therefore humans cannot change the climate (false) - it's like a red rag to a bull for me.
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  32. The main fault I find with Lovelock's conclusion Daniel is that the 600,000 people that survive will have to live in the polar regions where the food chain is full of toxins. And that's why his conclusion is optimistic (from a survivability viewpoint). Sorry about this now getting off topic.
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  33. Global Warming is what is causing it,
    Climate Change is the result,
    Climate Disruption is what we are going to be increasingly experiencing.
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  34. Perhaps we should use a triple foundation of the following:

    Global Warming-the man made cause.

    Climate Change-the natural consequences

    Climate Crisis-the social consequences.
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  35. I'd like to re-visit this thread.

    If the "science" in question is the science of climatology, then I understand the distinction between the two terms just fine.

    If the "science" in question is on the human cognition side (communications, politics, psychology) then I believe the peer reviewed literature has other interesting things to say about these terms. For example, in the USA the views of those who self-identify with the democratic political party are reportedly much less affected by the choice of terms (global warming vs climate change) than those who self-identify with the republican party. See "It's All in a Name: 'Global Warming' Vs. 'Climate Change'" @

    After visiting that article (or the underlying paper) please look at the end of this blog post again, where Dana discusses Luntz' memo and the concept of fear. That reminded me of other recent research comparing neurological responses of conservatives and liberals. See "Political Views Are Reflected in Brain Structure" @

    I suggest that another response to "the myth" is to focus on who "they" refers to. Climate scientists have not changed the term within their purview. Social scientists did, or at least attempted to, within theirs. Those trying to perpetuate the myth are mixing apples and oranges.

    These studies suggest that on the social science side, there's value to talking "climate change" instead of "global warming", but of course that would come at the price of reinforcing or perpetuating the myth with respect to climatologists.

    Mark (USA)
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