A Better Term

The past week or so, there’s been a lot of discussion on the blogs I read about whether or not we should use the term “global warming”. Simon Donner covered it, then Michael Tobis put in his two cents, and Peter Sinclair discussed it on live TV. It got me thinking.

The term “global warming” doesn’t cover the implications of a rising temperature, just the fact that the average global temperature is rising. “Climate change” covers everything.

However, the public is far more acquainted with the term “global warming”, so it makes sense to keep it in use so we are understood. However, this term has led to many misconceptions. To the public, it’s often interpreted as “everywhere-in-the-world-all-the-time warming”. So every time it’s cold in Europe, or it snows on the Atlantic Coast, there are comments of “where’s global warming” from the usual suspects, and even reasonable people start to doubt the phenomenon.

Because we’ll never be able to completely replace the term “global warming” with something more accurate, I think it would be best to slightly alter it, in a way that will reinforce the idea of averages rather than variability, even to people who don’t use it. I think we should call it “net global warming“.

Really, this is exactly what the folks at NASA, NCDC, or any of the other global temperature monitoring stations calculate. They add up all the regional anomalies from thousands of weather stations to find a net anomaly for the entire planet. This way, we don’t know precisely what the absolute global temperature is, but we know how much it has changed overall. Some places are warmer, some places are colder, but this single annual value shows us at a glance what the planet’s temperature is doing.

Even that value doesn’t consistently warm every year – we don’t set a new temperature record every year – because the global climate has enough internal variability to slightly change, from year to year, the percentage of the planet’s heat that is stored at the surface, which is what NASA et al measures. La Niña, which made 2008 cooler than previous years, doesn’t actually change the total heat energy stored on earth. It just sucks some of it out of the atmosphere and into the oceans.

Luckily, La Niña has a friend, El Niño, which does the opposite to net global surface temperatures, so they basically cancel each other out every five years or so. All these short-term cycles of variability – ENSO, sunspots – average out over the years, and as time goes on we stop seeing the noise and start to see the trend. Look at the red line in NASA’s graph, rather than the jagged black line, to see less noise and more trend.

If we can get the idea of “net global warming”, rather than “everywhere-in-the-world-all-the-time warming”, into the public consciousness, our collective understanding of this problem will shoot up. Plus, we’ll be less prone to misleading statements like “It’s cold today, so there is no global warming” or “Warming stopped in 1998“.


9 thoughts on “A Better Term

  1. sticking with global warming is IMO because it generates more google searches than the alternatives. Your term takes advantage of that.

    But I don’t think it will reduce confusion, simple because there are enough people who willfully misinterpret the science, and are successful in sowing confusion.

  2. Why would people want to warm their homes to 18 degrees C (:-)=, if they weren’t evolved on African Savannas? I’d like to call the AGW:”burning down your house because you don’t like your ancestors”, but I doubt it’ll catch…

  3. “Climate disruption”, would probably be the best term to describe what is happening, but we should probably still stick with “global warming” and “climate change” for consistency. The confusionists would still find new ways to confuse the easily confused regardless of the term used

  4. If we switch to a term that’s seen as more ‘alarming’, the climate inactivists will complain — that scientists are trying to ‘extort’ more money from hard-working Americans or whatever.

    If we switch to a term that’s seen as less ‘alarming’ (I guess “net global warming” sounds less alarming than “global warming”), they’ll still complain — saying that scientists are trying to ‘backpedal’ away from their earlier ‘failed’ claims.

    The real problem right now isn’t whether we’re using the right term. The real problem is the inactivist noise. What needs to enter the public consciousness is that that there’s a climate inactivist movement out there, and that their tactics are nonsensical.

  5. Your argument has merit. Personally, I think if we’re going to re-brand then we should look for one that abbreviates well (think Twitter, SMS, etc where brevity counts).

    Look at your own post: a scattering of high-profile abbreviations. NASA, ENSO, NCDC. Even ‘TV’. Once a thing gets abbreviated, it gains credence.

    Me, I particularly like abbreviations that work as mnemonics. ‘NGW’ doesn’t ring my bell.

    Devil’s advocate hat on: if we’re discussing labels then this is yet another distraction from the more immediate, pressing issues (see eg my latest blog post, link above).

    Keep up the good work!

  6. It doesn’t matter what you call it IMO.

    Both ‘Climate Change’ and ‘Global Warming’ are valid descriptions.

    I think what is more important is sticking Anthropogenic in front of whatever term is used.

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