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Warming gets a cold shoulder

While cable news boiled our blood with political pratfalls this week, several chilling reports about global warming went largely ignored. Here’s a quick recap:

  • Estimates of sea-level rise by the year 2100 have doubled.

  • Huge swaths of coral are dying in the Great Barrier Reef.

  • Arctic sea ice is disappearing faster than expected.

  • Exxon Mobile and other fossil-fuel companies stand accused of deceiving their investors about climate risks.

That’s an incomplete sample for just one week's news. In a saner society, any one of these stories would have trumped, say, a billionaire re-tweeting stupid photos.

We can blame cable news, vested interests, craven politicians, and anti-science kooks for inaction, but some of the words we're using to report the issue are gumming up the works. Here’s a headline from today’s Washington Post:

With climate change, U.S. states routinely achieving new levels of extreme warmth

If the goal is to bore and confuse, this ponderous headline achieves a new level of extreme success. And the trouble starts with climate change.

Here we go again.

This has happened before.

Back when pollutants from smokestacks were sterilizing lakes and forests across North America, convocations of scientists nixed the term acid rain, ostensibly because acidic mist and fog were just as bad. So the scientists debated various alternates and settled on acid deposition, which sounded like a caustic bit of legal testimony, sufficiently ponderous to stupefy the public and sap the urge to act. Fortunately, most politicians and journalists of that era wisely accepted the science but scrapped the stuffy label. Most of them kept right on using the term acid rain, which probably helped them educate the populace and win support for the Clean Air Act.

Most citizens, it turns out, could be trusted to assume that the term acid rain might also apply to mist and snow and fog. And we wouldn’t be surprised to find soft drinks and French fries at Burger King. And we wouldn’t feel the need to rename the place Convenient Comestibles.

Body change

There’s been some dispute about how climate change became the term of choice in science. Some say the researchers pushed it; others say industry did. Either way, my science-writer friends assure me the quarrel is over. Climate change has won. Global warming lost. Get over it.

I’d like be all science-y and hang with the tribe, but I can’t. Climate change begs the question. How is it changing?

The globe, on the whole, is warming.

I tried to argue this point in Asheville, at the National Climatic Data Center, when I was consulting there a few years ago. The problem is complex, the director explained. Some regions of the world might actually turn colder, now and then. And we could even be headed for an ice age, if arctic melting stalls the ocean currents that circulate heat.

But that kind of argument confuses cause with effect. And the part we can fix is the cause. If our grandkids shiver through an ice age, the climate will have changed because we warmed it.

If global warming misleads, then the word fever misleads, when my thermometer tops 102, because I feel cold and shiver with chills. And what about my other symptoms? Nausea, congestion, muscle ache, sneezing, and more. Maybe I should call my fever body change. I won’t.

Earth has a fever. The symptoms may include localized cold snaps, blizzards, cyclones, wildfires, rising seas, melting ice, drought, rampaging floods, dead coral, and more. Predicting the symptoms is complex but the malady is not. The globe is warming. Full stop.

Wiggle room

When scientists discover a fungus or a subatomic particle, they can name it whatever they please. And I’ll respect that kind of scientific nomenclature, which is exacting and precise. But the term climate change is neither exacting nor precise. It implies an uncertainty that doesn’t exist, and it allows enough wiggle room to let polluters off the hook. The polluters and their political lackeys say, “Of course the climate’s changing. That’s what climate does.” And I've even heard people claim that we started using the term climate change to cover our rears, because we couldn't prove that the globe was warming.

We built our civilization for one climate, and now we’re making it warmer. What will that cost us? We don’t know yet, but we know we can’t afford it. And we can’t afford to muddle the issue with vagueness. So, in the spirit of this insurgence, please consider calling the fever what it is: global warming.

For an analysis of research on this issue, see this 2014 report from Yale University, “What’s in a Name? Global Warming Versus Climate Change.”

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