Saturday, April 14, 2018

Climate Change or Global Warming? Three Reasons Not to Be Distracted by the Name Game - by Dr. Marshall Shepherd

2018 February Global Temperature Anomalies (Credit: NASA GISS) Click to Enlarge.
Social media is an interesting landscape of opinions, confirmation bias (consuming information that supports your beliefs), and expressions of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a psychological term published in the literature that argues that people think they know more about topics than they actually do.  This week two very worrisome but important climate change (or global warming) related studies were highlighted in the media.  One study suggested an eastward shift in the well-known climate boundary near the 100-degree longitude line in the United States.  This could have major implications for U.S. agriculture; productivity.  The other study, actually two of them, revealed a slow down in a major ocean circulation that affects weather-climate patterns.  In discussing both on Twitter, a few inevitable "Didn't they change the name to climate change because global warming wasn't happening" tweets appeared.  While this is an oft-stated zombie theory, one that lives on though refuted by scientists, it is worth noting three reasons why you should not be distracted by this tactic.

Global warming is just one part of climate change. Before I go further, let's get this out of the way.  Yes, climate changes naturally and it always has.  Virtually every climate scientist knows this.  Milankovitch cycles (changes in the Earth's orbit, tilt, and wobble), solar variations, and other natural processes have affected and will continue to affect our climate system.  However, the science clearly shows that we now have a "human steroid" on top of the naturally-varying climate system.  It is important to remember that it is not "either/or" it is "and."  For example, grass grows naturally and "fertilized" soil will change how it grows.  Global warming is one aspect of climate change in the same way that a fever is one aspect of the flu.  A USGS website notes,
Although people tend to use these terms interchangeably, global warming is just one aspect of climate change.  “Global warming” refers to the rise in global temperatures due mainly to the increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  “Climate change” refers to the increasing changes in the measures of climate over a long period of time – including precipitation, temperature, and wind patterns.
The terminology shift has political ties.  It is well-known by those that have done the research that President George W. Bush's administration preferred the term "climate change" over "global warming."  I was an Earth system scientist at NASA during this administration so I am very familiar with how things were unfolding at the time.  A political strategist wrote a memo in 2002 urging Republicans to use the term "climate change" because it was less scary than "global warming."
Public, media, and scientific usage varies.  As Jason Samenow, in his excellent treatment of this topic in response to statements by President Trump, recently wrote in the Washington Post Capital Weather Gang, the National Academies of Sciences noted a preference for the term "climate change" because it was more scientifically-accurate.  It has nothing to do with any "warming pauses" or lack of evidence of warming.
There are some that have argued for the use of the term "climate disruption."   Whatever it is called, do not fall for the attempt to discredit the science because of name... It is just a name game (and a deflection).

Read more at Climate Change or Global Warming? Three Reasons Not to Be Distracted by the Name Game

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