Well, it was inevitable: US politicians are using the recent blizzard in Washington DC as proof that global warming doesn’t exist. I’m going to pass over this for now, save to mention in passing the strong resemblance between climate change denialists and creationists in their tendency to seize on any evidence against the other position as being fatal while insisting that their position is valid despite the total lack of evidence for it.
No, what I’m more interested is in how the whole idea came about that unusually cold or stormy weather disproves climate change, and I think fundamentally it’s a matter of branding. The abortion debate is a good example of how choosing the right term to describe your position can be essential in framing the debate: who would want to be anti-life or anti-choice? In light of that it’s significant that in this issue, the denialists haven’t attempted to even come up with a name for their position, never mind reframing the debate. The fact that they’re perfectly happy with the terms the other side uses show just what a problem those terms are.
Let’s start with the most common name for the phenomenon, “global warming.” It’s easy to see why the term was first used: it’s a clear and accurate description of what’s happening, as temperatures gradually rise worldwide. The problem, as we’re now seeing, is that while that may be the overall trend, not everything that’s caused by global warming is going to result in warmer weather. Nor is it necessarily going to have a stronger effect than more local weather effects; in other words, you can still have a snowstorm while the Earth is getting warmer. But by calling it “global warming,” scientists and activists created the impression that the world will get warmer, point blank — which is why cynical politicians can now take advantage of a blizzard to score points on CNN. Another problem is that for many of us who live in cold climates, the notion of global warming sounds like a positive thing rather than a negative one, and the generally positive connotations of the word “warming” don’t help. (You’ve never heard of anyone being “warmed to death.”)
The main competitor to “global warming” has been simply “climate change,” but it’s easy to see why that didn’t catch on: it’s too vague, and at any rate sounds too neutral to be any kind of rallying cry. There was an attempt a few years ago to rebrand it as “global weirding,” to reflect the fact that rising temperatures will lead to more extreme weather, but this depends too much on already knowing the term “global warming,” and has the added disadvantage of sounding like a theory to explain the popularity of Lady Gaga.
What’s my suggestion? If it were up to me I would go with “catastrophic climate change,” which opens the gates wide enough to include all of the severe weather effects that may be caused by a rise in temperature and, more importantly, sounds like an unequivocally bad thing. Most likely, though, it’s too late: at this point we’re almost certainly stuck with “global warming”, and as many people are learning, it doesn’t matter how good your data is if you don’t brand it right.