Depending on your views about what is happening to the planet right now, the history of this term is either a comedy of errors or a tragedy of the commons. This is because the term “climate change” replaces global warming, which in turn replaced greenhouse effect.
Those who believe they are justly alarmed about the state of planetary affairs tell the story this way. Each revision in terminology was made in a desperate attempt to reach climate-change deniers who can’t or won’t see the plain facts about what humanity is doing to the climate and what is bound to happen because of it. In this perspective, these terms have evolved because they needed to become more effective to convey complicated scientific understandings to an uneducated, apathetic populace. In particular, the move from “global warming” to “climate change” was needed because ordinary people (frustratingly) could not understand the simple fact that an increase in global mean (average) temperature does not equate to uniform increases in local temperatures everywhere on the planet.
On the other side, those who believe that the current emphasis on climate change is a hoax see the historical evolutions of the term quite differently. These people call themselves climate-change skeptics, and they believe what they would call climate-change alarmists keep changing the name of the scam as part of an ongoing attempt to hoodwink smart people into their money-making and power-hungry scheme (aka “in the 70’s, they were talking about a new ice age, with the climate growing colder - now this!) In this view, the climate has always naturally changed over the millennia - making the term “climate change” meaningless. Thus the new term is nothing but a terminological gambit used to avoid admitting that global warming has stopped, exposing the hoax for what it is.
These two competing histories of the term “climate change” share one thing: an increasing sense of frustration and desperation. On one side the desperation is attributed to an increasing need to avert environmental and societal devastation. On the other side the same desperation is attributed to a pitiful attempt to hold on to a failing con game.
There are, of course, many people whose views fall between these extremes. Some believe that climate scientists are sincere in their efforts to address a potentially alarming trend, but that scientists could be wrong, or at least overconfident, in their predictions. They point to historically mistaken crises that were later seen to be mere hysteria, or scientific beliefs (like eugenics) that led to negative outcomes. Some believe that the issue has become so complex, both environmentally and socially, that it is simply impossible to know what is the one correct action we should take at this time. In this view, we should be more focused on adaptation than action, especially when the outcome is so uncertain. From this perspective, arguments over terminology are nothing but distractions from the essential work of finding practical, on-the-ground solutions to urgent problems such as poverty, conflict, pollution, and environmental devastation.
QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:
-If the term for what people call “climate change” was a more perfect representation of what is really going on, what would that better term be, from your perspective?
-Ask a few people the question just above this one. What surprises you about what you hear?
-Imagine a future in which your expectations about climate change, whatever they are, have been proven correct. Looking back into the present, what one thing do you wish you had done differently? Now imagine the opposite future: one where your expectations have been completely overturned. What do you regret this time?
Cynthia Kurtz, Michael Strong
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