Friday, February 26, 2010

Climate Change or Global Warming

Does the Term Make a Difference?

I recently attended the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held this year in San Diego last week. There were a number of interesting sessions at that meeting, and I may use some of them as a launching point for later discussions, but I had one personal conversation with Lew Branscomb that I thought might be of particular interest while the Northeast is still being pounded by snowstorm after snowstorm this season.

Lew, as many will recall, had a distinguished career that included several presidential appointments, as well as high-level positions in industry and academia. While he is a physicist, and not a climatologist, the breadth of his career accomplishments certainly made me sit up and listen when he started talking about climate change and global warming.

He bemoaned the fact that the phrase "global warming" has taken root so strongly in our vocabulary. It leads, he feels, to a natural tendency to dismiss the science every time we have a regional cold spell--or greater than average snowfalls. I must confess, I have personally been guilty, on occasion, of saying things like "Where is global warming when you need it?" whenever we get some really wintery weather. I say it jokingly, of course, because I am aware that the variability of weather patterns means that we can have a warming trend, but still have cold and snowy days, but I can guess that some may take a snowfall as a signal that global warming is a hoax.

He feels the right terminology is "climate change," not global warming, and the snow, he believes, is added proof that climate change is, indeed, very real. He points out that climate models predict that one change in the climate will be more moisture in the air. The temperatures in the Washington, DC area (we were focusing on this area in the conversation) have been pretty typical winter temperatures, he noted. I have not had a chance to check this, but indeed, the temperatures haven't been exceptionally low this winter. What has brought us such severe snowstorms, he notes, is the very fact that there is more moisture in the air.

Of course, we all know that weather and climate are very complex phenomena, and I don't think he intended to extrapolate too much from the data point of one snowy winter. However, his point is well taken that we need to look at more than temperatures, and his suggestion that the term "climate change" is better than the term "global warming" is well taken. I'm not sure I'll purge it entirely from my vocabulary, but I'll be a bit more careful from now on. And I may not be able to resist completely the occasional urge to ask what happened to global warming when I need it, but I may be more careful about my audience when I do use the joke.


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