The Changers versus The Warmers

Feb 32008

Move over Hatfields and McCoys. It's the Changers and Warmers – as in Climate Change and Global Warming – who are having the big feud.

Is Global Warming the right name for the phenomenon now taking place or is Climate Change the more appropriate one? Is Change just a politically motivated, watered down term meant to lull people? Or is Warming an inadequate, too narrowly focused appellation?

It's a hotly debated subject and it is relevant for me in an unusually cold New Delhi while I prepare for a meeting of editors on – well, whatever is happening to the climate, the globe ... Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.....

Is “Climate Change” too namby-pamby? Doesn’t “Global Warming” describe more robustly the phenomenon we are living through?

Those questions recently ignited a heated debate on an online discussion group of the Society of Environmental Journalists - and it is very relevant for my work.

The Global Warmers said that the readers and viewers were getting burned by the use of the term “climate change” because they would miss the urgency of the problem. Moreover, they said that it was a political ploy by those who want to derail efforts to control emissions and other factors that contribute to global warming by subtly raising doubts about it.

The Climate Changers argued that “climate change” was a more appropriate term because global warming is not uniform around the world and occurring at a steady pace that can be felt by everyone. Besides, “change” embraced other phenomenon like floods and disruptions in weather patterns like colder temperatures in some places.

Warmers also made a classical Madison Avenue argument: Global warming has name recognition among readers and is catchy.

Some who agreed with the Changers suggested other more emphatic terms like “climate chaos.”

This is a very appropriate discussion for me as New Delhi shivers through a cold wave even as I am organizing a meeting for editors on Feb. 9. temperatures hit a low of 2.3 degrees Celsius or 36.14 degrees Fahrenheit on Jan. 28,  against an average low of 8.3 Celsius or 47 Fahrenheit for that day.

 (The city’s lowest temperature this winter was 1.9 degrees Celsius or 35.4 Fahrenheit on Jan. 2. The average low for that day is 7 degrees Celsius or 46 Fahrenheit.)

Editors are a very skeptical lot – remember the story about the editors who admonish reporters to check out if it is really true when their mothers tells them they love them? So now with the mercury set for another dip, try calling them to an editors’ consultation on global warming!

So we are going to stick to just the facts and call it an editors’ consultation on climate change. (The meeting mainly for editors who are gatekeepers or make assignments will be held during the annual Delhi Sustainable Development Summit organized by The Energy and Resources Institute, better known by its initials, TERI.

While a warming of the globe as a result of various factors – human activity, ranging from power generation and manufacturing to transportation and airconditioning being an important one – is by now an established fact, the temperature graph doesn’t go up in a steady line everywhere, all the time. While it does move up, there are fluctuations and its effects show up beyond the thermometer.

That’s why climate change is a preferred term.

The Knight International Journalism Fellowship calls my program Climate and Development Journalism Fellowships, without the word “Change,” though.

The United Nations and many intergovernmental organizations are also Changers, preferring the nomenclature -- as in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change  and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The Panel shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year with Al Gore (who tends to be a Warmer – his Nobel Prize speech talks of global warming rather than climate change ). Dr Rajinder Panchauri – who heads the Panel as well as TERI – however seemed to prefer “climate change” in his Nobel address, using warming only in a scientific context as in “global average warming.”

An article by Erika Bolstad of McClatchy newspapers’ Washington bureau explains the controversy over changing and warming. She traces the GOP firm move to the Changers’ side to a 2002 memo from political consultant Frank Luntz. “His advice, aimed at giving Republicans strong language to dominate the debate on environmental issues, served to politicize the terms,” Bolstad writes.

But Bolstad also cites an advocate for the environment making the case for the Changers. "The reason it's important to say 'climate change' is because it's an all-encompassing term," Brenda Ekwurzel is quoted in the article as saying. "In a way, it's an evolution of our understanding. It also reflects the evolution of the scientific evidence. Scientists are confident enough to say this is unequivocal." Ekwurzel is a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, which Bolstad describes an environmental advocacy group. (However, the Union seems to be a lukewarm on the subject: Its website prominently features the term, Global Warming.)

There’s a danger in making definitive statements about climate: In the 1970s the looming danger was thought to be a global cooling. Newsweek published a story on April 28, 1975 about global cooling and the dangers it portended for the world.

Although the story is often cited to pooh-pooh scientific claims about climate change, it basically got some things right: ‘ “A major climatic change would force economic and social adjustments on a worldwide scale,” warns a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences,’  " Newsweek said.

It also noted that while some places were cooling down since the 1950s, “the average temperature around the equator has risen by a fraction of a degree – a fraction that in some areas can mean drought and desolation. Last April, in the most devastating outbreak of tornadoes ever recorded, 148 twisters killed more than 300 people and caused half a billion dollars’ worth of damage in 13 U.S. states.”

Climate change would have been just right then – and it is now. It covers not only the strange weather patterns we now have, but also developments like the massive flooding in parts of India last year and should keep skepticism at bay.

Meanwhile, after polling scientists, The Hindustan Times  reported Feb. 1, “The buzz in scientific circles is that summer 2008 will be miserably hot.”

It will be some change, all right!

You can find a discussion of these terms and more at:

http://www.exploratorium.edu/climate/index.html