Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Words Matter: call it "climate disruption" says John P. Holdren

(mt started the John P. Holdren bandwagon before I could write this post but I'm going to pile on..)

I first saw John P. Holdren speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival last year. I was very impressed by his savvy, big-picture take on the whole climate-energy problem. In particular, I like the phrase he is advocating: "climate disruption".

I'm not sure of the origins of "Global Warming" but it was in common usage among scientists when I entered the field in the early 90's. As Holdren said, "warming" sounds almost benign; like a balmy day on the beach. The big problem with this phrase is that it implies that it's all about temperature. Precipitation is actually a bigger thing to worry about. It also implies that its uniform ("global") when there will be large regional differences in response and only a warming in the global-average sense. The global average temperature is a good index for scientists to talk about with each other but not much good for policy planning.

(this paragraph corrected as suggested by the comments.)
"Climate change" is a phrase popularized by Republican pollster Frank Luntz who advised the Bush administration and Republicans everywhere to use it instead of "global warming". This phrase is incredibly wishy-washy: Its "change": Maybe up, maybe down, maybe no big deal! Personally, I've managed to make it an exact simile for "global warming" and so will sometimes use it but it should really be avoided by scientists when talking to the public.

Now "climate disruption" is much better. The general pattern of climate where you live, the extremes and patterns of precipitation, clouds, snowfall, storms and temperature, are going to be disrupted from their normal patterns. "Disruption" is an edgy, angry word that gets your attention. Its probably not benign. Let's all try to use it.

Another good phrasing that Holdren uses is our three options for dealing with climate disruption: adaptation, mitigation and suffering. We are already doing some of each and what's up for grabs is the future mix.

You can find video of Holdren's talk at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum and a pdf of his slides here.


Anonymous said...

Minor criticism- "climate change" was not invented by Luntz, although he did advocate its use instead of global warming, because he thought it sounded less dire than global warming and so recommended that the Bush administration use it instead so as not to worry the silly voters. You can read the memo in question here (PDF).

Climate change goes back at least to the Charney report, and I believe there is a Carl Sagan authored paper in Science or Nature using the phrase that goes back even earlier (maybe '73?).

Anyway, glad to see you posting more!

Unknown said...

Hi Things,

Thanks for catching that. I've update the paragraph about Luntz. And thanks for the encouragement.


Anonymous said...

I came up with "climate disruption" independently in the comments to this RealClimate guest post that mt put up a few years ago. I don't want to take too much credit since it's after all just the bleedin' obvious, but now that JH has been actively kicking the phrase around for a couple of years it is perhaps time to wonder why it hasn't gotten a speck of traction. The time would seem to be even more ripe given various recent results, in particular those of Hansen and co-authors.

I've been looking for a small organizing project to work on, and this may be it.

A few preliminary thoughts:

Maybe start with getting the new meme adopted by several of the major scientific organizations (AAAS, AGU, AMS, NAS if possible, just talking about the U.S. for now) followed by high-readership low-hanging fruit like the environmental press (total readership probably in the tens of millions), the science blogosphere and perhaps also the liberal blogosphere (DailyKos e.g.).

So what's needed? Two things that I can see: A manifesto with a bunch of big-name scientist signers and some market research showing that the change would actually accomplish something. One could start without the latter, but I think it's obvious that it would help grease things considerably. Perhaps there are some social scientists out there whose existing work bears on this to a degree.

The ScienceDebate2008 experience may provide a useful guide to organizing this, and of course some of them may be interested in this.

Here's an interesting bit of history; proof that grammar is the enemy of communication, to the extent we needed any. Even so, if JH still has the full list of signers it would come in very handy.

More later.

Anonymous said...

A question: "Global climate disruption" or just plain "climate disruption"?

Also, I notice that in JH's slide presentations he uses "climate change" in a number of places where "climate disruption" could have been used. He also uses "*climatic* disruption" in a few places. Consistency will be a struggle.

Unknown said...

Hi Steve,

Thanks for pointing out that bit of history from Woods Hole. Its dated 1997 but they must not have bushed the phrasing very hard.

"Climate disruption" is better then adding "global" I think since the disruptions will be different for different regions.