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Climate change science: what’s in a name?

Posted on 3 July 2013 by gpwayne

"...(language) becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

George Orwell

When it comes to communicating with the public, professionals of all stripes will try to make arcane things simpler, but there are pitfalls, and the unwary often find themselves freefalling into a hole they’ve dug for themselves. Climate change science is no different; the terminology is arcane precisely because it needs to be incredibly specific, and about things that can be as hard to understand, inextricably woven as they are into a dense, complex fabric that covers so much work across so many disciplines.

Scientists employ metaphors, analogies and concepts drawn from everyday life; we all like a good shortcut, a bit of brevity, and scientists are no different. This isn’t a problem within the trade, because it’s a given that everyone knows what you mean; in any case, scientists have an abiding interest in understanding each other, not the least reason being that so much work in scientific disciplines depends on adjacent work done by others.

Where it can be a problem is when it becomes important for the general public to understand enough science for them to appreciate, support and even contribute to a problem that science has identified. In the case of climate change, for example, the public cannot be motivated to systematically reduce their carbon footprint without understanding why they are being asked to do so. Since science is making the demand, albeit by inference, science must also offer that explanation.

To reach the public, we have to create simple messages, distilled out of climate sensitivity, radiative forcing, absorption frequencies, negative mass balance and the like; it’s no wonder we end up with ambiguous terms like global warming, that we talk about 'heat'. Trouble is, this ambiguity also causes all manner of misunderstandings.

******

Coining the term ‘global warming’ is often credited to Wallace Broecker, who in 1975 published a paper called “Climate Change: Are we on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” In later years, the media picked up the term and employed it widely, which gave rise to expectations as understandable as they are inappropriate.

When we talk about global warming, the public expect exactly that: everywhere will get warmer. They also expect the warming to be taking place at the surface, in the atmosphere, without taking into account that the oceans cover 70% of the Earth's surface - and that's where 90% of the heat is going. Of course, as we all know, the weather is pretty capricious at the best of times; another problem when we talk about 'warming' is that local effects can be the opposite: when cold arctic air moves south, the Northern Hemisphere can get colder, while warmer air from the south may move northwards, causing the ice to melt - and now we've got warming and cooling at the same time.

Terminology can lead to misunderstanding: after decades talking about global warming, we should not be surprised by scathingly sceptical comments when people suffer bouts of freezing weather, or endure precious holidays shivering in their coats while staring at bleak sand reaching out to an unremittingly cold, grey, stormy sea.

Expecting warming alone is the product of misunderstanding, but a blameless one; the media know an appealing concept when they see one. It is also accurate in a strict scientific sense, because the energy being re-radiated by greenhouse gases is in the bands of radiation we refer to as long-wave, or infra-red. It is also referred to as 'heat' - but that's another word that gives rise to expectations that the evidence doesn't appear to support.

*

The catalyst for this article is an oft-repeated, but paradoxical claim: that temperatures have been flat for the same period that the Arctic ice has been melting faster, to a greater extent, and recovering less, every year. After all, the rate with which ice melts cannot be independent of temperature. Surely to claim otherwise is an obvious, and really basic error?

Maybe not so obvious. To the public it can appear that there is less warming, because the rate of temperature increase at the Earth’s surface has slowed down in the last decade. Various things have affected the surface temperature  - oceanic cycles, for example – but this is less than obvious to the public at large. Even less obvious is this: most of the long-wave radiation reflected back to Earth by greenhouse gases is currently being absorbed as heat and stored in the deep oceans.

There’s also another place where the heat is going. To explain it we can use a different term – one that really cuts to the heart of so many global warming manifestations, referring to  energy rather than warming. I’ve started using this term more frequently because sometimes it seems to be a less ambiguous way of talking about the effects of climate change.

Global warming appears to be disrupting global weather patterns. While it isn’t possible to attribute a direct causal relationship between climate change and any specific weather event, it is also impossible for global warming not to contribute in one, very specific, way.

Weather is primarily a system of energy imbalances, areas of high pressure and low pressure constantly seeking, but failing to find, equilibrium. Global warming adds additional energy to the system. That extra energy, now available to the climate, will inevitably pop up somewhere, affect something, and the effect is to change what we’re used to – the frequency of events, the routines, the strength or duration; all these destabilising effects occur because there is now more energy available in the climate system.

Of course, with climate being a chaotic system, we can’t make specific predictions about how or when these changes will occur, any more than we can determine the exact contribution of anthropogenic climate change to climate events that used to be driven by natural variation alone. What we can assert with confidence is that changes will occur.

*

It is actually impossible for global warming not to contribute energy, and the amount of energy is increasing all the time. The same laws of physics that applied last century apply now: greenhouse gases caused more energy to be retained in the atmosphere before the year 2000, and they must be re-radiating energy now, for their properties do not change over time. Not only that, but there’s more CO2 now than ever  - we’ve just crossed the 400ppm boundary, up from pre-industrial levels of around 280ppm, so the amount of additional energy is greater than ever, and increasing by small amounts every day. It’s just that this energy doesn’t always show itself as surface warming. Consequently, it’s also where too much misunderstanding occurs.

Energy is a good term to employ because for lay people it encompasses the destabilising effects in a clear way, a way the public can relate to. Talking about 'energy' makes people think about climate change differently. It isn’t that any one description is better than another; it’s more like getting people to walk round a sculpture to see it from a different angle, to gain another perspective. Talking about energy and melting ice, about energy and storms, about energy and weather, seems to evoke an understanding that puts the effects of climate change on a par with other experiences in our daily lives.

I’m cautious about introducing novel terms, because it can be counter-productive, making things even more confusing despite good intentions. However, when it comes to talking about climate change, using the term ‘energy’ seems to have bridged a gap between science and public discourse without introducing expectations and contradictions that later confuse and confound. 

Heat and warming have their place in the lay-person’s lexicon of climate change; perhaps energy too has a legitimate place?

 

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Comments

Comments 1 to 16:

  1. I've said it before and I say it again: that one phrase I'd like to see above all other nice&true facts and figures is "AGW".


    Global: it's NOT about weather, it's not about your hometown or the hometowns of your beloved ones, it's not about your country or continent - it's about the whole blue Marble. Go see a nice picture of it - there are legions out there.


    Warming: it's NOT about models that you can endlessly quibble about, it's not about plant food, it's not about more greening in the north or deep south. It's about measuring of temperatures just everywhere and finding one clear trend: upwards - hence warming.

    Anthropogenic caused: it's not about your or mine moral guiltyness, it's not about your nice car and house, it's not about your really perfect energy consuming footprint. It's about keeping warm little fires burning by 7 Billion of you and me.


    And the one figure I'd like to see is

    Shakun/Marcott Wheelchair


    but without any model projection.


    The title should be: Rise of Man

    There should be two points in it with a legend: one before the rise named "1 Billion of you and me" and the second at the momentary end of the measured data points named "You and me and the other 7 Billion are here!"

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  2. "To the public it can appear that there is less warming, because the rate of temperature increase at the Earth’s surface has slowed down in the last decade."

    According to the World Meteorolgical Organization, "The decadal rate of increase in the global temperature accelerated between 1971 and 2010. The global temperature increased at an average estimated rate of 0.17°C per decade during that period, compared with 0.062°C per decade for the entire 1880-2010 period. The average 2001-2010 decadal temperature was 0.21°C warmer than 1991–2000, which in turn was +0.14°C warmer than 1981-1990."

    WMO Press Release 3 July 2013

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    Moderator Response:

    Sure, but sceptics look at short term data, preferably picking a really hot outlier like 1998 as the baseline. The Escalator shows the how the trick works...but anyway:

    "The planet has continued to accumulate heat since 1998 - global warming is still happening. Nevertheless, surface temperatures show much internal variability due to heat exchange between the ocean and atmosphere. 1998 was an unusually hot year due to a strong El Nino."

    What has global warming done since 1998?

  3. Contrarian cries that us alarmists are trying to change "global warming" to a new name in 1, 2, 3...

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  4. Using the word 'energy' instead of 'heat':  Yes, the tradeoff between energy not being as salient as heat (to the layman) and heat not really capturing the meaning correctly is most often worth it.

     

    I also agree that a fair percentage of the contrarian arguments I see are a result of the person believing that the simple explanation implies something it does not.  Possibly they are motivated to find flaws with the explanation and so interpret an ambiguous, simple explanation in the least favorable way.

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  5. Some short answers and talking points that could be understood at a High School level:

    In order to explain the difference between Global Warming and Climate Change we can say:

    "Global Warming is the cause, Climate Change is the result."

    In order to give the shortest answer possible to the issue of our erratic weather we can say: 

    "The Earth is 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit higher than before while the Arctic is 3-5F and up to 10-18F above normal at certain times and places. This creates a chain reaction of events that give us cold winters and hot summers. However the heat records exceed the cold records."

    In order to grab people's attention to the results of Global Warming we can say:

    "When the Arctic Ocean loses its ice we start to lose our crops due to severe weather."

    In order to explain the leveling off of temperatures we can say:

    "Temperatures rose in 1978 and then leveled off followed by another rise in 1998 which also leveled off even though the sun started cooling off in 2002 and went low in 2010. Now that the sun is getting back up to normal we're going to get even higher temperatures."

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  6. I often explain it thusly:

    "'Global warming' refers to temperature increase, but climate is much more than temperature.  It's also wind, rain, snow, ocean currents, etc.  Climate change is change in all of those elements as a result of increased temperature. It's not that everything stays the same but gets hotter.  Everything changes--it gets hotter, winds change, the jet stream changes, precipitation changes, ocean currents change: climate changes." 

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  7. What I often feel is missing from the terms is the effect beside climate change. There is no doubt the chance of a major "biosphere change" - not not only climate. I believe many people dont consider a bit more wind in their hair now and then a problem - but if the heat and acidification of the seas kill of a lot of oxygen producing phythoplankton then that might grab the attention. The focus on weather incidents is of course natural, but I do believe the general biological effect a warmer planet has on life in all forms is one of more concern.

    I like to think if it like, there is a different between a major storm on a lifeless planet, and one on earth - we still have life here, but shouldnt take that for granted if the planet gets excessively hot in the coming centuries. Life is fragile, and climate change is just one of the things that will affect a global warming planet. I think AGW coins the term better than any as its warming (and all of its consequences, weather and biological), AND its caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

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  8. Wonderful observation. I am not use to the term "Energy" yet but it seems to gets at something that needs to be made clear at each step of any discussion. Greater "energy" will affect every weather event. It seems too much emphasis it put on saying any event is not the direct result of climate change. That is incorrect, I don't really know what people mean when they say that. It seems to mean that climate change is supposed to create different weather phenomenon, as in "bad" things. What must be the case is that energy always effects every weather event. I wish there was a way for teachers of weather reporters and reporters in general could make this understanding clear, so that they can disseminate it accordingly. Excellent  perception, thanks.

    As to preventing determined miss-information industry from misusing the term: maybe, but a liar can always figure a way to twist the mind in perverse ways.

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  9. I’m cautious about introducing novel terms, because it can be counter-productive, making things even more confusing despite good intentions.

    In light of this remark, is the use of the term "Climate Change Science" a deliberate departure from the more traditional and common term "Climate Science"?  If so, could you please illustrate the distinction? 

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  10. I suggest not messing around with the basic phrase in the terminology because Anthropogenic Global Warming is complete enough and accurate enough. The issue is in explaining clearly what happens, has happened, will happen. Messing around with phrases at some point becomes treating other people like children (or, even worse, like consumers). Adopt supplemental detail phrases if necessary and provided they are clear, correct & concise. If you can make a case that significant potential energy or kinetic energy increase has occurred then maybe. I gave it a quick rough shot with sea level rise & more water in air (potential) and tried to find ocean current info (kinetic) but it's negligible. So why "energy" ? Pedantic nonsense.

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  11. Johncl @7

    "What I often feel is missing from the terms is the effect beside climate change. There is no doubt the chance of a major "biosphere change" - not not only climate. I believe many people dont consider a bit more wind in their hair now and then a problem".

    Unfortunately the general public will consider the term "biosphere change" as too abstract and scientific sounding. Also, most people are inured to hearing words like environment and nature.

    The only way to get their attention is to mention the destructive effect of global warming on crops and food prices. That is the only "nature" that most of the general public will be concerned about.

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  12. What's missing from the OP and the discussion thread to date is a basic understanding of how climate scientists define the Earth's "climate system."

    Per the SkS Glosary and the IPCC, "climate system" is defined to be:


    The climate system is the highly complex system consisting of five major components: the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the cryosphere, the land surface and the biosphere, and the interactions between them. The climate system evolves in time under the influence of its own internal dynamics and because of external forcings such as volcanic eruptions, solar variations and anthropogenic forcings such as the changing composition of the atmosphere and land use change.


    Definition courtesy of IPCC AR4.

    The above is a working definition that we all should adhere to. 

     

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  13. I especially like this post.  The comments remind me that I would like to read more about why we have not entered the cooling part of this glacial/interglacial cycle yet.  There has been so much written on why the warming.  That's important, don't get me wrong, but it may also help to identify the factors that in the past triggered a cooling trend.  I won't play completely ignorant as I have studied the Berger insolation data and have formed my own opinion.  However, I am not a professional and have no standing so would like to hear professionals explain when we might look forward to the trip toward another ice age. What do you think?

     

    Best wishes, Sky

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  14. skymccain - "...why we have not entered the cooling part of this glacial/interglacial cycle yet."

    We were starting the cooling portion of this cycle, with Holocene temperatures starting to decline, until the Industrial Revolution. Now, apparently, Milankovitch cycle cooling is off the table for many thousands of years. 

    Holocene temperatures

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  15. Thank you KR.

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  16. I do believe the next glacial period is estimated to be around 50000 years from now if the natural forcings (Milankovitch cycles) are the main driver. The question remains though whether the new state of the biosphere with a substantial higher CO2 concentration (so far 40% over what it should be) will even allow the planet to cool down enough for serious glaciation. Most likely it will cool down though as the tilt surely must have a substantial effect on the amount of energy absorbed (but I am really only guessing here). Our CO2 emissions will most likely not go down much in the coming decades and every year really reduces the chance for these natural forcings to overcome the artificial injection of insulation in the atmosphere. But they will still come "on top", including the weather patterns, so I wonder how the next major El Niño will affect us. No doubt another round of high scores.

    About the terms, I still think AGW is the correct term as its our deliberate warming of the planet which is of essence here, climate change is just one effect of this. And as villabolo say here the effect it has on food production is probably the immediate one we will notice, partially also because there are so many of us on the planet now. Add a bit of energy crisis due to oil shortage and the "green revolution" goes *poof*, and we are back to being more relient on whatever energy the soil and the sun gives our crops. Some freak weather incidents on top (due to e.g. a messed up jetstream) will then add the little extra challenge. I say we live in interesting times...

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