NPR logo Global Warming vs. Climate Change: Does It Make a Difference?

On Language

Global Warming vs. Climate Change: Does It Make a Difference?

Man thinks about climate change.
Man thinks about climate change.

Kirk Palmer from San Francisco, CA, believes NPR is sounding more and more like a George Orwell novel:

I am a regular listener to NPR, and it seems to me that the network has systematically started saying "climate change" instead of "global warming." ....If I am wrong in this observation, I am sorry. If I am right, then I wish to complain that this is perilously close to Orwellian newspeak.

The earth is about 5 billion years old. Its climate has been changing continuously for that length of time. However, only for the last 100 years has it been getting dramatically warmer because of human actions. "Climate change" is a given; and not necessarily something we can—or morally ought to—worry about. "Global warming" on the other hand is a man-made disaster that needs to be aggressively mitigated.

Please re-consider the words you use to describe this crisis. The public in the US is, alas, not very well informed about science. So, the media needs to be extra thoughtful in reporting science-related issues to ensure clarity of meaning.

In the past 12 months, NPR's programming used "global warming" in 131 reports, which was indeed less than the 175 reports that referred to "climate change." Ten years ago, the order was reversed. "Global warming" made 172 reports then, more than twice the 80 on "climate change." The numbers prove both terms are still in use, but Palmer's onto something: "climate change" is increasingly prevalent.

The shift, however, is far from Orwellian. As Richard Harris, NPR's leading climate correspondent, explains:

We use both "climate change" and "global warming" interchangeably.

The term scientists prefer is actually "climate change," because that encompasses effects other than warming, such as changes in rainfall patterns, melting glaciers and rising sea levels. There are several scholarly journals using the term "climate change," such as Nature Climate Change and Climatic Change and the International Journal of Climate Change. The 1992 treaty that governs global warming is called the "Framework Convention on Climate Change."

Global warming is a familiar term, so we feel justified in using it as a more concrete, but less complete, expression of the phenomenon.

There is some interesting lore around the term "climate change." Republican pollster Frank Luntz is credited with encouraging politicians to use the term "climate change" rather than "global warming" because it seemed more benign. However, I heard Luntz discuss this a few years ago, and he said the public reacts equally to "climate change" and "global warming," so using one term or the other doesn't constitute spin.

Eric Pooley, a former managing editor of Fortune and now a senior vice president for strategy and communications at the Environmental Defense Fund, wrote an entire book, The Climate War, on the political fight and media coverage of the phenomena. Pooley and I were Shorenstein Fellows in the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School together. I asked for his assessment and he responded:

Global warming was adopted early and became common parlance, and it is accurate — the earth is indeed warming. But climate scientists always knew it was too narrow a term to encompass all aspects of what John Holdren prefers to call 'global climate disruption,' so climate change is a broader term, encompassing changes in the hydrologic cycle and other manifestations.

The world is not just getting generally warmer, in other words, but climate is getting more extreme, with big temperature swings and more hurricanes and the like. This growing instability even includes, within the general warming pattern, record cold drops and snowstorms for short periods at a time. Some people want to point to the cold spells as evidence against "global warming," but they are part and parcel of the trend.

The science, moreover, is pretty well confirmed that we humans have contributed to it. Not everyone accepts this, but the emphasis by NPR reporters has to be on the overwhelming scientific consensus.

What reporters cannot do is take the next step and assume what the best policy response should be. This is something for all of us to decide on our own, and collectively as a nation.

Use of the term "climate change" does not prescribe any action, or encourage any inaction, and so is correct to use.


Read a more technical definition of the two terms by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.