'Crisis'? 'Change'?—War of the Words

What is the most pressing environmental issue we face today? "Global warming"? The "greenhouse effect"? At the Oscar ceremonies, Al Gore referred to a "climate crisis," but in his State of the Union address President Bush chose the comparatively anodyne phrase "climate change." They all refer to the same thing, but the first rule of modern political discourse is that before addressing any empirical problem each side must "frame the debate" in the most favorable way. If you doubt it, just try to get a Republican to utter the phrase "estate tax" rather than "death tax." Behind the overt campaign to head off whatever it is—environmental heating? thermal catastrophe?—is a covert struggle over what we should even call it.

In recent years this has played out largely as a contest between "global warming" and "climate change." Bush's use of the latter was consistent with Republican practice, which calls for de-emphasizing the urgency of the situation, as recommended in a 2002 memo by strategist Frank Luntz. Unlike the "catastrophic" connotations of global warming, Luntz wrote, "climate change sounds a more controllable and less emotional challenge." So should activists favor "global warming"? Well, not necessarily. Richard C.J. Somerville, a leading researcher on—um, worldwide calorification?—at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, thinks "global warming" is problematic because it puts the focus on worldwide average temperature, rather than the more serious regional dangers of storms, floods and drought. More pointedly, a leading Democratic strategist, Celinda Lake, actually endorsed "climate change" in 2004 on the grounds that "global warming" only works for half the year. "Every time we'd use the term in the winter, people would say, 'It doesn't feel that warm to me'," she said. (For the record, she now believes the issue has penetrated the public's awareness to the point where it doesn't matter much what it's called.) Similarly, it's been suggested that Americans have been slower than Europeans to grasp the magnitude of the impending disaster because they think of temperature in Fahrenheit, while scientists—and most of the rest of the world—use the Celsius scale, on which the numbers are smaller. A predicted temperature rise of, say, 3 degrees Celsius sounds less alarming than the equivalent swing of 5.4 degrees in the units most Americans are familiar with.

In any case, "global warming" seems to have won out over its rivals, if one can judge by The New York Times, where for each of the last three years "global warming" has outpaced references to "climate change" by almost exactly two to one—or an even bigger margin if you throw out articles that are actually about changes in the economic or cultural climate. Both of these phrases have triumphed over "greenhouse effect," which was the most common term in the early 1980s, when the phenomenon of—atmospheric pyrogenesis?—first came to public attention. Arguably, if your goal is to affect public attitudes and policies, "greenhouse effect," which refers to the buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, puts the emphasis in the wrong place, on the mechanism rather than the outcome. George Lakoff, the Berkeley professor of linguistics and cognitive science, is a strong backer of the dark horse "climate crisis," which is also favored by Gore (along with the rather more cumbersome term he used in his congressional testimony last month, "planetary emergency"). "'Climate change' doesn't suggest immediate action," says Lakoff. "'Climate crisis' says immediate action needed. The framing is not just a matter of labels, it's modes of thought. In Europe they use 'climate chaos'."

So that ought to settle it, except, of course, that this is a kind of crisis for which neither human experience nor language has quite prepared us: a slow-motion crisis, requiring heroic action now to head off disaster decades down the road. Somerville was on the losing side of a public debate last month in New York, sponsored by Intelligence Squared U.S., and he believes he lost in part because the proposition was framed as "Global Warming Is Not a Crisis." The other side, which included the novelist and, uh, meteorological-calamity skeptic Michael Crichton, was able to convince a narrow majority of the audience that "crisis" is the wrong term for whatever it is humanity is dealing with. "I don't like words that leave me vulnerable to charges of being alarmist," says Somerville. "Using crisis conveys the notion this is hopeless. But there's a lot that can be done about this. I'm still looking for the right words to describe what's happening, but it's not keeping me from trying to stop it."