Rarely have we seen such a confluence of politics, science, and language as we do on the issue of climate change. Politics and science meet there, of course. But why language? Well, for one thing, we don’t even call the phenomenon what we used to.
It’s no accident that the term “climate change” has largely replaced “global warming” in political speeches and the media. “Global warming” wasn’t a good way to get people concerned about humanity’s effects on the planet, for several reasons.
First, “global warming” suggests that there’s a warming effect taking place uniformly around the globe, and it’s obvious that’s not the case. Second, warming per se doesn’t remotely convey the breadth of the changes the Earth is starting to undergo. And third, “warm” has generally positive connotations: “It warms my heart.” “Happiness is a warm puppy.” “You’re getting warmer!”
One reason scientists substituted the term “climate change” is that it’s more general. The climate is changing in different ways in different regions as part of a widespread and extremely complex process.
But “change” may be too general, in another sense, because it’s a neutral term. Change can be bad or good, or neither. In politics, conservatives have (traditionally, anyway) advocated “conserving” a perceived status quo, change being seen as bad. Liberals today want to be called “progressives” because they press for progress – in other words, change, seen as good.
Often, “good” is an assumed attribute of change. Didn’t Barack Obama win the presidency on a platform of “hope and change?” Wasn’t “change” a watchword of the 1960s counterculture and racial justice movements, with Sam Cooke singing “A Change Is Gonna Come” and Bob Dylan weaving an anthem for a generation around “The Times They Are A-Changin’?”
Partly for that reason, several scientists have pushed to replace “climate change” with what they believe is a still better term. Beginning in 2007 and most recently in the spring of 2014, White House science adviser John Holdren has called for shoving “climate change” into the dustbin and breaking out “global climate disruption.”
This past March, research meteorologist Doug Sisterson of the Argonne National Laboratory joined the cause, telling an audience that “maybe the better way to characterize what’s happening with these extreme weather events is to think of it as climate disruption. Maybe it more accurately represents the journey we are about to be embarking upon…Because it’s complicated.”
No doubt Sisterson is right about that. There’s one potential problem with “disruption,” though. While the word has traditionally connoted problems, chaos, and the resulting distress, in recent times business marketers have turned it into a buzzword for new ideas and creative change, as I noted in my last column.
Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker last year: “Ever since The Innovator’s Dilemma [a 1997 book by Disruptive Growth Fund – note the name! – founder Clayton M. Christensen], everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted. There are disruption consultants, disruption conferences, and disruption seminars. This fall, the University of Southern California is opening a new program: ‘The degree is in disruption,’ the university announced.”
Maybe our scientists will have to go back to the drawing board and come up with some even more “disruptive” language to signify the worldwide changes of the Anthropocene Era. “Climate chaos,” anyone?