There has been a big failure in communicating climate change to the public, but we have to deal with it - before it deals with us
Global Warming is a misleading term because it actually sounds quite nice
What does the phrase anthropogenic forcing mean to you? Or a carbon bubble - would you be more likely to find one in your bath or in your pension fund? Is the greenhouse effect a better way to grow tomatoes? And what is the difference between global warming and climate change?
Understanding the language of climate science can feel like sitting an exam in an unfamiliar subject. For most scientific debates, the collision between the abstruse nature of expert discourse and our ordinary lives - a collision in which words are always the first casualty - does not matter too much. We can understand that smoking kills, even if we have not read the latest papers on how quickly a lung tumour metastasises compared with other cancers.
We know that obesity is bad for us, even if experts are still exploring the addictive properties of sugar.
Not so with climate change. The question of whether we think of fossil fuels in terms of
"global warming" or "climate calamity" (as some experts are calling it) goes to the heart of our response. Never has this been more in evidence, as the UN warns of using "weirdo
words" on the subject, and politicians from the Liberal Democrat Ed Davey to the Tory Caroline Spelman have said we should listen to the science, and that global warming is a misnomer. There has been a massive failure in how to communicate climate issues to the public.
Part of the problem is that global warming sounds quite nice. A couple of degrees hotter in
summer - we could be sitting out on our verandahs of an evening sipping Sauvignon Blanc from our own vineyards. Who wouldn't want that?
Global warming is both an entirely accurate term and utterly misleading. Current projections are for a rise of at least 2C by the end of the century, even if we take drastic action to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, and a rise of as much as 5C or 6C if we carry on as usual. That
may not sound a lot, but the difference in temperature between today and the last ice age was only about 5C; and the last time the UK was 5C warmer it was a swamp occupied by proto-hippos.
More importantly, the real effects of warming are not a gentle uniform increase in temperatures, but a move to far more extremes of weather. Meddling with the complex
systems that govern our weaather will bring disruption to the stability of climate has aided the rise of modern civilisations. Warmer air holds more moisture than colder air. This means that areas of the world that are currently wet will become much wetter, but those that are already prone to drought will get drier. In the UK, this will mean more storms and floods of the kind that have devastated the country in the past two months. we are just beginning to under-
stand that the melting of the Arctic ice cap may bring colder and wetter temperatures to Europe, even as they bring warmer weather to Greenland. Across the globe it will mean disruption to agriculture, a spread of disease and swaths of land becoming uninhabitable.
Key to this is the word "global" in global warming. The effects of the temperature rises will be felt across the world. Regions on continents as far apart as Australia and sub-Saharan Africa
that currently just about support agriculture will get warmer still, making living there next to impossible. People who live there won't just stay where they are to starve; they will move,
making global migration one of the most serious consequences of our climate meddling.
So here are a few exam questions. to make it easy, they're multiple choice:
Who do you think has got climate science right?
a) The vast majority of the world's experts who have produced ever more clear warnings on climate change for the past 20 years, based on physical evidence
b) The oil industry
c) The Tea Party
Who do you trust to tackle climate change?
a) Governments determined to squeeze the last few drops of economic advantage from their remaining fossil fuel reserves
b) The oil industry
c) Corporate advisers to the tobacco companies, drafted in to put a positive spin on this because they've been through it all before
By now you will have realised that this exam is a sham. The truth is we don't have multiple choices on climate change. We have one choice: we deal with it, or it deals with us. It is the one question we must answer correctly.
1 anthropogenic forcing - input into the earth's climate caused by humans
1 carbon bubble - the idea that fossil fuel companies are overvalued in the stock market
9 metastasise - spread to other parts of the body
20 Sauvignon Blanc - type of white wine
27 proto-hippos - ancestors of the hippos which lived 15 million years ago
48 Tea Party - a political movement within the Republican Party
Aus: Fiona Harvey, "Global warming is a misleading term because it actually sounds quite nice",
in: The Guardian, 07.03.2014