How the meaning of words affects the climate debate

Scrolling through his smartphone outside the University of Miami’s School of Engineering, Kevin Boutsen made a confession.

“I don’t know what global warming means and what it entails,” the mechanical engineering student said. “So I’d rather say climate change if I’m talking about that topic.”

According to a study done at Yale University in 2010, 63 percent of Americans know what global warming is but many don’t understand why it occurs.

And 90 percent of Americans said they were not well-informed about the term “climate change.”

“Global Warming is the word I use the most because that’s the word most people around me use,” said Christopher Reddick, a junior at UM majoring in computer science. “I know there is a difference, but I don’t know exactly what is the difference between the two.”

Virginia Key: Mangroves from Trevor Green on Vimeo.

Climate change results from an increase of gases in the atmosphere, which can cause extreme weather events. Global warming, a feature of climate change, is the recent increase in temperature caused by those gases.

People prefer one of the two terms for different reasons, said Kevin E. Trenberth, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

“Clearly the deniers of climate change prefer a more neutral term,” Trenberth said. “Scientists in general probably prefer the term climate change as they are involved in all aspects of the variability and changes going on.”

Trenberth said global warming can also be effective for public use because of the urgency associated with it.

One reason global warming and climate change cause confusion is that global warming is seen as unnatural and man-made, while climate change is seen as a regular occurrence because weather is always changing.

However, Trenberth said that scientific studies have proven that not only is global warming man-made, but climate change is, too.

In fact, most Americans are four times more likely to hear global warming in everyday conversation, while climate change is used more often in the scientific community, according to a Yale Project on Climate Change Communication’s article, “What’s in a Name? Global Warming vs. Climate Change.”

Confusion of environmental terms also plays a role in politics. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., even misrepresented the terms.

In a speech before the Senate in February 2015, he produced a snowball as evidence to prove that temperatures were not increasing. Inhofe, author of “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future,” said that Washington’s unusual cold spell disproved global warming, despite scientists’ proof that this type of weather was actually an effect of climate change.

“It would be hard to find an influential political figure in other countries, even a minor one, who could produce anything like the statements of James Inhofe,” said MIT linguist Noam Chomsky.

While confusion exists about environmental terms, Chomsky warned of bigger problems, namely that the term climate change is undermining the severity of global warming.

“The real issues are not terminological: rather, substantive, and of crucial importance,” Chomsky said.

“Energy corporations and right-wing organizations are pouring huge resources into denying the facts, and it is having some effect in the United States, rarely elsewhere.”