Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

‘Global warming’ or 'climate change'?

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 27 October 2016

At the beginning of "Perspective on Climate Change" I wrote (in 2015) as follows:

I have written a large number of essays on ‘Anthropogenic Global Warming’ (AGW) and its later sister ‘climate change’, a term which came into use in about 2004, when dedicated Climate Botherers could see that warming was refusing to rise as it had done, while carbon dioxide accumulations in the atmosphere were indeed rising as they had done.

A couple of commenters took exception to my statement that there had been a shift in the use of these terms at that time. On re-reading (and after the fuss) I agree that I might have expressed myself more precisely — perhaps to the effect that I felt there had been a greater use of the term ‘climate change’ from about that time. I had indeed noticed such a shift, as did others. But of course, as commenters said, ‘climate change’ was in the title of the IPCC, and had been used in some scientific papers even before the the establishment of that body.  I was pretty sure that I had come across a reference to the presumed cause of the change in usage, but I could not instantly find it. I said that I would return to the subject when I could locate it. That has taken me a few weeks, as I went through hundreds of essays looking for it, alas without finding exactly what I wanted.


The two terms still float around in discussion as though they were more or less synonymous. They’re not, of course, since ‘climate change’ has a much wider reference. Apparently Tacitus, the Roman historian, is the first person to have used the latter term, and he was writing in 114 AD. According to NASA, James Hansen is to be given the credit for the widespread use of ‘global warming’ after 1988.

[G]lobal warming became the dominant popular term in June 1988, when NASA scientist James E. Hansen had testified to Congress about climate, specifically referring to global warming. He said: “global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and the observed warming.” Hansen’s testimony was very widely reported in popular and business media, and after that popular use of the term global warming exploded.

Almost certainly, my reference in 2015 to the change from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ was connected to the discussion following a post by Judith Curry a year earlier, which you can read here. What is fascinating about her essay, going back to it now, is that it was arguing a reverse change — that by 2014 the use of ‘climate change’ seemed to have failed, and that the general discussion in the media and elsewhere, was returning to ‘global warming’. It was all based on a pair of public opinion polls, which suggested that people seemed to be more scared by ‘global warming’ than by ‘climate change’. The Guardian reported that:

Barack Obama, scientists and campaigners have all looked at how to engage Americans more powerfully on the environment. Now researchers have come up with one critical piece of advice: do say “global warming”, don’t say “climate change”. The science writer for Time put it this way rather earlier:  global warming generated more alarming associations, causing survey respondents to think of disasters like melting ice, coastal flooding and extreme weather, while “climate change” generated more banal associations with generation weather patterns.

Of course, that was ten years after the change that I had noted and referred to. The only link that I could find at about that time was,  paradoxically, the opposite of what I had remembered. Not only could I find no links that led me to originators of the change within the orthodoxy, but also the one link that was squarely on target had the Bush administration as the originator! The Guardian, which of course is never wrong about anything, was given a confidential memorandum from a consultant, Frank Luntz, to the Bush administration. The newspaper said that: 

The US Republican party is changing tactics on the environment, avoiding “frightening” phrases such as global warming, after a confidential party memo warned that it is the domestic issue on which George Bush is most vulnerable. The phrase “global warming” should be abandoned in favour of “climate change”, Mr Luntz says, and the party should describe its policies as “conservationist” instead of “environmentalist”, because “most people” think environmentalists are “extremists” who indulge in “some pretty bizarre behaviour… that turns off many voters”.


Yet, in my mind I saw (that is, I fancy that I saw) a link to a statement from somewhere in the orthodoxy to the effect that the debate should abandon ‘global warming’ and stick to ‘climate change’. Indeed, by 2014 my view was that this was widely accepted, at least in the blogosphere and the mainstream media, if only because SkepticalScience had devoted an essay to why there hadn’t been such a change. Perhaps I got it from this comment on Judith Curry’s essay:

Skiphil | June 1, 2014 at 2:51 pm |
It was all “global warming” until nature proved uncooperative with the hysterical meme…. so then “climate change” came into vogue because almost any event, cold or hot, stormy or calm, etc. could be recklessly lumped under “climate change”…. a category so broad and so consistent with all of the natural record that it proved itself…

Perhaps there was a bit of this one as well:

andywest2012 | June 1, 2014 at 3:22 pm |
The whole point about either the terms Global Warming or Climate Change is that they *both* achieved prominence because their narrative success trumped any veracity they might convey. Although (many) conscious minds contributed to their introduction, over so very many minds the process is not itself conscious. But the terms were never meant to contain any truth, if I can put it that way. The very fact that folks can consider reintroducing a term simply because it evokes (via emotion) more action… demonstrates the point.

Or this one:

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

This article was first published on Don Aitkin.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

43 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Don Aitkin

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Article Tools
Comment 43 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy