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The language of global warming

Michael Glantz considers the importance of word-use in defining the significance of global warming.

The author is Senior Scientist with the Environmental and Societal Impacts Group at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, USA.

Is global warming a problem?

The answer to this question is a resounding... maybe. The reason I say maybe is that the debate over global warming is a mix of solid scientific facts and subjective interpretations of those facts. Aside from the uncertainties in the scientific information on the physical aspects of global warming, there is considerable “wiggle room” for a wide range of subjective interpretations of the science and the implications of its uncertainties.

During conferences, in the hallowed halls of the United States Congress, in the media, and, increasingly, around the dinner table, people are discussing whether global warming IS a problem and, if so, is it a problem societies can cope with either through prevention or adaptation? The outcome of much of this discussion becomes centred on what the meaning of the word “is” is.

The following paragraphs are responses to questions often raised by one group or another, either to clarify or to undermine the various opposing views on global warming of the atmosphere and the role, if any, of human activities in that warming trend.

Is global warming happening, as we speak?

It appears that all observers agree that the global climate has warmed up in the past few decades. However, some argue that the warming began with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, in the early 1800s, and continues today. They agree that there have been ups and downs in the trends of global average temperature, but those fluctuations do not undermine the basic tenet that the global climate is warmer today than in past decades. Others (the “nay-sayers” or non-believers in climate change) agree that there is a warming trend over the past few decades but that the variability of recent global climate falls within the range that might be expected from the behaviour of “normal” climatic conditions over longer periods of time, such as centuries. Thus, they downplay the view that human activities are affecting global climate.

Is the scientific information in hand today strong enough to prompt societies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

There is still considerable uncertainty in the science of climate change and its potential impacts on societies and ecosystems. Whether what is known is enough to prompt action by governments, different sectors of society, or individuals will likely depend on whether the decision makers are either risk-takers or risk-averse. Some will argue that it would be more prudent to be safe than sorry and will thus try to prevent the continued build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The opposing view, held by those who are willing to take the risk for themselves (while making the risk for others), demands more certainty in the science. Deep down, they feel that in the event their view turns out to have been wrong, technologies can be developed to get rid of or at least control the problem (that is, the technological fix).

Is human activity involved in the global warming trend of the past century and a half?

There is convincing and mounting evidence that human activities related to industrial processes and deforestation are altering the global climate. It has been shown that human activities can alter climate on a local and regional scale. Why not on the global scale as well? The nay-sayers cannot accept that there might be such a potent human influence on the atmosphere. They argue that the fingerprint of human activity is non-existent and that what we are seeing is a natural variation in global temperatures. They argue that the global climate, since the end of the 18th century, has been rebounding from the “Little Ice Age,” which lasted from the 1500s to the 1800s.

Is any country really committed to dealing with national greenhouse gas reductions, even in the absence of other countries doing so?

There is considerable discussion about the responsibilities of nations to reduce their output of greenhouse gases. While some governments agree that there must be cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, others oppose such cuts as unwarranted for a variety of political, economic, or ideological reasons. Some governments have taken the lead on the reduction issue by calling on all governments to lower their greenhouse gas emissions. However, it seems that there is more discussion thus far than action. There are proposals to trade permits among countries, permits that allow those who can afford it to buy up the unused permits from other countries. But is this a fair solution? Or, is it a case of the rich countries buying away from the developing countries their legal right to pollute the global atmosphere with increasing amounts of greenhouse gases?

Are climate extremes and other climate-related anomalies reliably connected to global warming?

Speculation abounds about the impacts on the frequency, intensity, duration and location of climate extremes and climate-related impacts of greenhouse gases. However, the attribution of cause and effect with regard to global warming remains a difficult issue that merits much more attention than it has been getting from the climate research community. The media, the general public, policy makers, and even scientists have been rather lax in what climate-related impacts they attribute to human-induced global warming of the atmosphere.

Is global warming the type of creeping environmental problem that can be met with graduated societal responses?

One could argue that global warming is a creeping environmental change. “Creeping” means it is an incremental change that is only marginally detectable from one year to the next. Today’s atmospheric content of greenhouse gases is not much different from yesterday’s. Tomorrow’s is not much different than today’s. However, in a few years, those incremental changes will have added up to a major environmental change.

Often, by the time those changes have combined, the environmental change will have turned into an environmental crisis. In this regard, global warming is similar to other creeping environmental changes such as air pollution, acid rain, ozone depletion, soil erosion, deforestation, and so forth.

Unfortunately, graduated societal responses to slowly compounding environmental changes may not resolve the problem. Dealing with such problems requires getting ahead of them; leap-frogging over the near future to gain a glimpse of how the creeping changes will likely evolve in the future, given no attempts to arrest them. One might then be able to see that there is a need to respond more quickly and effectively in bringing an end to a seemingly unimportant creeping environmental change.

Who is responsible for our current predicament, IF global warming is agreed to by all as happening as a result of greenhouse gas emissions due to human activities?

Global warming scientists contend that the industrialized countries are responsible for the large increases in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. They also contend that the developing countries will become the dominant emitters of greenhouse gases in the future as a result of their development activities, including the increased burning of fossil fuels, increased tropical deforestation, and, in general, an increase in affluence.

Industrialized countries argue that all countries should seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, since all countries are likely to suffer the impacts of global warming. A change in the status quo of the global climate system is viewed as a bad thing, something we must all work to avoid. They call on all nations to join in the sacrifice for the betterment of future generations.

For their part, developing country representatives argue that it is the rich, industrialized nations that saturated the atmosphere with a critical amount of greenhouse gases in the first place and, therefore, it is up to them to resolve the problem. They can choose either to drastically cut back their own emissions or provide clean energy technology to developing countries, most of which do not have the means to buy it.

The problem with the issue of who is causing the “human-induced” global warming of the atmosphere is that the answer also identifies who has the first, if not primary, responsibility to resolve the problem.

“What a difference a word makes ... “is

“What a difference a word makes” is a sentiment that underscores the importance of the meaning of the word “is.” “Is” can be interpreted to imply various, sometimes conflicting, meanings, even though its use to many might seem quite clear, unambiguous, and straightforward. This is as true when debating environmental issues as it is when discussing politics.

So, is global warming a problem?

This is a seemingly straightforward question. But perhaps the question should be: Is global warming a problem... for whom? For present generations or future ones? Is it a problem today or in the near future? Is it a problem that can be dealt with? That will depend not only on the ways that are available to governments and people to act but also on their will to act in response to this environmental change.

Further information

Michael Glantz, Environmental and Societal Impacts Group, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Box 3000, Boulder, CO 80307, USA. Fax: 1-303-4978125. Email: Web:

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