It doesn’t matter what we call “climate change”

Alex Lee recently wrote that “the term ‘climate change’ isn’t working anymore” because “most people don’t understand what the term climate means.” Generally, he argues, people confuse “climate” with “weather,” “climate” is too scientific of a term, and “climate change” doesn’t really reflect the “acute environmental crisis” people actually experience; we should stick with “global warming” because floods, hurricanes, higher temperatures, wildfires, and the like, are directly tied to heat. People will better connect with “global warming” because it’s easier to understand than the broader, more nuanced idea of “climate change.”

This is a fairly common hypothesis. Essentially, the argument is that people tend to not be science-literate enough to make the term “climate change” rhetorically effective; most people know too little about science or lack the capacity to assess scientific information necessary to get a firm grip on the real risks at hand. If we take it at face value, we essentially have two options: improve public science education, or play rhetorically to science illiteracy. It seems that Lee would have us do the latter.

In truth, however, this is a false choice based on a false hypothesis. Research from Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project, led by Dan Kahan, has empirically shown that science literacy doesn’t make people more likely to perceive the risks of climate change as serious. In fact, high levels of science literacy counter-intuitively deepen polarization. More nuanced understandings of climate science tend to make people who doubt the seriousness of its risks more likely to rationalize away perceived threats. Instead, it’s people’s pre-existing values, world views, and cultural commitments that explain how they perceive the risks of climate change, and improving science literacy usually makes those values-based positions more entrenched.

So, if we take the Cultural Cognition Project’s research seriously, improving public science education might actually make things worse—at least as far as “convincing” climate deniers goes. Moreover, if science illiteracy doesn’t actually explain political disagreement about climate change, there’s little reason to play to it rhetorically and re-wed ourselves to the term “global warming” over “climate change.”

This is not to say that terms don’t matter. They most certainly do. But to suppose that calling it “climate change,” “global warming,” “global weirding,” “the climate crisis,” or “global environmental change” makes all the difference is a red herring. It doesn’t seem to matter what we call climate change. People’s perceptions of the global socioecological crisis will only change as their worldviews change, and worldviews only change with first-hand, personal experience—like Harvey’s devastation in Houston, Florida’s bout with Irma, the American West’s ongoing wildfire, and Lee’s glacial bathtub ring.

Perhaps more important than the particular term we decide to use is consistency in terminologymaintaining a unified rhetorical front. When environmentalists, political activists, and climate scientists spend their discursive capital bickering over whether to call it climate change or something else, it gives political opponents ammunition to argue that the movement for improving global environmental policy lacks solidarity, which only further precludes progress.

As Lee notes, “words matter.” But the choice between either “climate change” or “global warming” isn’t going to be what moves the needle. Words matter, but what matters more is to what end we use them, and in-fighting about terms among environmentalists is about as useful as debating facts. It’s as if we’re on a sinking ship and we’re worried about whether to call the hole in the hull a “breach” or a “gash.” At the end of the day, we’re still sinking, time is limited, and either way we have to deploy the lifeboats or we’re all getting wet.

Ultimately, the debate over climate change isn’t a problem of terms, public scientific literacy, if the facts about climate change are “settled,” or if people “believe” in climate change or not. As Jim White argues, climate change isn’t a question of belief—the physics of climate change don’t care if we believe in them or not. The real climate controversy is one characterized by fundamental differences in values—the parameters of competing world views that are often incommensurable—and it’s mediating those conflicts in value that we should be talking about.

Cross-posted with the Committee on Environmental Thought (ComET) Blog: Environmental Thoughts

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