Why are they calling it 'climate change' now?


A common argument from those who don't believe in man-made climate change goes like this: A few years ago, everyone was calling it "global warming." Now they're calling it "climate change." What gives?

Some doubters smell conspiracy lurking in this semantic shift. Asserting that global temperatures peaked in 1998 and are now falling – an assertion that is completely bogus, but whatever – they claim that environmentalists have sensed that the jig is up. Unable to continue calling it "global warming" in the face of pesky facts, the argument goes, the greenies started calling it "climate change" and hoped nobody would notice.

Is that how it really went down? If the enviros aren't trying to pull a fast one, then why did they suddenly start using a different term to describe the same phenomena?

They didn't. "Climate change" predates "global warming" by many years. "Global warming" came into vogue beginning in the 1980s, temporarily eclipsing the older term. But people have been using the phrase "climate change" all along. After all, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is 20 years old.

But let's go way back to Nov. 3, 1916, courtesy of Google News's archive search, where we'll see a story in the Hartford (Conn.) Courant headlined, "Fossil Rocks in Canada Studied." The subhead under the headline reads, in part, "Measurement of Ice Flow Shows Climate Change."

That story talks about prehistoric climatic shifts, though. The earliest stories about human-caused climate change that use the term start to show up in Google's archives in the 1930s. Here's one from 1937, by the Los Angeles' Times's William S. Barton, headlined "Is the Earth Changing its Face," with a summary that reads "Scientists are wondering in all seriousness if they can discover how to control the earth's climate before the next scheduled Ice Age grinds civilization to bits beneath ten-mile-high glaciers!" Looks like we've made some progress on this front.

Here's another one from 1952, also by the Times's Mr. Barton, under the headline "Weather Expert Finds Little Climate Change." And here's one from 1955 in the Hartford Courant headlined "Climate Change Seen As Hurricane Cause."

At least one person in the 1950s saw a money-making opportunity here. Check out this 1955 ad in the Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review for a book titled "Today's Revolution in Weather"  Its author, William J. Baxter, MBA, warns of the "great climate change" that offers "big profits to those who get ready first" to capitalize on the warming Northwest.

By contrast, the first reference to "global warming" doesn't appear in Google's archives until the end of the next decade. This Dec. 20, 1969 story by United Press International headlined "Scientists Caution on Changes In Climate as Result of Pollution" is the first in Google News's archives to unambiguously use the phrase "global warming" to describe the phenomena. But even through the 1970s, news reports continued to overwhelmingly refer to global temperature increases as "climate change."

This began to change in the 1980s, particularly after the 1988 Congressional testimony of NASA scientist James Hansen, who helped alert the public to rising global temperatures. From 1980 to 2000, "global warming" was almost twice as popular as "climate change." And then it started to swing back in the other direction, helped, in part by conservatives who thought "climate change" sounded less threatening.

None of this is to say that greens aren't canny about messaging. In May, The New York Times's John M. Broder spoke with experts in environmental communications who are advising activists to watch their language when trying to "sell" the public on curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

But to describe "climate change" as a recent coinage is simply false. Much like the claims that all the scientists were worried about "global cooling" in the 1970s (they weren't), such a description seeks to paint the dire warnings of climate scientists as nothing more than a fad.

It isn't. The planet's greenhouse effect was first theorized in 1824 by French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier, and first demonstrated experimentally in 1858 by Irish physicist John Tyndall. Since then, the scientific community has steadily grown ever more concerned over the effects of increased carbon dioxide emissions.

Here's one last example, a 1958 educational documentary produced by Frank Capra that issues a warning that sounds strikingly contemporary:

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