Wednesday, January 23, 2008

climate change language

it seems that the terms 'climate' and 'weather' in the popular lexicon are alternately synonymous or non-synonymous in an incorrect way, according to survey-based research completed by ann bostrom at georgia tech.

what are the implications for the phrases that we use to discuss the increase in the mean temperature of the surface of the earth?

weather happens in a place, at a particular time and refers to the meteorological conditions of temperature, relative humidity, precipitation, wind speed, and clarity.

climate refers to long-term trends in the patters of weather in a particular place. it may be measured in terms of absolute extremes, means, and frequencies in the previously mentioned weather properties.

if this difference is not understood, it becomes possible for the phrase "climate change" to indicate changes in day-to-day weather patterns. "sure, the climate is changing all the time: there are four seasons, aren't there? what's the problem?"

"global warming" is not much better. with this choice, a very cold winter day becomes evidence against a veritable consensus of scientific certainty on the issue. it's why stories like this get attention, and why this dumbass can wake up and think that he’s a genius because he knows that it’s all a vast, left-wing conspiracy. it’s because this term does not capture the gamut of possible changes to the climate that can result from an increase in average mean temperature (if the term is understood properly). "sea-level rise, coral bleaching, species extinction? just because of a temperature change? can't we grow more food?" people are not good at thinking about non-linearity, nor are they good at thinking about temporally- or spatially-separated causation.

then we want to propose solutions..."you want me to drive less? LOL"

i've recently been using the first term exclusively because of its inclusivity, but the issue of weather has thrown me for a loop. there’s also the issue of some enviros claiming that “climate change” has been usurped by big business and that we should continue using “global warming.” but then we arrive back at some of the previous issues.

it seems that neither of the titles is very good? cold winter days are seen as anti-evidence, while summer heat waves and hurricanes are evidence but for the wrong reasons.

is a new term needed? what is it? maybe if we were able to access some of the pre-existing mental models using innovative communication strategies, by communicating scientific results more effectively by making them more relevant to the daily lives of individuals, by lowering barriers to action and motivating that action. by making people care! how do we do that?

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