Published September 16, 2010
From the administration that brought you "man-caused disaster" and "overseas contingency operation," another terminology change is in the pipeline.
The White House wants the public to start using the term "global climate disruption" in place of "global warming" -- fearing the latter term oversimplifies the problem and makes it sound less dangerous than it really is.
White House science adviser John Holdren urged people to start using the phrase during a speech last week in Oslo, echoing a plea he made three years earlier. Holdren said global warming is a "dangerous misnomer" for a problem far more complicated than a rise in temperature.
The call comes as Congress prepares to adjourn for the season without completing work on a stalled climate bill. The term global warming has long been criticized as inaccurate, and the new push could be an attempt to re-shape climate messaging for next year's legislative session.
"They're trying to come up with more politically palatable ways to sell some of this stuff," said Republican pollster Adam Geller, noting that Democrats also rolled out a new logo and now refer to the Bush tax cuts as "middle-class tax cuts."
He said the climate change change-up likely derives from flagging public support for their bill to regulate emissions. He said the term "global warming" makes the cause easy to ridicule whenever there's a snowstorm.
"Every time we're digging our cars out -- what global warming?" he said. "(Global climate disruption is) more of a sort of generic blanket term, I guess, that can apply in all weather conditions."
It's unclear why Holdren prefers "global climate disruption" over "climate change," the most commonly used alternative to "global warming."
Asked about the speech, Holdren spokesman Rick Weiss said only that the Office of Science and Technology Policy has been transparent about Holdren's remarks.
"The PowerPoint for Dr. Holdren's Oslo presentation has been public on our website since the day after he returned," he said.
In a 2007 presentation, Holdren suggested a similar phrase change -- "global climatic disruption."
The explanation he gave last week was that the impact from greenhouse gas emissions covers a broad "disruption" of climate patterns ranging from precipitation to storms to hot and cold temperatures. Those changes, he said, affect the availability of water, productivity of farms, spread of disease and other factors.
He's not the first scientist to publicly veer away from "global warming." NASA published an analysis on its website in 2008 explaining that it avoids the term because temperature change "isn't the most severe effect of changing climate."
"Changes to precipitation patterns and sea levels are likely to have much greater human impact than the higher temperatures alone," the report said.
But Republicans predicted that re-branding the issue would have limited effect on the legislative effort. GOP strategist Pete Snyder said he doubts the term is going to change hearts and minds.
"Are they going to change the name of weathermen to disruption analysts?" he quipped. GOP lawmakers already exploited a terminology change of their own by re-branding the "cap-and-trade" bill as "cap-and-tax."
Holdren's "global climate disruption" isn't the most convoluted term to grace the climate debate, however.
According to the NASA article, early studies on the impact humans had on global climate referred to the relationship as "inadvertent climate modification."