word fight: global warming v. climate change

The names of things are important. Sometimes people come up with two different terms to describe the same thing and the terms rattle around in your head, biting and scratching at each other’s eyes, until one of them defeats the other and takes full control of your brain.

There is this thing happening to the planet. People are burning a lot of fuel, which is changing the atmosphere, which is driving the temperature up, which could eventually make Earth an unfriendly place for humans. Crops may fail, societies may collapse, etc. If we don’t stop burning so much fuel, this thing — which we call either “global warming” or “climate change” — is going to get worse, probably a lot worse, probably very fast.

Neither of these terms really conveys the urgency of the situation. “Global warming” sounds cozy, like a nice cup of hot cocoa in the dead of winter. “Climate change” has the opposite problem: It sounds cold and clinical. “Change from what into what? Maybe the new climate will be better!” The new climate will not be better.

But what would we suggest instead? Global clusterfuck? Climate disaster? No, those aren’t right either.

Coming up with a short name for a complicated thing is not easy to do, even when your goal is to be accurate. That’s one reason to pay attention to names. Another is that the people who name things aren’t always trying to be accurate.