“Global warming” and “climate change” are disasters at conveying our environmental predicament

It might be counterintuitive, but global warming means more extreme cold in some places.
It might be counterintuitive, but global warming means more extreme cold in some places.
Image: Reuters/Lindsay Dedario
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Welcome to the era of extreme weather.

If you live in the US Midwest, you’re likely accustomed to laughing in the face of winter snow, ice, and freezing winds. But even the hardiest Midwesterner isn’t used to temperatures (including wind chill) falling below -50°F (-45°C); that’s because those are numbers that haven’t been seen in decades. The last time Chicago was this cold, Ronald Reagan was US president, the Berlin Wall had yet to fall, and the public release of the World Wide Web was still six years away. On Wednesday, the highs throughout much of Canada and the Upper Midwest of the US were lower than the high temperature on Mars.

If you live in southern Australia, you probably think it’s cute when the British press freaks out about heat waves where the mean summer-time temperature is around 61°F (16°C), as it was last year. After all, the mean temperature in Adelaide—for the entire year—is 72.5°F (22.5°C). January, summer in south Australia, averages 85°F (29.4°C). But there’s nothing winsome about 115.9°F (46.6°C) weather, which is where thermometers maxed out in Adelaide during last week’s record-breaking heatwave.

If it feels like every month brings some novel or record-setting environmental disaster, it’s because, often, it does. Unfortunately, in an epic feat of brand mismanagement, the climatologists who first began ringing the alarm that Earth was on a crash course for inhospitality called the situation “global warming.” That remains accurate, on a planetary scale: 2018 was the fourth-warmest year on record, based on global annual temperatures. The only years warmer were 2015, 2016, and 2017. Ocean surface temperatures, on average, have been steadily increasing since the 1970s.

But that term, “global warming,” is too easily misconstrued, too easily manipulated by bad-faith actors like US president Donald Trump, who point to cold weather events or rainstorms and say “how could Earth be turning hot and dry when it’s colder and raining more than ever?” These science deniers are disingenuous, of course; just take a peek underneath the hood of any politician spouting climate-change denials and you’ll find vainglorious party operatives and avaricious industry influencers lodged in the machinery.

“Global warming” was never the right term to use. It doesn’t come close to capturing the catastrophe that’s in our foyer and about to sweep through the house. “Climate change,” which has largely replaced “global warming” in the 2010s, is a bit better, but still doesn’t do the trick—likely because those same bad-faith actors that twisted “global warming” have done the same to “climate change.” Consider, as Michael Coren wrote for Quartz earlier this week, that up and down the mostly deep-red Mississippi River Valley, Republican mayors, after facing $200 billion in climate-related damages over the past decade, have begun to push climate-change adaptation policies that buck the party line of their DC colleagues—but have only been able to do so by avoiding calling it “climate change.” Instead, they call it “disaster resistance” or “disaster preparedness.”

As Politico reported earlier this week, the main takeaway from the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society was exactly that: “Climate change” carries too much political baggage. This is silly, but nontrivial. And, to be fair, whatever it took to get us here, those local legislators in the cities by the Mississippi are in fact being quite accurate with their terminology. This is a disaster, and we need to be prepared.

Just this week, a new study from NASA researchers was published showing how warming seas will lead to an increased frequency of severe storms across the globe. The Fourth National Climate Assessment—put out by Trump’s own US federal government agencies—found that “extreme weather events are expected to increasingly disrupt our nation’s energy and transportation system… with cascading impacts on other critical sectors” and “to increase exposure to waterborne and foodborne diseases, affecting food and water safety,” among other threats to public health and safety. And that’s only in the US.

The disaster of climate change will be unequally distributed across the globe. More regions will suffer directly from temperature increases, but others will suffer indirectly from extreme cold fronts that are knock-on effects of other parts of the world heating up, as was the case with this week’s North American polar vortex. Some areas will start to get hit regularly by devastating hurricanes, while others face population-decimating droughts. Wealthier parts of the world will be better equipped to paper over the wreckage with injections of capital, but only for so long. In the end, every corner of Earth will need to come to terms with this new normal.