Hot summer without a cause

2010 is looking to overtake 2005 as the hottest year ever recorded on the planet. But the heat isn’t the only thing unusual this summer – for example, the torrential downpour that hit the Midwest last week is also causing dams to collapse, airports to close, and residents to seek alternative housing, as their own homes remain filled with water and debris.

But with these environmental disasters, one thing has not changed: people remained equally unconcerned in May about “global warming” as they did at the beginning of 2010 – and even in July, global warming is not one of the public’s top priorities. The government has responded to this lack of emphasis by the public, with Senate Democrats abandoning – at least temporarily – their efforts to produce legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

What is perhaps most interesting about this current “climate” is that few articles – even in many stories about the heat waves – mention global warming. Research has suggested that hotter local temperatures are linked to more discussion of global warming (Shanahan & Good make this point in their 2000 article, Heat and Hot Air: Influence of Local Temperature on Journalists’ Coverage of Global Warming). And while it is foolish to suggest that any one event is “caused” by global warming, the trend certainly matches scientists’ predictions this summer.

Meanwhile, because “global warming” does not accurately cover the range of outcomes expected from a rise in temperatures, many scientists prefer the term “climate change,” while Thomas Friedland of the New York Times has suggested the term “global weirding.”

While these redefinitions may be more accurate – and eventually extend people’s concerns about greenhouse gases beyond heat waves – this shifting terminology makes it harder for both the public and news organizations to grasp and define the concept. And while it is not this change in terminology that caused lack of coverage currently – instead, it is bad timing, with so much attention focused on the poor economy and job creation – the lack of clear name also make confusion and dismissal more likely. The term we use to describe something is very important in determining attitudes, so scientists, politicians, and journalists alike need to choose and use a single term to describe the phenomenon and focus on helping the public understand the real effects – and not just the heat – that can result from climate change.


  1. When you say “few stories mention global warming” — you mean recently? How few? And do they mention “climate change”

    It’s been my impression that most responsible news outlets use “climate change” now-a-days… with Fox News being the only place you can go to hear the old “Global Warming” tag. Do other news outlets mix up the terms like this?

    • I’m not going to claim to have done any kind of random sampling, but of the stories I’ve read about heat, humidity, and crazy rainfall, none of them have mentioned “global warming” or “climate change.” Perhaps other stories are, but I don’t think I’ve seen it yet.

      Also, there’s definitely been a push among many outlets to talk about “climate change” instead of global warming, but that doesn’t mean that it has been eradicated. It’s still to be found, even in The New York Times – there was an op-ed columnist who wrote yesterday about the dead legislation and he uses both terms. I think part of the issue is that people are familiar with the term “global warming” and don’t necessarily understand the meaning of “climate change” or “global weirding.”

  2. I haven’t heard anyone use “Climate Change” recently so maybe I need to watch the news more. However, I’m inclined to agree with you, Emily, in your response to Hans.

    Most people just don’t care enough about the issue and think a few nuances in the definition shouldn’t facilitate a new word or phrase. Saying “Global Warming” gets the point across unless you’re writing for some journal or the like where informed readers may be interested.

    On a slightly lighter note, Iowa needs stronger dams.

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