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.