Via NASA: “This map shows Earth’s average global temperature from 2013 to 2017, as compared to a baseline average from 1951 to 1980, according to an analysis by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Yellows, oranges, and reds show regions warmer than the baseline.” (NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio)

“They” changed the term “global warming” to “climate change” because the planet is not warming is an oft-repeated talking point of those, such as President Trump, who cast doubt on the reality of rising temperatures.

This claim is demonstrably incorrect, never mind that it’s unclear who “they” are.

The gradual change in preferred terminology from “global warming” to “climate change” among scientists and politicians began about a decade ago because that’s what their institutions called for. It also happened to be the preference of the George W. Bush White House. Temperatures never stopped rising.

No matter the reality, Trump has now twice uttered this falsehood. In 2013, he tweeted: “They changed the name from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ after the term global warming just wasn’t working (it was too cold)!”

Then, in an interview with Piers Morgan last week, when asked about his belief in climate change, he responded: “There is a cooling, and there is a heating, and I mean, look — it used to not be climate change. It used to be global warming. . . . That wasn’t working too well, because it was getting too cold all over the place.”

Trump apparently missed the joint NOAA and NASA news release earlier this month that showed the four warmest years on record have occurred in the past four years. “The planet is warming remarkably uniformly,” Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told reporters.

When the terminology for the planet’s rising temperatures pivoted some years ago, it had nothing to do with thermometers.

In 2005, the National Academies of Sciences published a pamphlet that expressed the viewpoint that “climate change” was a more scientifically comprehensive description of what was happening to the planet. “The phrase ‘climate change’ is growing in preferred use to ‘global warming’ because it helps convey that there are changes in addition to rising temperatures,” it said.

Shortly thereafter, in 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency changed the name of its Web site on the issue from “Global Warming” to “Climate Change.” It plastered the National Academies quote on the superiority of “climate change” on the front page to explain the rationale.


EPA “Climate Change” website, from February 2007. (Wayback Machine)

“The contentious phrase global warming, first used by United Press International in 1969, seems to be undergoing a certain cooling; contrariwise, the more temperate phrase climate change is getting hot,” the New York Times’ William Safire wrote in his On Language column in 2005.

In the years prior, the Bush administration had expressed a clear preference for the term “climate change.” In speeches on the issue starting in 2002, Bush referred to “global climate change” and never mentioned “global warming.” His administration formed “climate change” science and technology programs. There may well have been political motivation to change the name, as The Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote Monday:

In 2002, Republican consultant Frank Luntz wrote a memo arguing that Republicans start using the latter term.

“ ‘Climate change’ is less frightening than ‘global warming,’ ” he wrote. “While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.”

Even years before that, international institutions had paved the way for “climate change” to eventually become the prevalent term. The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change was negotiated in 1992, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988.

“Global warming” had its ascension in 1988 when NASA scientist James E. Hansen testified before Congress that “global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause-and-effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and the observed warming.” His testimony generated massive media coverage and popularized the term.

While “global warming” was eclipsed by “climate change” decades later among scientists, politicians and their institutions, it remains a valuable term that is popular with the public. It accurately and directly describes what’s happening to the planet’s temperature over time.

Clarification (posted Jan. 31): This story initially did not make clear that while “climate change” has become the preferred terminology of scientists, politicians, and their institutions, the public still prefers global warming. It was updated accordingly.

A 2014 report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that the American public is still “4 times more likely to say they hear the term global warming in public discourse than climate change.” The report also found global warming is a much more engaging term. However, the report did show a decreasing trend in Google searches for “global warming” relative to “climate change” since 2007, suggesting the preference for “climate change” among scientists, politicians and institutions may be influencing the public.