Sustainable vocabulary: whatever happened to global warming?

Sustainability is all the rage, and it’s about time. Almost every brand is writing up new sustainability frameworks to highlight what they’ll be doing to reduce their impact on the planet.

But here’s the thing: marketers have to be super careful with what they write for these frameworks.

The sustainability terminology is a minefield of communication pitfalls; many of the words we think can be used for one sentiment might mean something completely different. And when that happens, your audience will notice and they will remember.

Here’s a symbolic example of how easy it is to make mistakes – an instance of two phrases with different meanings that are often incorrectly taken to mean the same thing: global warming and climate change.

The difference between global warming and climate change

Global warming refers to only part of the climate crisis, whereas climate change is the way we refer to the entire process. It’s a small but important distinction that a lot of people get wrong, a lot of the time.

Global warming was first coined by a geochemist called Wallace Broecker at Columbia University. His phrase went on to replace the much clunkier ‘inadvertent climate modification’ that had been doing the rounds in the scientific community since the early sixties.

It made the big time in 1988 when it was used by a NASA scientist named James Hansen in his testimony to the US Senate on the upcoming climate crisis. Since then, it’s become a household term that is often used incorrectly.

Global warming only refers to the actual heating of the surface of the planet – mainly because of industrial activity. It’s a word to describe how we increase the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that trap heat and warm up the Earth. Rather than being synonymous with climate issues, it’s only actually a cause.

Climate change has been used for decades and it’s hard to pin down who or where it came from. Some say it originated far back in the 1850s, others that it only popped up first in 1950s scientific papers.

Climate change is used to describe all of the long-term changes in the Earth’s weather systems and temperatures that have happened. That can include everything from droughts, flooding, hurricanes, rising sea levels – any area where weather patterns are changing (not necessarily as a result of human activity either.)

At some point, probably around the 1980s, the scientific community shifted from global warming to climate change. This happened for the very simple reason that global warming is actually just a driver of climate change – it is included within it.

Why does it matter?

Simply put: with so much scrutiny (rightly) placed on sustainability pledges, language really, really matters.

While not likely to be a concern of brands, the distinction between climate change and global warming is a great example of how easy it can be to say one thing and mean another.

Anything that you get wrong in writing sustainability content for your brand can, and most likely will, get picked apart. That can get you collared as a greenwasher, a brand that promises but doesn’t deliver. And once a greenwasher, always a greenwasher in the eyes of the business world.

So to summarise: when you’re writing sustainability commitments, there’s no room for error.

Targets can’t be promises. Pledges can’t be goals. Will can’t be might.

And climate change can’t be global warming.

(Header photo: Remy_Loz on Unsplash)