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Are 'climate change' and 'global warming' interchangeable?

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It's getting hot in here
As the Earth's temperature rises, ice caps are melting and glaciers are disappearing.
Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Former Vice President Al Gore likes the phrase "planetary emergency." CNN seems partial to "Planet in Peril." Then there are the popular standbys "global warming" and "climate change." 

The Europeans favor "climate chaos," but that's yet to catch on among Americans. 

The bottom line is that there are countless ways to refer to the heating up of Earth's atmosphere. 

Many of us use the terms interchangeably. And that really annoys people like Pat Michaels. 

"We should use the word global warming," argues Michaels. "That's the word we should use."

Michaels is a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute. He doesn't deny the atmosphere is warming or that humans are contributing to this increase in temperature. But he says there's no proof the planet is doomed. 

"Puh-lease! I think that all of these sorts of catastrophic associations with climate change are rather glib and should be avoided."

Not everyone takes Michaels' "let's wait and see what happens" attitude when it comes to the future of the planet. But his belief that the terminology is becoming more and more politicized, that has lots of supports.   

"Right. Exactly," says Paul Payack. He's the president and chief word analyst at the Global Language Monitor. 

He's been tracking the use of both global warming and climate change for years. Payack's research shows that global warming is typically used by the political left, while climate change is more common among the right. 

"Those who believe that global warming is caused by humans and their activities call it global warming, not meaning warming of the globe, but meaning that human activity is causing this dangerous situation," says Payack. "Those who believe that the climate changes over the eons, like it has for millions of years and that it's not exacerbated by human beings, are more likely to use the term climate change."

Payack says climate change is often the choice of those who think the situation can't be fixed by emissions treaties or hybrid cars or drastic changes to the American way of life. 

In fact, a 2002 memo encouraged Republicans to go with climate change because it "sounds a more controllable and less emotional challenge," whereas global warming sounds like it has "catastrophic connotations."

Now, at this point, you might assume only conservatives favor the phrase climate change. 

Not so, says Katie Mandes, the communications director at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. 

"When choosing the name, we felt climate change was more scientifically sound."

Mandes says the problem with global warming is that it puts all the focus on the thermometer, not on long-term climate trends -- when, in fact, such atmospheric change can result in everything from harsher droughts to more severe monsoons to regional cooling. 

"And I think global warming gives the impression that everything is going to warm," says Mandes. "That's not necessarily the case."

Mandes is simply dreading another winter of people saying, "It's cold out. So much for the idea of global warming."

Meteorologist Paul Huttner gets tired of that argument, too. 

"Yeah. They'll ask, 'Where's that global warming?' when it's 20 degrees below zero. That's what everyone wants to know."

So does the Minnesota Public Radio weather guy have a penchant for a particular phrase?  

"I'm a little uncomfortable with the terms, to be honest with you," admits Huttner. "I think our job as scientists is to present the information, to say what is happening, that this is climate change, the planet is getting warmer. Then, in a sense, it's everybody else's job to decide what we are going to do about that."

Atmospheric variability. Climate of uncertainty. Meteorological predicament. Huttner doesn't care what people call it as long as they recognize the Earth is indeed getting warmer.  

"That's the facts, Jack," adds Huttner.