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Rebranding Global Warming

Recently, White House science adviser John Holdren got some unwanted attention when he noted, in a speech at Oslo, that "global warming" might be a "dangerous misnomer." Yes, emitting greenhouse gases will raise overall global temperatures, he noted, but the warming won't be uniform everywhere, and we can expect a lot of weird variations from place to place. So Holdren suggested "global climate disruption" as a preferred term of art. Conservatives quickly started mocking Holdren—Atlantic Wire has a good roundup.

Personally, I think "climate change" works just fine (although it's true that the phrase doesn't sound quite as intimidating as the issue merits). But Holdren's right that "global warming" doesn't quite capture everything that's going on. Here's one example: A recent paper in Geophysical Research Letters notes that a warmer world could actually bring harsher winters to key parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Here's a good summary of the research from Outdoor Science:

Warmer air means the atmosphere can hold more water. When continental Europe and northern America cool in autumn, the atmosphere can’t hold as much moisture and dumps it as snow.

During the first three weeks of October 2009, snow cover increased rapidly over Europe and persisted throughout winter. The cold and reflective snow cooled the atmosphere above it: the air in the mid-latitudes—around 45 degrees north—became colder and denser and began to sink towards the ground.

Scientists believe sinking air and lower temperatures at mid-latitudes help knock the Arctic Oscillation (AO)—a large-scale atmospheric pressure pattern that switches between two modes—into its “negative” state. During a “negative” AO, air sinks at mid-latitudes and rises over the poles. The “positive” phase is the other way around—air is sinking over the poles and rising at mid-latitudes. The “negative” phase of the AO tends to bring colder weather to the US and northern Europe.

Isn't that devious? More warming could bring more snowstorms and the occasional extra-bitter cold snap in January. At which point Matt Drudge seizes on the heavy snowfalls to imply that "global warming" is all a hoax and we don't need to do anything about it. (He'll then go strangely silent when, say, we start breaking summer temperature records, as has been happening this year.) And big snowpocalypse-type winters do seem to convince the public that greenhouse-gas emissions might not be anything to worry about after all. Not sure a little rebranding probably will change this dynamic.

(Holdren photo credit: NASA)