WASHINGTON — As Congress considers legislation to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and slow global warming, delegates from around the world are in Bali, Indonesia, attending a United Nations conference on climate change.
They're all choosing their words very carefully.
The phrases "climate change" and "global warming" carry very different — and often loaded — meanings, depending on who's speaking.
" 'Global warming' gets people's attention more," said Frank O'Donnell, the president of Clean Air Watch, a nonpartisan advocacy group based in Washington. " 'Climate change' is softer. It's why General Motors says 'climate change' and why the Sierra Club uses 'global warming.' "
Republicans abandoned the phrase "global warming" and started using "climate change" in 2002 after a memo from political consultant Frank Luntz. His advice, aimed at giving Republicans strong language to dominate the debate on environmental issues, served to politicize the terms.
"Climate change" has evolved into the preferred Republican term when political leaders talk about the effect of greenhouse gases. Democrats and many environmentalists continue to use "global warming."
While Republicans may have been deliberate about making "climate change" part of their political vocabulary, it's also become the preferred scientific parlance.
"The reason it's important to say 'climate change' is because it's an all-encompassing term," said Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental advocacy group. "In a way, it's an evolution of our understanding. It also reflects the evolution of the scientific evidence. Scientists are confident enough to say this is unequivocal."
But it remains a partisan issue, colored by political semantics. The language has allowed some skeptical leaders to differentiate between climate change — which has multiple causes — and global warming, which generally is described as being caused by human activity.
When Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, headed the Senate Commerce Committee in 2005, he created the now-defunct Global Climate Change and Impacts subcommittee. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had just as emphatic a name for the House of Representatives committee that was created this year when Democrats took over Congress: the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.
As the Senate debated legislation this week that would slash greenhouse gases by 60 percent over the next four decades, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., criticized President Bush's previous approach to the problem by zeroing in on his use of language.
"President Bush would not acknowledge the words 'global warming' until the past six months," Reid said Wednesday on the floor of the Senate. "He's now at least been able to say the words and is doing some futile things to help. And even those small gestures are welcome to this country and the world."
There's "certainly not any concerted effort" to use one phrase over the other when it comes to talking about the issue, said Kristen Hellmer, the communications director for the White House Counsel on Environmental Quality. That's partly because "global warming" has become the unscientific shorthand for the whole debate.
"I think that the president uses both," Hellmer said. "I can recall him saying both 'global warming' and 'climate change.' And I know that the president has said 'global climate warming.' "
Hellmer said that the language emanating from the White House most likely would be "climate change" because "that's what it's called."
She pointed out that when she and Jim Connaughton, the chairman of the Counsel on Environmental Quality, travel to Bali next week, they'll be attending the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Hellmer also noted that the main global scientific body on the issue — which received a Nobel Peace Prize recently along with former Vice President Al Gore — is known as the International Panel on Climate Change.
"We tend to look at what the experts and scientists call it," Hellmer said.
Most scientists call it "climate change" unless they're specifically talking about the warming of the earth.
"Global warming was the phrase used back in the 1980s and 1990s when the initial focus was on the globally averaged temperature of the planet," said Richard Rosen, the senior adviser for climate research within the climate program office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "It was the focus of much of the research, and the concern that the globally averaged temperature was going to increase because of greenhouse gases."
Since then, scientists have come to realize that "the issue involves much more than the globally averaged temperature," Rosen said.
"It also impacts other parts of the climate system. Precipitation, Arctic sea ice, snowpack and glaciers," he said. "It's sort of a recognition that a lot more is going on than the globally averaged temperature."