Final Word

Keep a weather eye on the terror of climate change


Be warned to keep a ‘weather eye’ on the ‘climate’ talks starting in Paris next week for the ‘terror’ of a different kind – the terror of semantics.

If you don’t, the news coming out of the Conference of the Parties, or COP 21, starting on 30 November, just might leave you feeling a ‘bit under the weather’.

A war of words under the banner of ‘global warming’ has been raging for some time between those claiming that human activity is responsible for the warming of our planet and those claiming it is just a scare story – a kind of semantic ‘terrorism’ by the climate terrorists for their own ends.

Those claiming ‘global warming’ is just a scare story, are in turn ‘terrorised’ by the term ‘climate sceptics’. The words may have a modern buzz to them, but both ‘terror’ and ‘sceptic’ go back a long time. The term ‘sceptic’ in English dates back to the late 16th century and had its origins in the Greek skeptikos, meaning inquiry or doubt.

The word ‘terror’ arrived in English nearly two centuries earlier and described ‘something that intimidates’ or is ‘an object of fear’. It had its roots in Latin terrorem, used to indicate ‘great fear, dread, alarm, panic; object of fear, cause of alarm; and was originally used in English to describe ‘fear so great as to overwhelm the mind’.

‘Terror’ as the description of the action of a person who is the source of spreading fear it was first recorded in1883 and the first ‘terror bombing’ arrived in 1941 when, during World War II, Germany dropped bombs on Rotterdam.

But even before that, during 1793/4, there was the notion of state terrorism in France, referred to as ‘reign of terror’, giving rise to the term terrorisme in French as the rulers of the day followed a policy of execution to quash resistance.

And the Russians gave us the term ‘terrorist group’ in the late 19th century when Sergey Nechayev described himself as a ‘terrorist’ and founded the ‘terrorist group’ known as the People's Retribution in 1869.

The terror of global warming and climate change

Although the first mainstream call by scientists for action to counter ‘global warming’ came only in 1988 with the establishment of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), this term, as well as ‘climate change’ goes back much further.

The term ‘global warming’, as far as is known, was first used in a 1975 scientific article by geochemist Wallace Broecker of Columbia University. His article was titled:  “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?”

The terminology used before then to describe the impact of human activity on climate conditions was ‘inadvertent climate modification’.

The ‘sceptics’ have often argued in recent years that the proponents of ‘global warming’ have created the ‘alternative’ term of ‘climate change’ as a means of scaring humanity into changing its habits, especially on the energy generation front.

The term was first used in this context as far back as 1956 by the physicist Gilbert Plass in a study titled “The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change”.  

The last almost a decade-long hype surrounding ‘global warming’ was triggered by the 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth, based on a campaign by the then US vice president, Al Gore, on the subject.

However, almost two decades earlier, the then British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in a speech at the United Nations, said “the problem of global climate change is one that affects us all and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level”.

Fact is that the two terms have been used interchangeably over many decades. What, however, is true is that the use of the term ‘climate change’ probably did gain momentum on the back of a deliberate political strategy.

In 2003 a political spin consultant of the US’ Republican Party, one Frank Luntz, advised the party:  “It’s time for us to start talking about ‘climate change’ instead of global warming and ‘conservation’ instead of preservation… ‘Climate change’ is less frightening than ‘global warming’…While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.”

It’s all about the weather

 And a decade and a half later the semantic battle rages on as COP 21 is upon us. While it is all really about the weather and how it affects humanity it’s not all just a lot of hot air.

The term ‘weather’, defined as “the state of the atmosphere at a particular place and time as regards heat, cloudiness, dryness, sunshine, wind, rain, etc.” arrive in Old English as weder from the Proto-Germanic wedram, meaning ‘wind’.  

This brings ‘weather’ much closer to people’s lived reality in relation to what happens in the atmosphere than ‘climate, which initially came from the Greek word klinos, meaning ‘slope’, or ‘zone’. The term originally denoted a zone of the earth between two lines of latitude as the earth slopes towards the poles.

Being so much more closely associated with the conditions that people experience of the environment surrounding them from day to day than the term ‘climate’, weather has the much richer legacy in terms of proverbs and sayings.

The best known of these is probably the saying that somebody is, or feels, “a bit under the weather.” It comes from our seafaring heritage and the experience that people aboard ships become seasick most frequently during times of rough seas and bad weather because of the constant rocking motion.

Sick passengers were sent below deck, not only for shelter, but also because the lower below deck you are, the less the sway.

But as the deluge of news coverage of COP 21 is about to descend on us, one should maybe, in the face of the ongoing semantic terrorism surrounding the subject under discussion, keep in mind another lesser known weather related proverb: ‘keep a weather eye’ on it – observe the signs of where arguments come from carefully.

If you do that, there might be no need to ‘make heavy weather’ of one’s efforts to understand the news coming out of Paris.

by Piet Coetzer

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