Choosing Your Climate Words Carefully

“Global warming” is an accurate but sometimes misleading term.  The seemingly slight increase in average temperatures at the surface of the earth’s land and oceans that is occurring can produce large changes in flows of air and water currents that lead to “global climate change, “ which is a neutral term for what is already going on world-wide.  “Warming” sounds a little too cozy.  Who among us New Yorkers wouldn’t want to be less chilly after all – unless, of course some of those climate changes include droughts in some places and floods in others.

Words matter, as those of us who write or preach know. We often like to use the newer term “climate instability” or “catastrophic climate change.” The truth of the matter is that changes in ocean currents or the melting of permafrost that leads to large releases of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, may push us over a tipping point to sudden climate disasters, the timing of which is unpredictable.

A more serious misnomer is the term “fossil fuel,” Calvin DeWitt, Emeritus Professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, writes in the September-October issue of Sojourners magazine.  Earth is sustained as a habitable abode by a great longstanding natural system of carbon sequestration, whereby plants through photosynthesis took carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stored it as peat, coal, natural gas, and petroleum.

If we use the term “fossil carbon” instead of “fossil fuel”, we recognize that, as DeWitt writes, “…carbon is much more than fuel: It’s the backbone of all life, a major atmospheric regulator of Earth’s climate, and a moderator of the acidity of the world’s oceans. Burning Earth’s great system of carbon sequestration is disastrous for the biospheric economy—and therefore for our own.”

If we consciously replace the term “fossil fuel” with “fossil carbon,” we may be more careful in how we treat it.

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