Let's Call It 'Climate Disruption,' White House Science Adviser Suggests (Again)

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

First there was “global warming.” Then many researchers suggested “climate change” was a better term. Now, White House science adviser John Holdren is renewing his call for a new nomenclature to describe the end result of dumping vast quantities of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into Earth’s atmosphere: “global climate disruption.”

“I’ve always thought that the phrase ‘global warming’ was something of a misnomer because it suggests that the phenomenon is something that is uniform around the world, that it’s all about temperature, and that it’s gradual,” Holdren said yesterday at the annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy in Washington, D.C. (AAAS publishes ScienceInsider.) “What could be wrong with that?”

Instead, he said, “we should call it ‘global climate disruption.’ Although the rising average global surface temperature is an indicator of the degree of disruption that we have imposed on the global climate system, what’s actually happening involves changes in circulation patterns, changes in precipitation patterns, and changes in extremes. And those are very different in different places.”

Holdren has made similar calls before, apparently with limited effect on the public’s vocabulary. This time, the remarks came in the context of a brief preview Holdren gave of a new climate report that the Obama administration is scheduled to release next week. The document will, in part, spell out the potential disruptions the United States faces as a result of a changing climate, perhaps giving Holdren’s idea some currency.

In his remarks, Holdren was also bullish on the potential of alternative energy sources to replace fossil fuels. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will involve developing “a variety” of energy sources, including renewables, nuclear, and fossil fuel technologies with carbon capture and storage, he said in response to a question from an audience member. But “nobody has a crystal ball to know what the mix will be that will emerge from efforts to raise each of these options to its highest potential.”

“My own suspicion is that we will end up over the long run leaving quite a lot of fossil fuels in the ground,” he continued, “because the alternatives to fossil fuels, even those that capture and store the emissions, are improving at a very rapid rate. And I think their share will increase in a way that will enable us not to be pushed to exploit the vast quantities of fossil fuels still in the ground, including oil shale and tar sands and much more.”

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