Global warming has hit prime time.
New data has added urgency to an issue that has been with us, or at least the media, since the early 1990s. News of receding glaciers from Greenland to the Andes has made regular visits to online and print news. The issue of global warming appeared again in stories about NASA PR appointees resigning in shame after stories broke about Bush appointees restricting access to its climate scientists.
But in mid-February, the story, or stories, became front-page news in papers here and abroad after new satellite studies showed that Greenland's ice cap is vanishing at twice the speed previously thought. The New York Times said new satellite data "gives fresh urgency to worries about the role of human activity in global warming." The story quoted Eric Rignot, a scientist at the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who said, "We are witnessing enormous changes. It will take some time before we understand how it happened, although it is clearly a result of warming around the glaciers."
Then, two Sundays ago, 60 Minutes aired a segment, "Global Warning." The story opened thusly: "The North Pole has been frozen for 100,000 years. But according to scientists, that won't be true by the end of this century. The top of the world is melting. There has been a burning debate for years on the causes of global warming. But the scientists you're about to meet say the debate is over." Strong language delivered to about 12 million viewers each week. But do they grasp the issue - viscerally or intellectually?
Among 1,008 adults surveyed in an October 2005 Gallup poll, 65% felt global warming was behind the increase in both number and severity of hurricanes like Rita and Katrina. But in 1992, around the time global warming started gaining currency, only 11% of respondents said they understood the greenhouse effect very well. By 1997, 16% said they understood the issue very well, and it has stood at 16% since. Also, Gallup has found, just as many Americans now as in 1997 - 31% - think the news has generally exaggerated the seriousness of global warming.
Part of the problem is that global warming isn't easy to brand. And that's significant. Americans are conditioned to respond to brands - emotional images, rather than ideas. If anything, "global warming" evokes maternity and safety. The term has been exploited as such - an Eden-like warmer Earth, anyone? - by those who either doubt the science around it or fear the economic consequences of addressing it.
The term has also passed into the lexicon of slang, a catch phrase for just about anything unusual in the weather: The day's unusually warm? Too cold? Freakish storms? It has taken on a pop-mythology status, and one could argue that when such a thing happens, the issue itself simply vanishes behind a fog of pop culture, like "Save the whales."
Unlike the whales, however, many of which are, in fact, too far gone to save, it's impossible to point to such and such a storm, or this or that unusually warm winter and say with scientific certainty that the weather is caused by something called "global warming." To most people, weather is regional. If communicators on this very critical issue are going to address the public, they need to change the language and find a much more urgent way to legitimately link the issue to their daily lives. The episode on 60 Minutes may help that.