The Meaning of Global Warming

Environmentalists have long imagined that global warming has a single, objective meaning (our greenhouse gas emissions are warming the earth) and an obvious solution (we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions). The problem is that there is simply no single meaning of global warming. Rather, global warming contains multitudes. Does global warming mean (a) we'll be growing bigger and sweeter tomatoes in northern California, (b) we're all going to die, (c) we humans will survive but will find ourselves living like prehistoric cave dwellers, (d) we are being punished for our sins against nature, (e) we need better lightbulbs and hybrid cars, (f) we must unite the human race around a vision for a clean energy future, (g) finally we can build those nuclear power plants we always wanted, (h) we need a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, (i) we must prepare for the worst and hope for the best, (j) none of the above, or (k) all of the above?

Plainly, global warming has other meanings and other solutions. The question is not, What does global warming mean? Instead, it is, Which of global warming's meanings and solutions should we elevate into a politics to help create the future we want?

Turning the debate away from certainty and prevention to uncertainty and preparedness changes the way people think about global warming itself. Global warming preparedness changes the meaning of global warming. It is necessary, in and of itself, and it is a bridge to wider action. Once people accept that global warming is happening they are on their way to asking, If there is something I can do to cope with the effects of global warming, is there also something I can do to lessen those effects to begin with?

The authors thank the Nathan Cummings Foundation for funding the research that made this work possible.

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