The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same…
But Then…
There's Deep Climate Change

Michael H. Glantz
6 May 2002

After ten years of focused international research on global warming (most often referred to as climate change), I have come to believe that, aside from those groups dealing specifically with these scientific issues on a more or less daily basis, most people do not know what is meant by climate change. I say this because scientists frequently remind us that climate is constantly changing on all time scales - yearly, on decade and century time scales, and beyond.

So, when climate change issues reach the public, the media, and elected policy makers, it is often unclear which type of change in climate they are talking about, what the possible impacts might be, and what they should be concerned about. The problem is with the meaning various people attribute to the word "change." The public often refers to climate change when they are actually talking about climate variations on seasonal, interannual, and decadal time frames. So, "change" in reference to climate is mixed up with "variability."

Depending on where one lives, change at some time or space scale may be welcomed. A somewhat warmer winter to many Minnesotans might not seem so bad, and might even be favored. Most likely, a reaction to that possibility might not take into account the other ramifications of a 1-2°F warmer winter (e.g., what happens to the other seasons? To ecosystems, recreation, agricultural pests, etc.?). More rain in a semiarid region would most likely be favored, depending on when and the rate at which it falls.

Also, depending on the possible intensities and durations of the various climate changes, the perceived severity of impacts on society and environment will differ. At some level, change may favor some places, at other levels not.

Thus, the word "change" when associated with climate means different, sometimes contradictory, things to a wide range of observers (depending on their geographic location, beliefs, desires, perceptions, resilience, and vulnerability). Talk of climate change can become confusing and misleading to the public, media, and policymakers. Risk-takers are likely to favor change, while those who shun risk will be fearful of it.

Most societies have plenty of expressions about change, such as the following: "Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts" (Arnold Bennett). "Progress is a nice word. But change is the motivator. And change has its enemies" (Robert F. Kennedy). "It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory" (W. Edwards Deming).

I propose a re-labeling of the most dire changes in the global climate regime. They should be referred to as "deep changes." The notion of deep changes has been defined (in a non-climate context) as when "one system of change yielded to another" (Fischer, 1996, p. xv). Fischer used this notion in his study of price revolutions in history. He observed that "every period of the past has been a time of change. The world is always changing but not in the same way." He also noted that "the history of prices is a history of change… Price inflation has been a continuing problem in the past, but it has not been constant in its rhythm, rate, or timing." Similar observations can be made about the global climate regime.

For these reasons, among others, it is time to draw a long-needed line of separation between those climate "changes" that we have been living with and adjusted to over seasons, years, and decades, to those that societies have not seen in millennia. For this reason I propose the use of the notion of "deep" climate change to represent the profound type of change that many scientists now say that future generations will likely need to adjust to, as a result of the increased emissions of greenhouse gases. "Deep change," according to Fischer, "may be understood as a change in the structure of change itself."

NB: I would like to note that my belief in the need for such a new term was inspired by Fischer's book on price revolutions, and not on Deep Ecology literature.

Fischer, D.H., 1996: The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History. New York: Oxford University Press.

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