By Andrew C. Revkin, The New York Times, May 24, 2014
Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, has distributed a note summarizing the findings of “What’s In A Name? Global Warming vs Climate Change,” an interesting new study of Americans’ perceptions of the two dominant shorthand phrases used to describe the building human influence on the climate system.
“Global warming” clearly better captures the essence of the issue, across a wide range of societal sectors, according to the report.
Of course, there are continual calls for other names, from James Lovelock’s “global heating” to John Holdren’s “global climate disruption.” And another oldie, of course, is “the greenhouse effect.”
But we’re pretty much stuck with the two dominant phrases.
Global warming should dominate for other reasons. As Roger A. Pielke, Jr., has pointed out for a decade, “climate change” has proved problematic in a more technical sense — with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change defining the term differently, in ways that have significant ramifications in treaty negotiations. (The climate panel definition includes both human-driven and natural change; the treaty process only deals with climate change driven by the buildup of greenhouse gases.)
Here’s an excerpt from Leiserowitz’s summary:
We found that the term global warming is associated with greater public understanding, emotional engagement, and support for personal and national action than the term climate change.
For example, the term global warming is associated with: Greater certainty that the phenomenon is happening, especially among men, Generation X (31-48), and liberals;
Greater understanding that human activities are the primary cause among Independents;
Greater understanding that there is a scientific consensus about the reality of the phenomenon among Independents and liberals;
More intense worry about the issue, especially among men, Generation Y (18-30), Generation X, Democrats, liberals and moderates;
A greater sense of personal threat, especially among women, the Greatest Generation (68+), African-Americans, Hispanics, Democrats, Independents, Republicans, liberals and moderates;
Higher issue priority ratings for action by the president and Congress, especially among women, Democrats, liberals and moderates;
Greater willingness to join a campaign to convince elected officials to take action, especially among men, Generation X, liberals and moderates.
In a separate nationally representative survey, we found that while Americans are equally familiar with the two terms, they are four times more likely to say they hear the term global warming in public discourse than climate change. Likewise, Americans are two times more likely to say they personally use the term “global warming” in their own conversations than climate change.
The results strongly suggest that global warming and climate change are used differently and mean different things in the minds of many Americans. Scientists often prefer the term climate change for technical reasons, but should be aware that the two terms generate different interpretations among the general public and specific subgroups. Some issue advocates have argued that the term climate change is more likely to engage Republicans in the issue, however, the evidence from these studies suggests that in general the terms are synonymous for Republicans – i.e., neither term is more engaging than the other, although in several cases, global warming generates stronger feelings of negative affect and stronger perceptions of personal and familial threat among Republicans; they are also more likely to believe that global warming is already affecting weather in the United States.
By contrast, the use of the term climate change appears to actually reduce issue engagement by Democrats, Independents, liberals, and moderates, as well as a variety of subgroups within American society, including men, women, minorities, different generations, and across political and partisan lines.