A while back, in a famously leaked talking points memo, GOP pollster and messaging guru Frank Luntz advised those wishing to thwart energy reform to use the term climate change rather than global warming—because it made the problem sound less urgent and less “frightening” to the American public. (The same memo advised making “the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.” Nice.) But the strategy may have backfired—or simply been turned inside out.
Ironically, new research finds that Republicans are far more likely to say they believe “climate change” is happening than “global warming.”
Writing in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly, a research team led by University of Michigan psychologist Jonathon Schuldt reports Republicans are far more skeptical of “global warming” than of “climate change.” In an experiment conducted as part of a large survey, the researchers found 44 percent of Republicans endorsed the notion that “global warming” is real, but 60.2 percent said the same of “climate change.”
For Democrats the distinction is seemingly unimportant. Around 86 percent of Democrats believe in climate change and global warming interchangeably. (Among Independents, 74 percent said that climate change is happening, while 69.5 percent acknowledged global warming.)
So, it does matter what words you use. But I don’t think we should necessarily try to drop either term.
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As Jacobs points out, these findings seem to indicate that “the partisan divide over the issue is either overwhelmingly enormous or potentially bridgeable, depending upon the terminology one uses.” And as he points out, the research does bring up interesting questions about trends in polling on climate issues. In fact, whatever words advocates or opponents of energy reform choose to use, it probably matters a lot what language pollsters use when trying to determine public opinion about climate change. Jacobs explains:
These findings point to a problem for pollsters, whose “choice of term seems somewhat haphazard” when surveying public opinion on the topic. Any polls that suggest swings of public opinion on this topic should be read with caution, taking note of the specific terminology that was used.
As for explanations for why the two labels elicit such different reactions, the researchers propose some possible answers.
First, global warming suggests just that: warming and only warming. “Global warming” sets up the expectation of noticeably higher temperatures—an expectation that’s been ridiculed in the familiar talking points of climate science deniers who (almost gleefully) point to winter storms, heavy snowfall and any kind of cold weather to question the scientific reality of man-made climate change.
Climate change, on the other hand, “lacks a directional commitment and easily accommodates unusual weather of any kind,” write the researchers. This is important because as we’ve seen in other research that reveals a a phenomenon called “visceral fit,” people are more likely to say they believe in global warming if they happen to be “experiencing warm temperatures at the moment the question is asked —even if they’re indoors.” (Also from McClure’s Tom Jacobs and Grist).
Second, perhaps because of years of conservative rhetoric about the issue (and strict use of the term), “global warming” connotes a human-made phenomenon. Quite rightly. But conservatives are more likely to deny the science on this one too.
Back to the original question (and I get asked quite often). What should we say? Climate change or global warming?
I think Jacobs may be suggesting we might be better off scrapping “global warming” for good. But I’m not ready for that. For one, the term would be hard to shake. It’s entrenched. Second, I think both terms add something to the conversation. Research shows that each term triggers different feeling and carries with it different meanings for people depending on things like worldview and political party—and, in my opinion, it would be a shame to lose the range of connotations that come with each.
Put another way, Frank Luntz was right—research beyond his own has confirmed his original theory that “global warming” sounds more sinister for many (climate change more benign) and that “global warming” indicates a man-made problem to people (climate change more like a natural cycle or phenomenon). Those are pieces of the puzzle we could benefit from reinforcing rather than water down. Further, some studies have shown that Democrats are more likely motivated by the term “global warming.” (But some scientists (and wonks) prefer “climate change.”)
We certainly don’t want to lose the potential to motivate an informed base nor forfeit the urgency-factor tied up in the term “global warming.” For these reasons, I’ve often advised climate policy messengers not to eschew one or the other but to use both terms, mixing both “climate change” and “global warming” into their communications. I think that’s still my advice, even if, in light of this new research, we choose to emphasize “climate change” for more conservative audiences.
And, to be accurate, “climate change” and “global warming” are technically two different things. Generally, it’s not worth getting too far into the weeds trying to explain. But in his new book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years On Earth, Mark Hertsgaard illustrates the whole thing in a clear, compelling way that deserves repeating: “Think of global warming as the equivalent of a fever and climate change as the aches, chills, and vomiting the fever can cause.”
(For the record: I don’t have a lot of love for Frank Luntz who also had the audacity to write in his “environment” messaging memo, that a “compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.” But it should be noted that he came over from the dark side for a spell a year or so ago and collaborated with Environmental Defense Fund on communications research to support policy to combat climate change emissions—which I highlighted as a strategic communications resource for policy champions.)