'Global warming' vs. 'climate change': terminology matters

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Do you believe in global warming? How about climate change? A new study has shown that words matter, with more Americans saying they believe in the phenomenon when it's referred to as climate change.

The effect is particularly pronounced in Republicans.

The logical implication is that a significant number of people, and right-wingers especially, believe that the world's average temperature is changing - but are under the impression that it's getting colder.

But this isn't necessarily the case, says doctoral candidate Jonathon Schuldt of the University of Michigan. It's more likely, he says, that these people are less capable of taking a global view.

"An unusually cold day may increase doubts about global warming more than about climate change," he says.

"Given these different associations and the partisan nature of this issue, climate change believers and skeptics might be expected to vary in their use of these terms."

Schuldt and his team asked 2,267 US adults to report their level of certainty about whether global climate change is a serious problem. Half heard it referred to as climate change, the other as global warming.

Overall, 74 percent of people thought the problem was real when it was referred to as climate change, while only 68 percent agreed when it was referred to as global warming.

Conservative think tanks appear to be aware of this. They to call the phenomenon global warming themselves, says Schuldt, presumably to discourage their supporters from accepting the phenomenon.

And when the researchers analyzed responses to the survey by political orientation, they found that the different overall levels in belief were driven almost entirely by participants who identified themselves as Republicans.

While 60 percent of Republicans reported that they thought climate change was real, for example, only 44 percent said they believed in the reality of global warming.

In contrast, about 86 percent of Democrats thought climate change was a serious problem, no matter what it was called.

"It might be a ceiling effect, given their high level of belief," says study member Sara Konrath. "Or it could be that Democrats' beliefs about global climate change might be more crystallized, and as a result, more protected from subtle manipulations."