Pell Center

The Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina is a multidisciplinary research center focused at the intersection of politics, policies and ideas.

“Climate change” vs. “global warming”

The Center for Climate Change Communication (4C) at George Mason University has just released a report that discusses the relative merits of the terms climate change and global warming – from the perspective of communicators trying to engage audiences on this critical topic.

The results are a reminder that word choice matters – a conclusion I am professionally obligated to endorse, as a cognitive linguist.

They are also a reminder that unless we do some kind of research or testing with audiences, it is often hard to guess which terms are more effective – for the simple reason that audiences never share our own assumptions, priorities, background, knowledge etc. And as a result, they can respond completely differently from how we’d expect them to.

The bottom line from the 4C report, based on representative national surveys, is that “almost without exception, global warming is more engaging than climate change.” In other words, for non-expert audiences, global warming is more real, more important, more damaging, more human-caused, and so forth, than climate change.

Yet many communicators who care about the topic have actually gravitated to the term climate change in recent years, for various reasons – e.g. because it can seem more accurate and informative (for insiders, it refers to a broader set of changes than “mere” temperature rise), more consistent with audience’s experience of sometimes colder winters, and so forth. In fact, the report mentions a study showing that liberal think tanks have tended to use this less-engaging term – presumably for some of these reasons – while conservative think tanks are likely to say global warming. (Schuldt, J. P., Konrath, S. H., & Schwarz, N. 2011. “Global warming” or “climate change”? Whether the planet is warming depends on question wording. Public Opinion Quarterly, 75 (1), 115-124. doi:10.1093/poq/nfq073)

Based on the 4C report, though, it is hard not to conclude that global warming is the more effective term for communicators trying to reach audiences and get them on board with efforts to address the problem. As the authors note, “use of the term climate change appears to actually reduce issue engagement” with most audiences. If this is true (which I believe it is) then communicators’ choices have not been based on actual impacts of terms, but on their own beliefs and preferences, and even the “culture” of other advocates and experts they operate within. (Maybe saying climate change has become a marker that we are insiders who care about the problem – and maybe this also helps explain why Republicans are less likely to use the term, even though they were advised to use it in a memo from Republican communications strategist Frank Luntz, cited in the 4C report.)

In their conclusion, the authors offer the caveat that “connotative meanings are dynamic and change, sometimes rapidly.” True – but then again sometimes they don’t.

Along with my colleagues at the Topos Partnership, I conducted a study in 2009 that reached all the same bottom-line conclusions (Talking Global Warming to Environmental Supporters, Commissioned by the Social Capital Project on behalf of the Partnership Project). Global warming seemed more real to people than climate change in 2009, more important and pressing, and less natural – and it still does. As we suggested at the time, some of these patterns may simply reflect the fact that global warming was the term most people became familiar with first, and is still heard as essentially “the name of the problem.” Any other term, therefore, seems to refer to something different and less familiar. This is where various guesses come in, e.g. that climate change refers to natural cycles.

Who knows, maybe in another five years the term climate change will have all the right meanings and connotations. Time will tell. In the meantime, communicators wrestling with the choice between these terms should remember that is just as important to get other aspects of the communication right as to choose the right label for the issue. We need to connect the dots for people so they understand the links between energy choices and global warming, and between global warming and various practical damages (e.g. to agriculture and property). Audiences need to understand that we are talking about changes in wind patterns, precipitation and so forth, as well as temperature. They need to see that there are solutions we are working towards, but could work towards more effectively. And we need to make it clear that this is a problem that is already here and is having real-world effects – insurance companies, the military, farmers and marina owners, towns and counties are already spending real time and money figuring how to adapt to the changes that are happening.

If our communications are clear, effective and engaging in these other respects, the choice of labels becomes relatively less critical.

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