Does giving a problem a different name increase public support for solving it? It depends which poll you look at. Yesterday, the Guardian reported a new survey showing people care more about climate change when it’s called “global warming”. But two weeks ago, Mother Jones said polling shows “it doesn’t matter” which label is used.
The Guardian story is based on a Yale Project on Climate Change Communication survey. Mother Jones looked at Gallup polling data.
So why the difference? And does it actually matter which terms are used?
It doesn’t matter
With polling, you get out what you put in – the questions asked in polls affect the answers people give. In this case, differences in the polling questions, and the focus of the polls themselves, have meant the two polls come to different, but complementary conclusions.
Gallup asked two different questions. The first asked how people how worried they were about a list of eight issues, of which “climate change” and “global warming” were two. The polling found no significantly significant difference between the two terms in how worried people said they were.
To probe further, in a separate poll Gallup asked different people how serious they thought both “climate change” and “global warming” were. Again, the differences were slight.
These findings led Mother Jones – via Gallup’s own analyst – to conclude that “The public responds to [the terms] global warming and climate change in a similar fashion…”
One thing to note is if people are asked about both terms at the same time (as Gallup’s first poll did), it may produce a different result than if people are only quizzed about one term. However, when we did a similar poll which split responders into two groups, we found there wasn’t much difference between the two terms.
It does matter
At first glance, the Yale survey appears to come to the opposite conclusion that people care about “global warming” more.
But a closer look at the polling shows there isn’t actually much disagreement. When the Yale survey asked people how worried they were about the issue, they also found only slight differences in the answers depending on whether the question used the term “global warming” or “climate change” – supporting the Gallup polling.
When the survey gets into the detail of how people feel about the issue differences between the terms emerge, however.
The Yale survey found that generally speaking, people had a more intense response to questions phrased using the term “global warming” than “climate change”.
For example, the Yale researchers asked whether people thought climate change/global warming would harm them and their families. It found more people felt threatened by “global warming” (38 per cent) than “climate change” (30 per cent), and more people thought the former was likely to harm their family (42 per cent vs. 33 per cent).
The survey also asked whether people associated each term with good or bad outcomes. It found fewer people associated “global warming” with positive changes to the environment than those that might occur with “climate change”.
Anthony Leiserowitz, lead researcher on the Yale study, told us that while the different terms may not have an impact on how serious people think the problem is, the two terms do make people feel differently about the issue.
Finding out if there was a difference between the two terms was only a secondary aim of Gallup’s poll. First and foremost it was interested in the politics of the split: whether people’s political allegiance affects how they hear the terms.
It found that although the different terms did slightly affect how people responded, the “partisan gap” between Republicans and Democrats stayed broadly the same regardless. Hence Gallup concluded it doesn’t matter which term is used.
The Yale survey was trying to work out something different – whether questions about climate get different responses depending on which term was used. As it turns out, they did (as the Gallup polls also found). Hence the Yale survey concluded that the different terms do matter.
Yale’s survey illustrates how each of the terms “comes preloaded”, Leiserowitz says. It shows “climate change” and “global warming” mean different things to different people, and that affects the answers they give.
So does it matter whether people use the term “climate change” or “global warming”? It depends on motivation of those using it.
If the objective is to impart climate with a sense of urgency, “global warming” may work better, the Yale survey suggests. If the aim is to communicate science, “climate change” may be best as scientists say it better encapsulates the broad impacts of rising greenhouse gas emissions.