A new US survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that the term “global warming” appears to create a stronger sense of threat, greater proximity and greater desire for action than its long time sibling phrase “climate change”. Is this really so- and does it even matter?
The Yale survey is fascinating (well for those of us who fixate on such things anyway), showing that people regard global warming as more serious than climate change and are more confident that it is happening.
Especially revealing is that global warming has stronger proximity: People are more likely see it as harming them and their family and more likely to say that it is happening now and affecting current weather. Curiously- and I checked- the polling was conducted during a period of colder than average weather which could have been expected to disadvantage the term global warming.
This is just the latest skirmish in a long running debate about which of these two competing terms should dominate that has rolled along ever since the US scientist Wallace Broecker coined both of the core terms in a single 1975 article “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?”
Environmental campaigners hate both terms and seek, intermittently, to introduce new phrases (discussed by Andy Revkin here). Earth scientist James Lovelock for example, complains that global warming sounds like “a nice duvet on a cold winter’s day” and advocates Global Heating. Other proposals have included ‘Global Weirding’, “global climate disruption”and Al Gore has contributed neologisms like Climate Chaos, Climate Crisis or, more recently Dirty Weather. Seth Godin, a communications specialist, wondered whether calling it “Atmosphere Cancer” or “Pollution Death” might not have garnered more concern. It’s unlikely, since to anyone conservative the terms sound outrageously biased and to anyone else they sound like heavy metal bands.
Having two terms generates confusion and has led to a politicised battle to promote the term that each side assumes will serve its interests. In the late 1980s, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia lobbied in the world climate negotiations for the language of early resolutions to be changed from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ on the assumption that this sounded less emotive and, more importantly, had less connection to the burning of fossil fuels.
In a notorious internal memo to Republicans in 2003 communications consultant Frank Luntz argued that the term climate change sounds more moderate and controllable. As evidence he cited one focus group participant saying that climate change “sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale”. The Bush administration duly followed his advice, and President Bush adopted the term climate change in all subsequent speeches. Ironically climate deniers now accuse environmentalists of seeking to suppress the phrase ‘global warming’ because, they claim, temperatures are no longer increasing.
So, even if the overall picture is that people respond more strongly to the term global warming, there are important underlying divisions. Dr. Ashley Anderson at Colorado State University, one of the authors of the Yale research, said last year in an interview with Carbon Brief:
“The differences in interpretations of the two phrases tend to fall on political lines, with Republicans being less likely to believe global warming is happening than climate change…while Democrats would rate global warming as more serious than climate change.“
The new Yale figures suggest that global warming may have a greater advantage with Republicans than previously thought, but this still hides a much greater problem- that the difference in attitudes associated from the rival terms is tiny compared with the yawning gulf between people who think that it (whatever it is called) is happening or is not happening – or whether they even care. In my view polling on climate change can never provide a complete picture because it calls on people to give an opinion on a topic that, in reality, most of them give little if any thought to.
This Yale survey, for example, found that over a third of people thought that the issue- whatever it is called- it should be a “high or very high priority for the president or congress”. But when the Pew Research Centre asked people last year to rank “global warming” (it used that phrase) among twenty other issues that could be a priority for the president it came in at the bottom. Pew has been asking this question every year since 2001 and, even at the peak of public concern around 2007, global warming has never moved off bottom slot, way below such front-of-mind issues as economy, health and deficit, but also below such intangibles as “dealing with the moral breakdown” and “reducing the influence of lobbyists”.
So, yes, people care a bit, and they may care marginally more than that with slightly different terminology. But the critical consideration remains the cultural priming around the issue as a whole. This raises a number of other issues about language that I would have liked Yale to ask: to what extent do people personally identify which either phrase? Can they describe who they think uses each phrase? Which phrase do they associate with their own social in-group and which do they associate with outside groups?
It is most revealing that, when invited to choose “a word that comes to mind”, the strongest response, by far, was “naysaying”- that is to say, the strongest association for either term was with social meaning and conflict rather than the scientific content. This follows closely on research by the University of New Hampshire, released last week, that found that climate change (it used this phrase) is now a more politically divisive issue than gun control, abortion or the death penalty.
In a way then, a little terminological ambiguity is an advantage in the polarised framing war surrounding this issue. I very much hope that communicators do not take the lesson from this that they should all talk from one phrasebook about “global warming”. As soon as we do, that phrase will become irrevocably poisoned by its association with advocates and, every time it is used, will reinforce the cultural battlelines.
And, in any case, does it really matter? Although neither phrase is ideal, neither is disastrously bad either and both have sufficiently bland emptiness that they allow new people to fill them with their own meanings. In the end names become associated with the associations we put on them. Things often thrive with bizarrely inappropriate names. Radio Shack? Craig’s List? Sometimes you just have to work with what you have and concentrate on giving it the social meaning that creates conviction.
This article was excerpted, in part, from George Marshall’s new book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, which will be released by Bloomsbury US in August 2014.