Today, we are releasing a special report
(based on a nationally representative experimental study) that finds the terms global warming
and climate change
often mean different things to Americans—and activate different sets of beliefs, feelings, and behaviors, as well as different degrees of urgency about the need to respond.
We found that the term global warming
is associated with greater public understanding, emotional engagement, and support for personal and national action than the term climate change
For example, the term global warming
is associated with:
- Greater certainty that the phenomenon is happening, especially among men, Generation X (31-48), and liberals;
- Greater understanding that human activities are the primary cause among Independents;
- Greater understanding that there is a scientific consensus about the reality of the phenomenon among Independents and liberals;
- More intense worry about the issue, especially among men, Generation Y (18-30), Generation X, Democrats, liberals and moderates;
- A greater sense of personal threat, especially among women, the Greatest Generation (68+), African-Americans, Hispanics, Democrats, Independents, Republicans, liberals and moderates;
- Higher issue priority ratings for action by the president and Congress, especially among women, Democrats, liberals and moderates;
- Greater willingness to join a campaign to convince elected officials to take action, especially among men, Generation X, liberals and moderates.
In a separate nationally representative survey, we found that while Americans are equally familiar with the two terms, they are four times more likely to say they hear the term global warming
in public discourse than climate change
. Likewise, Americans are two times more likely to say they personally use the term “global warming” in their own conversations than climate change
The results strongly suggest that global warming
and climate change
are used differently and mean different things in the minds of many Americans. Scientists often prefer the term climate change
for technical reasons, but should be aware that the two terms generate different interpretations among the general public and specific subgroups. Some issue advocates have argued that the term climate change
is more likely to engage Republicans in the issue, however, the evidence from these studies suggests that in general the terms are synonymous for Republicans – i.e., neither term is more engaging than the other, although in several cases, global warming
generates stronger feelings of negative affect and stronger perceptions of personal and familial threat among Republicans; they are also more likely to believe that global warming
is already affecting weather in the United States.
By contrast, the use of the term climate change
appears to actually reduce
issue engagement by Democrats, Independents, liberals, and moderates, as well as a variety of subgroups within American society, including men, women, minorities, different generations, and across political and partisan lines. In several cases, the differences in the effect of the two terms are large. For example, African Americans (+20 percentage points) and Hispanics (+22) are much more likely to rate global warming
as a “very bad thing” than climate change
. Generation X (+21) and liberals (+19) are much more likely to be certain global warming
is happening. African-Americans (+22) and Hispanics (+30) are much more likely to perceive global warming
as a personal threat, or that it will harm their own family (+19 and +31, respectively). Hispanics (+28) are much more likely to say global warming
is already harming people in the United States right now. And Generation X (+19) is more likely to be willing to join a campaign to convince elected officials to take action to reduce global warming
than climate change
It is important to note, however, that connotative meanings are dynamic and change, sometimes rapidly. It is possible that with repeated use, climate change
will come to acquire similar connotative meanings as global warming
, that the two will eventually become synonymous for most people, or that climate change
will supplant global warming
as the dominant term in public discourse. In the meantime, however, the results of these studies strongly suggest that the two terms continue to mean different things to many Americans.
The report includes an executive summary, a Google Trends analysis, an analysis of the top of mind associations generated by the two terms, and methodological details. It can be downloaded here: What’s In a Name? Global Warming vs. Climate Change.
I’ll be back in touch soon with findings from our spring Climate Change in the American Mind survey.
As always, thanks for your support and interest in our work!
Anthony Leiserowitz, Ph.D.
Director, Yale Project on Climate Change Communication
School of Forestry & Environmental Studies