Which one is it? ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’

Which one is it? ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’
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Scientifically, global warming typically refers to an increase in long-run average global surface temperatures, while climate change includes a broader suite of alterations linked to fossil fuel combustion — including ocean acidification, sea-level rise and mass species migration, to name a few.

Yet, for many, there’s a tendency to treat the two terms as if they mean the same thing. This appears to be true even in professions that are known for choosing their words carefully, including journalism and public opinion polling.

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A recent example can be found in media coverage of polling results. In covering the latest findings from the Climate Change in the American Mind project at Yale and George Mason, The Guardian declared “Americans’ climate change concerns surge to record levels, poll shows.” In fact, the survey being discussed asked respondents about “global warming,” not “climate change” — a feature that is true of other leading polls on the topic as well. Although this may seem like a minor difference, there is reason to expect that it matters for how people think about and respond to the issue.  

First, research conducted in the U.K. has found that people associate different causes and effects with “global warming” versus “climate change.” Among other differences, “global warming” seems to particularly direct people’s attention to heat effects (like melting ice) and to humanity’s role in affecting the planet. Research in the U.S. finds that people report less belief when survey questions ask about “global warming” rather than “climate change,” which is especially true of Republicans and Independents

In one study, an apparent majority of Republicans (60.2 percent) reported believing that “climate change” was real. However, this flipped to an apparent minority of Republicans (44.0 percent) when the survey instead asked about “global warming.” Democrats typically report higher levels of environmental concern and policy support, and as such, their beliefs may be more entrenched and robust to wording influences.    

If word choice matters, why do pollsters ask about “global warming” to understand public opinion on “climate change”? There are at least two likely factors:

First, the term “global warming” dominated popular discourse until only recently, which can be seen in Google search patterns. “Global warming” was searched far more often than “climate change” up until the early 2010s, when “climate change” finally caught up.

Making sure that respondents understand the topic of the question is fundamental in survey research — because of this, it made sense to use the more popular phrase when polling on the topic began.

What’s more, because question wording can affect how people respond, keeping question wording the same allows survey researchers to compare responses across groups, contexts and time. This is an important function of survey research, but it is also one that encourages the continued use of a term that fails to capture the many facets of the issue – beyond temperature patterns – that we care about.   

What does this mean? It suggests that public concern about one of our greatest threats may actually exceed the record highs found in recent polling. Simply put, by taking survey questions that are worded in terms of “global warming” as indicative of attitudes toward “climate change,” we may be underestimating Americans’ acceptance of the latter and willingness to support strong actions to help remedy it. 

It may seem like semantics. But these semantics might have global consequences.   

Jonathon P. Schuldt is associate professor of communication at Cornell University, and faculty affiliate at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and Atkinson Center for Sustainable Future. He is currently visiting professor at the Laboratoire Inter-universitaire de Psychologie at the Université Grenoble Alpes. Follow him on Twitter at @JonathonSchuldt