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What's in a Name? Global Warming vs. Climate Change in the Eyes of Americans

In a surprising report released today by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, researchers looked at the impact of the two most common terms for human-induced climate warming—global warming and climate change—on Americans.

The authors 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," which is often favored by scientists.  

Among other findings, the report—What's In A Name? Global Warming vs. Climate Changeshowed the term "global warming" appears to be 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.

While for some in-the-know, the two phrases are often seen as synonymous, the report—which analyzed three separate studies—clearly shows that they mean different things to different Americans. The general public tends to favor the term "global warming"—and perhaps we should take note.

The need for climate mitigation seems to be growing more urgent by the day. Just this month, the Obama Administration released the National Climate Report which concluded that global warming is increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, Center for Naval Analyses released its National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change report saying that climate change is a "catalyst for conflict" and University of California, Irvine conclusively stated that the West Antarctic glacier has melted past the point of no return and will inevitably raise sea levels by up to four feet. 

Yet, the climate deniers still wield alarming influence. Big contenders with even bigger pocket books, like the Koch Brothers, are able to pump money into anti-climate campaigns, bills and agendas, drowning out the voices of scientists who continue to prove that climate change—or, global warming, rather—is real, caused in part by humans and happening right now. 

Could the expression "climate change" be the culprit for the lack of action taken on the issue? Cognitive meaning can and does change, so perhaps with the continued use of "climate change," it will come to acquire a similar meaning as "global warming" in the minds of Americans. But language choices can influence public policy. The terms we use to describe our world shape the way in which we see it. And, as with most things, the key to mobilizing the public is to appeal to emotions on a personal level, which as this study has shown, might be better conjured by a simple change of phrase.

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