Although the terms ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ are often used interchangeably, researchers at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies recently found that the public responds differently to the two phrases.
A survey of 1,657 individuals suggested that Americans respond more forcefully to ‘global warming’ than to ‘climate change,’ and that they were twice as likely to use the term ‘global warming’ than ‘climate change’ in conversation. The study has the potential to influence the language used to shape the climate debate, said Anthony Leiserowitz, a lead author of the study and director of the Yale Project on Climate Communications (YPCC).
“This isn’t about dictionary definitions—it’s about connotation,” he said.
The study revealed that the term ‘global warming’ brings to mind images of melting glaciers and other natural disasters, while ‘climate change’ does not produce such a strong reaction.
The YPCC had considered changing the language in their surveys from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’, but only if shift would not influence popular perception of the issues. In response to the findings, the YPCC will continue using the term ‘global warming.’ For the study, YPCC partnered with the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communications.
While ‘global warming’ is currently the dominant term, Leiserowitz said ‘climate change’ still appeals to many members of the scientific community because it describes the broader changing weather patterns and therefore accounts for both global warming and cooling. Additionally, in political disputes over climate science, some politicians have used the term ‘climate change’ instead of ‘global warming’ to avoid its negative connotation.
The findings appeared in a May 2014 report called “What’s In A Name? Global Warming Versus Climate Change.”