A new study finds that language matters when it comes to people’s perceptions of climate science: More people said they believe in “climate change” than in “global warming.”
The study from researchers at Cornell University demonstrates that Republicans were most starkly divided on the terms. They found that 74.4 percent of Republicans agreed that “climate change” is really happening, but only 65.5 percent said they believed in “global warming.” Democrats showed more consistency, with 94 percent saying they support the scientific conclusion that both “global warming” and “climate change” are happening. The paper was published in May in the journal Climatic Change.
Although the terms are often used equivalently, they can convey different meanings. The term “global warming” came into common use in the 1970s, as evidence mounted that the greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels trap heat in the atmosphere. In the years since, scientists have noted that there are other effects beyond warming, such as sea level rise and changes in weather pattern. “Climate change” is often used to encompass that broader range of effects.
Recognizing the different implications of the two words, Republicans tried to push the label “climate change” as an alternative to “global warming” during President George W. Bush’s first term. In 2003, a confidential memo by Republican consultant Frank Luntz claimed that Bush was most vulnerable on environmental issues and that the phrase “climate change” should be used in place of “global warming” to emphasize scientific uncertainty on the issue.
Jonathan Schuldt, an assistant professor of communication at Cornell and the study’s co-author, said the discrepancy between Democrats’ and Republicans’ perceptions of the terms may be more indicative of their policy preferences than a scientific judgment.
“Acknowledging the reality of global warming or climate change may lead to new government regulations on businesses, which goes against core conservative values,” Schuldt said in a statement. “So, telling a pollster that the phenomenon isn’t happening may reflect something about a person’s general policy preferences, not just their level of certainty that the global climate is changing.”
Co-author Peter Enns, an associate professor of government at Cornell, noted that the discrepancy between the terms is especially relevant considering President Donald Trump’s June 1 decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord. Almost all coverage of that decision used the word “climate,” while the study found that the vast majority of Trump’s tweets use the term “global warming.”
“Our results suggest that Trump’s emphasis on ‘global warming’ may be an effective rhetorical strategy that resonates with his Republican constituents, who express more skepticism in response to that term in particular,” said Schuldt in the statement.
Both researchers emphasized, however, that they think the polling shows more alignment between parties on the subject.
“If you ask people what they think about climate change ― not global warming ― we find that the partisan gap shrinks by about 30 percent,” Schuldt said in the statement. “There’s actually more agreement here than we think.”