The term “climate change” has now become the preferred way amongst scientists to refer to the phenomenon once known as “global warming.” Climate change is a far more accurate and broader term that speaks of the unprecedented warming, cooling, winds, storms and droughts that the globe has been experiencing. The term “climate change” dates back to 1956 and was scientifically in use 20 years before global warming. That term was coined in 1975.
Technically, global warming is a part of climate change. Where global warming is a specific rise in the average temperature of the planet, climate change represents a wide range of global effects, like the rise in sea levels, acidification of the oceans and unpredictable weather. When all of those phenomena get lumped together under the global warming umbrella, it creates the assumption that temperature has the ultimate control over the accuracy of assessments done by science.
For decades, climate communicators and scientists have been pointing out the important link between global warming and the lesser known aspects pertaining to climate change. The complexity, however, of the vast spectrum that is climate change may be overwhelming and difficult for the average person to wrap their head around. Whereas, global warming inspires specific images and is a concept that people can comprehend, even if they do not claim to believe in it.
From a pollster’s perspective, the choice between these two terms has various implications. The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication released a report this week that had some striking findings. The two terms, climate change and global warming, seem to mean different things depending on who is asked. Various sets of behaviors, beliefs and feelings are activated depending on which term is being talked about. On average, global warming has a tendency to evoke images and feelings about extreme weather. Climate change causes those asked to reflect on fluctuations in precipitation and temperature.
Conducted by researchers from George Mason University and Yale, the terms were randomly swapped in surveys that were otherwise the same. When the question was asking whether climate change was a bad or good thing, 63 percent of those polled answered that it was bad. When the same question was asked using global warming, 76 percent said that it was a bad thing. In an open-ended question, global warming still brought up more negative responses, particularly with political moderates. Twice the number of Hispanics said that global warming would personally harm them. The only real exception was Republicans. The views of self-identified conservatives did not change depending on the term used.
The director of The Yale Project, Anthony Leiserowitz, said that he will keep using the term global warming for his polls, for familiarities sake. Climate change may be common when talking about academics, but in public discourse, that is still not the case. That may be slowly changing. In 2008, when The Yale Project began, the dominant term was global warming. Since that time, climate change as a topic has gained in popularity.
While Americans are still more likely to use the term global warming, many more than even six years ago are familiar with the term climate change. Though climate change may be a more accurate term to use, global warming, however, is better at making the point that something may need to change in the way humans treat the planet.
By Stacy Lamy