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Study: “climate change” less in doubt than “global warming”

March 9, 2011
World Science staff

Many Amer­i­cans are skep­ti­cal about wheth­er the world’s weath­er is chang­ing, but ap­par­ently the amount of skep­ti­cism varies de­pend­ing on what that change is called.

More peo­ple pro­fess to be­lieve in “cli­mate change” than in “glob­al warm­ing,” though the terms are gen­er­ally used to re­fer to the same phe­nom­e­non, a study found. The re­sults al­so in­di­cat­ed that this dis­crep­an­cy in be­lief lev­els arises among peo­ple who iden­ti­fy them­selves as Re­pub­li­cans, not among those who call them­selves Democrats.

“Word­ing mat­ters,” said Jonathon Schuldt, the lead au­thor of a re­port on the study and a doc­tor­al can­di­date in psy­chol­o­gy in the Uni­vers­ity of Mich­i­gan. The re­port is to ap­pear in the next is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Pub­lic Opin­ion Quar­ter­ly.

Schuldt, with psy­chol­o­gists Sara Kon­rath and Nor­bert Schwarz at the uni­vers­ity, sur­veyed 2,267 U.S. adults on­line about their views on grad­u­ally ris­ing tem­per­a­tures on Earth, blamed by most ex­perts on emis­sions from hu­man burn­ing of fos­sil fu­els.

Half the par­ti­ci­pants were asked: “You may have heard about the idea that the world’s tem­per­a­ture may have been go­ing up over the past 100 years, a phe­nom­e­non some­times called ‘glob­al warm­ing.’ What is your per­son­al opin­ion re­gard­ing wheth­er or not this has been hap­pen­ing?

The oth­er half of par­ti­ci­pants were asked the same ques­tion, but with “glob­al warm­ing” re­placed by “cli­mate change” and “go­ing up” re­placed by “chang­ing.”

Sev­en­ty-four per­cent of re­spon­dents thought “cli­mate change” was real, but only 68 per­cent thought “glob­al warm­ing” was real, the re­search­ers found. The dis­crep­an­cy, they ob­served, was mainly at­trib­ut­a­ble to re­spon­dents iden­ti­fying them­selves as Re­pub­li­cans: the per­centage dif­fer­ence was 60 to 44 among them. Among self-described Democrats, on the oth­er hand, the per­centage of be­lievers was 86 re­gard­less of which word­ing was used.

The dif­fer­ent lev­els of be­lief may stem from the dif­fer­ent con­nota­t­ions of the two phrases, Schuldt said. “While glob­al warm­ing fo­cus­es at­ten­tion on tem­per­a­ture in­creases, cli­mate change fo­cus­es at­ten­tion on more gen­er­al changes,” he said. “Thus, an un­usu­ally cold day may in­crease doubts about glob­al warm­ing more so than about cli­mate change. Giv­en these dif­fer­ent as­socia­t­ions and the par­ti­san na­ture of this is­sue, cli­mate change be­lievers and skep­tics might be ex­pected to vary in their use of these terms.”

The re­search­ers al­so an­a­lyzed the use of these two terms on po­lit­i­cal think tank web­sites, find­ing that lib­er­als and con­ser­va­tives used dif­fer­ent terms. Con­serv­a­tive think tanks tend to call the phe­nom­e­non glob­al warm­ing, while lib­er­al think tanks call it cli­mate change.

Why weren’t Democrats in­flu­enced by ques­tion word­ing? “It might be a ceil­ing ef­fect, giv­en their high lev­el of be­lief,” Kon­rath said. “Or it could be that Democrats’ be­liefs about glob­al cli­mate change might be more crys­tal­lized, and as a re­sult, more pro­tected from sub­tle ma­nipula­t­ions.”

The good news is that Amer­i­cans may not be as po­lar­ized on the is­sue as pre­vi­ously thought, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors added. “The ex­tent of the par­ti­san di­vide on this is­sue de­pends heavily on ques­tion word­ing,” said Schwarz. “When the is­sue is framed as glob­al warm­ing, the par­ti­san di­vide is nearly 42 per­centage points. But when the frame is cli­mate change, the par­ti­san di­vide drops to about 26 per­centage points.”


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Many Americans are skeptical about whether the world’s weather is changing, but apparently the amount of skepticism varies depending on what that change is called. More people profess to believe in “climate change” than in “global warming,” though the terms are generally used to refer to the same phenomenon, a study found. The results also indicated that this discrepancy in belief levels arises among people who identify themselves as Republicans, not among those who call themselves Democrats. “Wording matters,” said Jonathon Schuldt, the lead author of a report on the study and a doctoral candidate in psychology in the University of Michigan. The report is to appear in the next issue of the research journal Public Opinion Quarterly, Schuldt, with psychologists Sara Konrath and Norbert Schwarz at the university, surveyed 2,267 U.S. adults online about their views on gradually rising temperatures on Earth, blamed by most experts on emissions from human burning of fossil fuels. Half the participants were asked: “You may have heard about the idea that the world’s temperature may have been going up over the past 100 years, a phenomenon sometimes called ‘global warming.’ What is your personal opinion regarding whether or not this has been happening? The other half of participants were asked the same question, but with “global warming” replaced by “climate change” and “going up” replaced by “changing.” Seventy-four percent of respondents thought “climate change” was real, but only 68 percent thought “global warming” was real, the researchers found. The discrepancy, they observed, was mainly attributable to respondents identifying themselves as Republicans: the percentage difference was 60 to 44 among them. Among self-described Democrats, on the other hand, the percentage of believers was 86 regardless of which wording was used. The different levels of belief may stem from the different connotations of the two terms, Schuldt said. “While global warming focuses attention on temperature increases, climate change focuses attention on more general changes,” he said. “Thus, an unusually cold day may increase doubts about global warming more so than about climate change. Given these different associations and the partisan nature of this issue, climate change believers and skeptics might be expected to vary in their use of these terms.” The researchers also analyzed the use of these two terms on political think tank websites, finding that liberals and conservatives used different terms. Conservative think tanks tend to call the phenomenon global warming, while liberal think tanks call it climate change. Why weren’t Democrats influenced by question wording? “It might be a ceiling effect, given their high level of belief,” Konrath said. “Or it could be that Democrats’ beliefs about global climate change might be more crystallized, and as a result, more protected from subtle manipulations.” The good news is that Americans may not be as polarized on the issue as previously thought, the investigators added. “The extent of the partisan divide on this issue depends heavily on question wording,” said Schwarz. “When the issue is framed as global warming, the partisan divide is nearly 42 percentage points. But when the frame is climate change, the partisan divide drops to about 26 percentage points.”