Ordinary People Respond More Strongly to “Global Warming” Than to “Climate Change”

Americans respond differently to the same scientific concept depending on the terminology being used

Photo: Hero Images/Corbis

What's the difference between climate change and global warming? Although the two terms describe the same phenomenon, climate researchers from Yale University wondered if ordinary people respond differently to the two different names.

The answer, it turns out, is yes. Around 1,000 Americans who took part in a nationally representative survey responded significantly more strongly to the phrase global warming than to climate change, they found. When global warming is referenced instead of climate change, people tend to say they're more certain that the planet is warming up, are more likely attribute much of that warming to humans and agree that there is a scientific consensus on the issue. They're also more likely to perceive global warming as a personal threat and to say that they're worried about it. 

Between 2004 to 2014, the researchers found, people Googled the phrase global warming more often than climate change. People also said that they prefer to use the term "global warming" in casual conversation with friends and family. And, finally, people ranked global warming as a higher priority for elected officials, the president and Congress to take action on, compared to climate change. 

"Scientists often prefer the term climate change for technical reasons, but should be aware that the two terms generate different interpretations among the general public," the researchers write in a statement. Eventually, they continue, the two phrases might become synonymous in the public's mind as the issues persist over the years, but "in the meantime, however, the results of these studies strongly suggest that the two terms continue to mean different things to many Americans."

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