BOB GARFIELD: Earlier this week, the Environmental Protection Agency rolled out the Obama administration's ambitious proposal to drastically cut carbon pollution from power plants by the year 2030.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: This plan cuts carbon pollution by building a clean energy economy, using more clean energy, less dirty energy, and wasting less energy throughout our economy.
BOB GARFIELD: More clean energy, less dirty energy. Put that way, how can you say no? Especially when real action is needed to solve the pressing problem of, what do you call-it, “Climate Change,” “Manmade Climate Change, “Global Warming,” “Global Weirding”? Leaving aside which is most accurate, which term is most likely to inspire policies to confront the problem, or not confront it?
In 2002, Republican strategist Frank Luntz sent a secret memo to the Bush White House asking that very question and, of course, answering it. Here's Luntz in a 2006 CBC documentary.
FRANK LUNTZ: “Global warming” suggests something more cataclysmic, “climate change” suggests something more gradual, something that takes place over time. “Global warming” is more frightening, “climate change” is less so.
BOB GARFIELD: So the Bush administration effectively banned the term “global warming” and replaced it with “climate change.” Now, 12 years later, the media pretty much use the terms interchangeably. But maybe they shouldn’t. Anthony Leiserowitz is the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and a chief researcher of the new study, “What’s In a Name? Global Warming Versus Climate Change.” He was trying to gauge the relative power of each phrase on the general public.
ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: What we found is that the terms really do seem to still elicit very different kind of reactions. The term “global warming” led to greater certainty that the phenomenon is happening, greater understanding that human activities are the primary cause and greater worry about the issue, including a sense of personal threat. And that was true not just across the whole country but even among specific subgroups like Hispanics or liberals or Generation X or Generation Y. So, while the terms are often used interchangeably by the media, by politicians, by scientists, among the general public the two terms don't yet quite mean the same thing.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, obviously, this terminology has political ramifications, how people respond to different ways of phrasing the same problem, but not necessarily the obvious implications. For example, there was a feeling in the advocacy community that it was better to talk to Republicans using the less loaded term in order to keep their attention. You researched this phenomenon.
ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: That’s right, and we still found that Republicans engage this issue more when it’s called “global warming.” It generated stronger feelings that this is a bad thing, stronger perceptions that they are personally or that their own family is personally at threat and even to believe that global warming is already affecting weather in the United States. So it does suggest, among Republicans, as well as the rest of the country, that, again, the term “global warming” just still is more engaging.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, one of the apparent effects of global climate change is a lot of severe weather, and I wonder if you investigated whether the ongoing devastation of more frequent tropical storms, tornadoes, drought, and so forth, skew perceptions in one direction or another, in terms of language choice?
ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: About eight out of ten Americans tell us that they have personally experienced one or more natural weather disasters in the past couple of years and, moreover, a third of Americans say that they have been personally harmed by one or more these events. We asked Americans, what’s the first word or phrase that comes to mind when you hear “global warming” or “climate change.” We knew that “climate change” was generally more strongly associated with changes in weather, but when we looked within people's associations to that, we nonetheless found the “global warming” was actually much more strongly associated with references to extreme weather, so weather disasters - hurricanes, tornadoes, etc. - those were still much more likely to be associated with “global warming” than they were with “climate change.”
BOB GARFIELD: One of the problems with communicating the idea of the stakes of global climate change is ideology and belief systems that simply do not square with reality, with data, with scientific evidence. People have their minds set and aren’t really fixin’ to change them. In that environment, does a choice of terminology really matter?
ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: Throughout many years of our work, we have identified a phenomenon that's called, in psychology, motivated reasoning, that there are some people who are so convinced that climate change is here and happening and is such an enormously serious problem and then, at the other end of the spectrum, you have those who dismiss the reality and the seriousness and, in fact, many of them think it's a hoax. Those two extremes, of the people who are really, really worried about it and those people who think it's a hoax, they've already made up their minds very, very strongly. And so, new information that contradicts what they already believe is highly unlikely to be accepted.
And it's not because they're worried about the problem itself. What they're worried about is the potential policy solution, because it is the ultimate collective action problem. I mean, as important it is for all of us to take our own individual actions of reducing energy at home and on the road and insulating your attic and doing all those good things, which are part of the solution, in the end voluntary action is not going to solve this. It's going to require state level action, national action and yes, global coordinated action. And to people with this deeply individualistic worldview, that’s fightin’ words. So, if you're talking to, for instance, someone who is convinced that climate change is a hoax and a big conspiracy, it doesn't matter what you call it.
BOB GARFIELD: Have you come up with another coinage that might replace “climate change” and “global warming,” something maybe all inclusive and yet more terrifying?
ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: There have been a number of alternatives proposed. Some people prefer the term “climate disruption” or “climate chaos” or Tom Friedman has promoted “global weirding,” as an example. But, in the end, I don't believe we’re going to change out and replace the term “climate change” or “global warming” in most people's minds. But, if you were Coca-Cola and you wanted to come up with a new name for your soft drink, you’d have to spend billions of dollars, and it would take decades of hard work [LAUGHS] to get people to stop using the term “Coke” and switch over to a new term. For better or for worse, we've been using the terms “global warming” and “climate change” for decades, and so, you know, the idea that we can just simply change the term and that's going to suddenly change the way the world as a whole responds to this issue I think is highly unlikely.
BOB GARFIELD: I don’t know, Frank Luntz made quite a career doing that. In fact, let me go “Luntzian” on you. Ready, Anthony?
ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Death weather.
ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: [LAUGHS] Oh, my. I’m not gonna endorse that.
BOB GARFIELD: Scholars, so annoyingly rigorous!
Anthony, thank you very much.
ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: [LAUGHING] Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Anthony Leiserowitz is director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and a principal investigator of the new study, “What’s In a Name? Global Warming Versus Climate Change.”