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'Global Warming' or 'Climate Change?': Which Is the Proper Term?

A new study finds “global warming” and “climate change” carry different meanings and deeper stresses for various Americans.
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Welcome to the “to-MA-to”--“to-MAH-to” debate for discussing a toastier Earth.

A new Yale University study finds that sort of verbal switcheroo carries weight when Americans use or hear “global warming” versus “climate change.”

Depending on the political views of the person speaking or listening, the phrase “global warming” and “climate change” can evoke opposing emotions and beliefs –- and varying degrees of urgency about our obligation to respond, Yale researchers reported Tuesday.

But no matter which side of the debate a person falls on, there’s a common truth: the utterance of “global warming” is more apt to grab his or her attention than the use of “climate change” the researchers found.

For example, referencing “global warming” (as opposed to “climate change”) is linked to “a greater sense of personal threat, especially among women, the Greatest Generation (68+), African-Americans, Hispanics, Democrats, Independents, Republicans, liberals and moderates,” states the Yale report.

The study, which does not endorse or disavow any atmospheric science, had one goal –- to learn how the two terms “get interpreted by the American public,” said lead researcher Anthony Leiserowitz, a research scientist at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The findings are based on two nationally representative surveys of more than 2,600 American adults conducted between November and January.

“This whole realm of connotative meaning is actually where most of us live our daily lives. When looking at a menu and deciding what to have for lunch, you see the word ‘sushi’ –- some people have the reaction, ‘Oh, delicious, I’ll order that,’ and other people have a reaction of: ‘Disgusting, raw fish.’ So these terms play out not only in our every day decision making but also in our politics,” Leiserowitz said.

“So, is it ‘the estate tax’ or the ‘death tax?’ Is it ‘the Affordable Care Act’ or ‘ObamaCare?’ These terms carry with them all these additional values, images and associations that come up in people’s minds,” he added.

By pure scientific definition, the phrases do differ. In most scientific journals, “global warming,” refers to the planet’s surface-temperature increase and “climate change” refers to the weather impacts wrought by those higher temperatures.

But even experts often swap those words back and forth.

“Scientists tend to prefer using climate change because it encompasses non-heat-related results such as ocean acidification and increases in heavy rain events,” said Suzanne Shaw, director of communications for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-partisan group of biologists, physicists and others. “However, for public audiences, global warming seems to be better understood as the phenomenon we are experiencing so we tend to use them interchangeably, and it doesn't seem to confuse people.”

They do, however, carry different weights among variously aligned sub-groups, Yale discovered. For example, according to the report, “global warming” is rated as “very bad” compared to “climate change” among:

• Women: (35 percent think it is “very bad” versus 22 percent who do not).

• Generation Y: (38 percent versus 24 percent).

• The Greatest Generation: (35 percent versus 20 percent).

• African-Americans: (34 percent versus14 percent).

• Hispanics: (44 percent versus 22 percent).

• Liberals (45 percent versus 37 percent),

• Conservatives: (19 percent versus 11 percent).

• Evangelicals: (30 percent vs. 17 percent).

“That kind of challenges that common wisdom that maybe we should be using the term ‘climate change’ because it’s a way of better engaging those audiences,” Leiserowitz said.

But is one more fair and less pejorative than the other?

“That is a judgment call. It’s complicated. It depends on who is the messenger. It depends on what your goals are. It depends on who your audiences are. Those are going to differ. The scientific community, for completely accurate and legitimate reasons, generally prefers the term ‘climate change’ because it captures a wider variety of the dimensions of the issue than does global warming.

“Everybody can make that decision for themselves. Use whatever term you want and mix them together,” he added. “These are the terms everybody uses and are going to be the ‘brand’ on this issue.”