Do the words ‘climate change’ work best?

"Public support for regulating greenhouse gases appears to depend on question order—whether people are first asked what they believe or what scientists believe," says Jonathon Schuldt. (Credit: Luis Ramirez/Flickr)

Questions about “climate change” versus “global warming” elicit different responses from some Americans.

“A key finding is that the public perceives more scientific agreement on the issue of ‘climate change’ than ‘global warming,'” reports study author Jonathon Schuldt of Cornell University, who led the study examining a survey of 2,000 American adults.

“Recent studies suggest that perceiving a scientific consensus is an important predictor of people’s support for new regulations that address the problem.”

“And more Americans report personally believing that ‘climate change’ is real, compared to ‘global warming,'” adds Schuldt, assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Along with Sungjong Roh, a Cornell doctoral candidate in the field of communication, and Norbert Schwarz, a USC professor of psychology, Schuldt reports results of the study in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

The study is part of a special issue devoted to the “politicization of science.” The authors think “global warming” and “climate change” are a prime example of how small differences in survey design can equate to large differences in survey results.

The pre-millennium “greenhouse effect” required some understanding of atmospheric gases, thermal radiation, and other far-out stuff. The related “global warming” seemed to work for a while—until anomalous record-cold temperatures gave deniers leverage on the issue.

“Climate change”—and more recently, “global climate change”—might be less polarizing, the researchers suspected.

Mixing up the questions

To find out, they designed an online survey to query personal beliefs: whether the phenomenon (“climate change” or, alternately, “global warming”) truly exists; whether scientists agree about the phenomenon (by one name or the other); and whether climate-mitigation policies (such as mandatory reduction in CO2 emissions) deserve support.

Further noting the importance of careful survey design, Schuldt says: “Public support for regulating greenhouse gases appears to depend on question order—whether people are first asked what they believe or what scientists believe.”

Survey participants were asked about their political inclination, and that’s where a curious difference appeared: “When Republicans were asked whether they supported regulating greenhouse gases in order to address ‘global warming,’ their level of support depended on whether they had just been asked for their personal belief or what scientists believe,” Schuldt continues.


“When asked for their personal belief in ‘global warming’ immediately before the greenhouse gas question, Republicans reported significantly less support for regulating CO2.”

No other political group (Democrats, Independents, or others) was significantly affected by question wording or question order, the authors report. They speculate that Democrats’ beliefs about global climate change might be “more crystallized.”

The online survey of 2,041 Americans took place between August 25-September 5, 2012 and was administered by the polling firm GfK/Knowledge Networks.

Subsequently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared 2012 America’s the hottest year on record.

The National Science Foundation-funded program Time-sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences supported the work.

Source: Cornell University