I originally published this on The Guardian.
What term works better to communicate about our warming planet, “climate change” or “global warming”?
The study, and the various commentary about it, is interesting, not just because it finds that “the terms global warming and climate change often mean different things to Americans—and activate different sets of beliefs, feelings, and behaviors, as well as different degrees of urgency about the need to respond”, but because it highlights why climate communication is so difficult.
Just why is it so hard to talk about the climate?
Harry Enten’s FiveThirtyEight article is a good place to start, because it underscores the problem. The article explores the use by Democratic and Republican members of congress. Enten shows that despite the Yale study showing that Democratic voters responding better to the “global warming” terminology, Democrats in congress prefer to say “climate change”. In fact, Republicans were more likely to say “global warming” than Democrats, which is the opposite of what the Yale study recommends. Enten also notes that the same phenomenon is found in US television, with Democratic-leaning shows like Hardball preferring “climate change” and Republican leaning shows like Hannity preferring “global warming”.
The Yale study showed that not only did Americans use the term global warming themselves, but they heard it more in public discourse, suggesting that despite Democrats politicians and media figures saying “climate change” more, it engages them less.
Of course, there have been many studies, and the frustrating thing for climate communicators and campaigners is that they are often contradictory. For example, a study from 2011 showed that Republicans preferred “climate change” to “global warming” when endorsing the reality of the threat.
Another study by EcoAmerica from 2009 suggested “global warming” be ditched and the phrase “our deteriorating atmosphere” be deployed to better engage “soccer moms” and “environmental agnostics”. The awkward term never caught on, and neither has Joe Romm’s preferred term “hell or highwater” or “global weirding” (coined by Friedman).
Even the Australian Parliamentary Library has weighed in with a briefing paper on the topic, unhelpfully adding the UNFCCC’s use of “climate variability” to the mix.
The debate about terminology would be an interesting side note were not the issue so important. Global warming, or climate change if you prefer, is the greatest threat facing humankind this century. These seemingly innocuous phrases profoundly affect how people perceive the issues, assess the seriousness and support efforts to mitigate global warming. The complication is that although terminology is important, the manner and scale of influence is difficult to measure or understand.
Yet, commentators and communicators often firmly come down on one side or the other, with staunch views about what works and what doesn’t. (I use the terms interchangeably in this article and more generally in my articles for The Guardian.)
A significant contributor to this is the illusion of asymmetric insight, a fascinating cognitive bias that helps explain, in my view, why climate communication is so diabolically difficult.
Asymmetric insight is a phenomenon where someone believes they understand the reasons why other people do or believe things, while at the same time being skeptical that others could ever understand them.
Research by academics Pronin, Ross, Kruger and Savitsky from 2001 into this phenomenon found that not only do you believe you understand hidden states in others far better than they know in you, but when this is expanded to groups, it’s even more pronounced:
The results showed liberals believed they knew more about conservatives than conservatives knew about liberals. The conservatives believed they knew more about liberals than liberals knew about conservatives. Both groups thought they knew more about their opponents than their opponents knew about themselves.
This bias is commonplace and widespread, and definitely not confined to climate communication. During elections, we see this cognitive bias on display nightly by pundits and commentators who confidently explain that movements in polls can be explained because voters think one thing or another, or are responding to a recent event.
When you hear statements like “people support Obama’s climate change policies because…” or “Democrats prefer the term ‘global warming’ because…”, you are seeing this bias.
People, especially commentators, believe that they see the world how it really is, whereas most other people (especially those people who disagree with them) are deluded, ignorant or self-interested. The bias of asymmetric insight means that people are less likely to see others who disagree with them in nuanced or complex ways; simple things can explain complex and multifaceted changes in opinion or actions.
Tying into the difficulty of climate communications is the fact that typically the people doing research into this field – and again, the same applies to other areas – are heavily invested in the area. Climate communicators mostly care deeply about the dangers of run-away climate change. The result is that they often underestimate the extent to which most people are ambivalent or uninterested in the issue.
Because asking questions about peoples’ attitudes on an issue will generally prompt a response, the disinterest and ambivalence is hidden, and so it is easy to assume that most people have a latent interest or concern about global warming, when in fact they probably don’t. The ups and downs of climate polling in Australia for example appears to show an increase in the polarisation over the issue, but it is easy to over emphasise that when you’re asking the question compared to large swathes of the community where the issue may rarely or never come up.
The Yale study found that as many people “use neither” (35 percent) as use the term “global warming” (35 percent) and more than double that use “climate change” (15 percent). This suggests to me that as a communications challenge, regardless of the term used, the biggest barrier is disinterest, not the specific language being used.
A lot of communications is done by heuristics, but even when hard numbers, in the form of polling, is brought to the equation, there is an enormous risk that judgemental shortcuts are used to interpret those numbers. Because we believe we can understand why people believe the things they do (while at the same time not believing that others could possibly understand us), it is easy to skew or ignore the results of research like the Yale study.
As far back as 2003, Republican pollster Frank Luntz advocated Republicans use the term “climate change”, ostensibly to give the Republicans cover against the far more effective term “global warming”. The memo is worth reading even eleven years later, and the Yale study and many other studies over the last few years simply confirms much of what Luntz wrote then.
And although Luntz highlights his “words that work”, really what he does is build a context through which he can influence peoples’ attitudes. Creating this context goes beyond the “silver bullet” of a single phrase by creating shared meaning. The Yale paper again underscores this, as I noted earlier: the terms “global warming” and “climate change” mean different things to different people.
Just changing from one phrase to another without also shifting the context is unlikely to change attitudes. This would be as ineffective as the long-standing and fruitless focus on the “deficit model” of environmental communication.
The diabolical challenge for climate communications is that we often think we are gaining valuable insights from research like the Yale study, but more likely we are succumbing to the illusion of asymmetric insight.