Research & Insights

Some Chilling Findings About Global Warming Surveys

Although there’s scientific consensus that the planet is warming and that human activities are largely responsible, many Americans still don’t believe things are so dire. New research suggests that at least some of this disconnect can be chalked up to language, particularly, the wording of opinion surveys about whether people believe in “global warming” or “climate change.”

Writing in the March 2015 issues of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, communications scholars Jonathon Schuldt and Sungjong Roh from Cornell University and University of Southern California professor of psychology and marketing Norbert Schwarz describe the results of a study that found that surveys that use the phrase “climate change” or “global warming” produce unique results about how people feel about the problem.

Researchers questioned respondents on their beliefs about climate change, their opinions on whether “most scientists believe that climate change… is occurring,” and whether “the federal government should… regulate the release of greenhouse gases from sources like power plants, cars and factories” to mitigate the effects of climate change. Some of the surveys used the phrase “climate change” in the questions while others used “global warming.”

The researchers found that language matters. While nearly 70 percent of participants said they believe in “climate change,” only 62 percent believed in “global warming.” The divide was even starker when the researchers compared Democrats with Republicans. For Democrats, belief in climate change was mostly steady whether the survey asked about “climate change” or “global warming.” But for Republican participants, only 46 percent believed in “global warming,” while 59 percent expressed a belief in “climate change.”

The order in which questions were asked also affected how participants responded. “[W]hen support for climate mitigation policy was asked directly after personal existence beliefs [i.e. do respondents believe that climate change exist?], Republicans were less likely to support limiting greenhouse gas emissions to reduce ‘global warming’ as compared to ‘climate change,’” the researchers write.

Schuldt, Roh and Schwarz say their work has implications for understanding Americans’ attitudes about climate change and policy. “Many national surveys purporting to measure partisans’ beliefs about climate change employ questions that are worded in terms of global warming – a less trivial detail than it may at first appear,” they note. “[O]ur results suggest that the well-known political divide… may partly derive from question wording, given our finding that the pronounced partisan gap on ‘global warming’ gives way to a broader consensus when the questionnaire instead asks about ‘climate change.’” These findings highlight the importance of wording in climate change communications.

The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, March 2015 

Jonathon P. Schuldt and Sungjong Roh, Cornell University
Norbert Schwarz , University of Southern California

Posted: April 28, 2015
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