U.S.

'Global Warming' Scares More People Than 'Climate Change'

Although the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, a survey found that they illicit different reactions in Americans.

'Global Warming' Scares More People Than 'Climate Change'
Yale University / George Mason University

What's more frightening: "global warming" or "climate change"? A new study found more Americans are worried about global warming and, although the two terms have been used interchangeably by politicians and the media, they can mean two completely different things to some Americans. (Via U.S. Geological Survey, Flickr / Jens Schott Knudsen‚Äč)

For reference, the study's authors from Yale University and George Mason University define global warming as, "the increase in the Earth’s average surface temperature since the Industrial Revolution," whereas climate change is "the long-term change of the Earth’s climate including changes in temperature, precipitation, and wind patterns over a period of several decades or longer."

The researchers surveyed 1,657 participants, and found the term global warming generated stronger negative feelings among a wide range of Americans. Among those most affected by the term were "women, Generation Y, the Greatest Generation, African-Americans, Hispanics, Democrats, Independents, Moderates, conservatives, and evangelicals." Are we missing anyone? (Via Flickr / Aristocrats-hat)

When asked which term was considered a bad thing, 63 percent chose global warming while 76 percent of participants chose climate change — a 13 point difference. 

Global warming was also associated with "extreme weather" and catastrophes, while climate change is associated with "general weather patterns."

The purpose of the study was to see how Americans interpreted the two terms. But why does that matter? 

Well, CBS reports in a 2002 memo to President George W. Bush, Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz told the President, "It's time for us to start talking about 'climate change' instead of global warming. ... 'Climate change' is less frightening than 'global warming.'"

The Guardian reports scientists actually prefer climate change over global warming for technical reasons and accuracy, but according to this newest study, Americans are turned off by climate change and actually hear and use the term global warming more often. 

So, could a quick switcharooo lead to getting more people engaged in issues concerning the environment? 

We can't say for sure, but lead researcher Anthony Leiserowitz told NBC the results challenge "common wisdom that maybe we should be using the term ‘climate change’ because it’s a way of better engaging those audiences." 

Leiserowitz says that the results are a wake-up call considering — depending on who you're speaking to — you might not be getting your message across. And to make things even more confusing, he adds in the future, the two terms could become interchangeable.