Tourists watch a protest against the Keystone XL pipeline in Bel-Air, LA, while on a coach ride around celebrity homes. Photo: Getty Images
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Study finds that people get frightened more by “global warming” than “climate change”

Many people use them interchangeably, but they mean subtly different things - yet when it comes to influencing public opinion, scientists should perhaps use the less-accurate one.

A large part of science involves communicating what it means to people who aren’t scientists. When new discoveries have important real-world implications - like, for example, that smoking tobacco significantly increases the likelihood of contracting lung cancer - it becomes impossible for scientists not to engage in messy cultural battles, as much as they might not want to.

The issue where this applies more than anything else in the modern world is climate change. Or should that be global warming? A new study has shown that the latter term is more frightening than the former, even though it’s less scientifically-accurate.

Climate change is the term that applies to the broad effects of what we’re doing to the atmosphere and the planet, and includes a range of things like desertification, collapsing Antarctic ice sheets, shifting seasonal averages and acidification of the oceans. Global warming is also correct in the sense that the long-term, overall trend across the planet’s surface is for average temperatures to increase, but it fell out of favour in the scientific community when talking to lay people because it masked that, in the short term, some of the effects would appear to be the opposite. Here in the UK, for example, one of the clearest manifestations of our changing climate is in our winters, which are getting wetter and milder.

The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication conducts regular research into how the American public perceives the reality of climate change, including how well understood the various risks and rewards of certain policy decisions are. As its latest report, “What’s in a name?”, explains:

What do the terms “global warming” and “climate change” mean to the American public? Are they synonyms? Does the public see and use each term equally? Do they interpret and respond to the two terms in the same way? Or do they view and respond to each term differently? When communicators use these two terms, how do different audiences interpret them? Over the years, these questions have generated much debate and controversy in the media and among scientists, educators, political analysts, advocates and citizens.

Its results are fascinating, but also perhaps worrying for those who wish science could be communicated in the most accurate form possible to the public.

Respondents to the survey were split into two groups - each would get the same questions, but one group would have "global warming" used in each one, while the other group got "climate change". Either of the two groups would constitute a representative sample for a normal national survey, but the results were significantly different dependent upon which term was used.

Here's the table from the report:

Using "climate change" instead of "global warming" gives a 12-point increase in responses saying it's a good thing, and an almost identical 13-point decrease for those who consider it a bad thing. That's a remarkable result considering all that's changed is two words that are supposed to refer to the same problem.

Regardlesss of demographic group, "global warming" inspired more negative and fearful emotions. Global warming is found to inspire images of ice melting, coastlines flooding, ozone layer damage and "world catastrophe", and it also increases acceptance that it is both happening and is caused by humans, and posing a threat both to the next generation and the generation after it.

What can we take away from this? The study notes that "global warming" outranks "climate change" as a search term online by a factor of 3:1, and when people were asked which term they'd use in casual conversation "global warming" won out by a factor of 2:1, so it's clear which term is more colloquial. Yet there are political implications, too, as the study makes clear when it quotes Republican pollster Frank Luntz's memo to George W Bush about the "environmental communications battle" in the mid-term elections:

It’s time for us to start talking about ‘climate change’ instead of global warming…‘climate change’ is less frightening than ‘global warming’. As one focus group participant noted, climate change ‘sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale.’ While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.”

Since then, it seems that Republicans have actually switched back to using "global warming" (perhaps because it inspires more negative, protective emotions than climate change) on campaign sites, while Democrats have stuck with "climate change". Clearly, politicians are well aware of the polling effects of the language that they use. Scientists - who can often be scared or reluctant to be seen to be partisan with regards to their research - may have to become just as canny if they wish to influence public policy and mood.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear