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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.

Photo: Getty
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The campaign to keep Britain in Europe must be based on hope, not fear

Together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of.

Today the Liberal Democrats launched our national campaign to keep Britain in Europe. With the polls showing the outcome of this referendum is on a knife-edge, our party is determined to play a decisive role in this once in a generation fight. This will not be an easy campaign. But it is one we will relish as the UK's most outward-looking and internationalist party. Together in Europe the UK has delivered peace, created the world’s largest free trade area and given the British people the opportunity to live, work and travel freely across the continent. Now is the time to build on these achievements, not throw them all away.

Already we are hearing fear-mongering from both sides in this heated debate. On the one hand, Ukip and the feuding Leave campaigns have shamelessly seized on the events in Cologne at New Year to claim that British women will be at risk if the UK stays in Europe. On the other, David Cameron claims that the refugees he derides as a "bunch of migrants" in Calais will all descend on the other side of the Channel the minute Britain leaves the EU. The British public deserve better than this. Rather than constant mud-slinging and politicising of the world's biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, we need a frank and honest debate about what is really at stake. Most importantly this should be a positive campaign, one that is fought on hope and not on fear. As we have a seen in Scotland, a referendum won through scare tactics alone risks winning the battle but losing the war.

The voice of business and civil society, from scientists and the police to environmental charities, have a crucial role to play in explaining how being in the EU benefits the British economy and enhances people's everyday lives. All those who believe in Britain's EU membership must not be afraid to speak out and make the positive case why being in Europe makes us more prosperous, stable and secure. Because at its heart this debate is not just about facts and figures, it is about what kind of country we want to be.

The Leave campaigns cannot agree what they believe in. Some want the UK to be an offshore, deregulated tax haven, others advocate a protectionist, mean-hearted country that shuts it doors to the world. As with so many populist movements, from Putin to Trump, they are defined not by what they are for but what they are against. Their failure to come up with a credible vision for our country's future is not patriotic, it is irresponsible.

This leaves the field open to put forward a united vision of Britain's place in Europe and the world. Liberal Democrats are clear what we believe in: an open, inclusive and tolerant nation that stands tall in the world and doesn't hide from it. We are not uncritical of the EU's institutions. Indeed as Liberals, we fiercely believe that power must be devolved to the lowest possible level, empowering communities and individuals wherever possible to make decisions for themselves. But we recognise that staying in Europe is the best way to find the solutions to the problems that don't stop at borders, rather than leaving them to our children and grandchildren. We believe Britain must put itself at the heart of our continent's future and shape a more effective and more accountable Europe, focused on responding to major global challenges we face.

Together in Europe we can build a strong and prosperous future, from pioneering research into life-saving new medicines to tackling climate change and fighting international crime. Together we can provide hope for the desperate and spread the peace we now take for granted to the rest of the world. And together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of. So if you agree then join the Liberal Democrat campaign today, to remain in together, and to stand up for the type of Britain you think we should be.