Public warmer on 'climate change' than 'global warming'

Stop someone on the street in the storm-battered Northeast (or Northwest or just about anywhere in between) this winter. Ask about “global warming” and you’d better be prepared for a heated debate. Ask about “climate change” and cooler heads may prevail.

The American public responds differently to questions about “climate change” and “global warming” – even while the media often conflate the two – a new study by Cornell and University of Southern California researchers reveals.

“A key finding is that the public perceives more scientific agreement on the issue of ‘climate change’ than ‘global warming,’” reports Cornell’s Jonathon Schuldt, who led the study examining a survey of 2,000 American adults from the comfort of his Department of Communication office (not from a snow-covered street corner). “Recent studies suggest that perceiving a scientific consensus is an important predictor of people’s support for new regulations that address the problem.”

“And more Americans report personally believing that ‘climate change’ is real, compared to ‘global warming,’” adds Schuldt, assistant professor in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Along with Sungjong Roh, a Cornell doctoral candidate in the field of communication, and Norbert Schwarz, a USC professor of psychology, Schuldt is publishing results of the study in the March 2015 Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. The article is titled “Questionnaire Design Effects in Climate Change Surveys: Implications for the Partisan Debate.”

It’s part of a special issue devoted to the “politicization of science” and the authors think “global warming” and “climate change” are a prime example of how small differences in survey design can equate to large differences in survey results.

The pre-millennium “greenhouse effect” required some understanding of atmospheric gases, thermal radiation and other far-out stuff; the related “global warming” seemed to work for a while – until anomalous record-cold temperatures gave deniers leverage on the issue. “Climate change” – and more recently, “global climate change” – might be less polarizing, the researchers suspected. They designed an online survey to query personal beliefs: whether the phenomenon (“climate change” or, alternately, “global warming”) truly exists; whether scientists agree about the phenomenon (by one name or the other); and whether climate-mitigation policies (such as mandatory reduction in CO2 emissions) deserve support.

Further noting the importance of careful survey design, Schuldt says: “Public support for regulating greenhouse gases appears to depend on question order – whether people are first asked what they believe or what scientists believe.”

Survey participants were asked about their political inclination, and that’s where a curious difference appeared: “When Republicans were asked whether they supported regulating greenhouse gases in order to address ‘global warming,’ their level of support depended on whether they had just been asked for their personal belief or what scientists believe,” Schuldt continues. “When asked for their personal belief in ‘global warming’ immediately before the greenhouse gas question, Republicans reported significantly less support for regulating CO2.”

No other political group (Democrats, Independents or others) was significantly affected by question wording or question order, the authors report. They speculate that Democrats’ beliefs about global climate change might be “more crystallized.”

Kind of like the frozen stuff that’s making winter-weary Americans question the whole premise of global warming.

The online survey of 2,041 Americans was conducted between Aug. 25-Sept. 5, 2012, and was administered by the polling firm GfK/Knowledge Networks. Subsequently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared 2012 America’s the hottest year on record. The Cornell-USC study was supported by the National Science Foundation-funded program Time-sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences.

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