Global Warming vs. Climate Change, Taxes vs. Prices: Does Word Choice Matter?

SUMMARY OF REPORT

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Introduction

In advisory memo to the Republic Party written in 2002, political strategist Frank Luntz said, “It’s time for us to start talking about “climate change” instead of global warming…”Climate Change is less frightening than “global warming.” In summary, Luntz proposed that people consider “global warming” to be a more serious problem than “climate change.”

In this paper, we first report the results of an experiment embedded in a national survey of American adults testing differences in reactions to the phrases “global warming,” “climate change,” and “global climate change” by assessing the amount of seriousness that respondents ascribe to each of them. Then we report a second study assessing the impact of the wording change via an experiment embedded in surveys and done in 31 European countries.

In a third study, we explored the impact of another shift in wording on Americas’ thinking. Would shifting from emphasizing the term “prices” to emphasizing the “word taxes” instead make Americans react more negatively to pay for the cost of climate mitigation? We tested this possibility in another national survey.

Study I

Methodology

A total of 3,325 American adults completed the survey via the internet in May of 2008. They were not representative of the entire nation and were instead a group that volunteered to participate in return for monetary and non-monetary rewards.

Respondents were randomly assigned to be asked one of three different versions of a question measuring the perceptions of problem seriousness.

Q: “If nothing is done to reduce [global warming/climate change/global climate change] in the future, how serious of a problem do you think it will be?”

They were also asked whether they identified as a Republican, Democrat, Independent or something else. Those who identified themselves as something else were counted as Independents.

Results

In the full sample, global warming, climate change, and global climate change were all perceived to be equally serious on average. These findings seem to be inconsistent with the claim that people view climate change or global climate change as less serious than global warming. In addition, the distribution of seriousness ratings were equivalent for global warming, climate change, and global climate change.

Lastly, the pattern seen thus far also appeared within Independents. Among republicans, global warming was actually seen as less serious than climate change on average. Democrats showed the opposite pattern., perceiving global warming to be more serious than climate change.

Study II

Methodology

For the Eurobarometer No. 300, face to face interviews were conducted in all 25 European Union member countries. Between March and May of 2008, 30170 interviews were conducted in respondents’ homes. Sample selection was carried out separately for each country, following the same sampling design.

Respondents answered two questions measuring perceived problem seriousness and each respondent was randomly assigned to be asked either “global warming” or “climate change.” They were also asked to rate themselves on a left-right ideology.

Q1: “In your opinion, which of the following do you consider to be the most serious problem currently facing the world as a whole? (Global Warming/Climate change, International terrorism, Poverty, Lack of food and drinking water, The spread of an infectious disease, A major global economic downturn, The proliferation of nuclear weapons, Armed conflicts, The increasing world population.” The answer choices were printed on a card that was handed to the respondents.

Q2: “And how serious a problem do you think (global warming/climate change) is at this moment? Please a scale from 1 to 10. 1 would mean that it is not a serious at all and a 10 would mean that is extremely serious.”

Q3: Respondents were handed a card showing a 10-point rating scale, with 1 labeled “left” and 10 labeled “right.” Respondents placing themselves 1-4 were considered “left,” 5-6 were considered center and 7-10 were considered right.

Results

Respondents were more likely to cite climate change as the most serious problem facing the world than they were to cite global warming. They were also perceived to be equally serious on average. These results are inconsistent with the claim that people view climate change as less serious than global warming.

Ideology was not a significant moderator of impact of the question wording manipulation. People on the center, right, and left were all equally likely to cite global warming as they were to cite climate change.

On the country level, in 23 of the 31 countries, respondents were just as likely to mention global warming as the most serious problem as they were to mention climate change. Global warming was perceived to be as equally serious as climate change in 28 of the 31 countries.

Study III

The final study explored whether shifting the language from “higher prices” to “higher taxes” decreased public support for climate change mitigation legislation in the United States.

Methodology

GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media conducted a telephone survey of 1,005 American adults via Random Digit Dialing using a sample provided by Survey Sampling International. The interviews were conducted November 17th – 29th, 2009; 705 respondents were interviewed on landlines and 300 were interviewed on cell phones.

Respondents were randomly assigned to be asked one of two versions of a question about gasoline consumption.

Q1: For each of the following, please tell me whether you favor or oppose it as a way for the federal government to try to reduce global warming: Increasing gasoline prices so people either drive less or buy cars that use less gas.

Q2: For each of the following, please tell me whether you favor or oppose it as a way for the federal government to try to reduce future global warming: Increase taxes on gasoline so people either drive less or buy cars that use less gas.

Results

30.14% of respondents said they favored “increasing gasoline prices” whereas 35.36% said they favored “increasing taxes on gasoline.” These percentages were not significantly different, thus although the word manipulation did not have an effect.

Conclusion

Contrary to Luntz’s expectations, wording made no difference and climate change was not perceived to be less serious than global warming in the full sample. The one group that did show the pattern that Luntz expected was Democrats, which would probably not be sympathetic towards President Bush. In addition, these studies illustrate that claims about language choice can be tested scientifically and objectively. Most assertions about word choice have been based on intuitive grounds rather than empirical data.