Is the Planet Warming? New research suggests the answer could depend on wording

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | March 4, 2011 12:00 pm

Taeggan Goddard over at Political Wire sent over this interesting piece on research out of The University of Michigan. A new study found that the language used to describe our warming planet may influence listeners’ reactions.

According to research by Schuldt, Konrath, and Schwarz, Republicans are less likely to say that global climate change is real when it’s referred to as “global warming” (44.0%) instead of “climate change” (60.2%). Meanwhile, word choice does not seem to matter for Democrats. The investigators observed the partisan divide dropped from 42.9 percentage points when they used “global warming” to 26.2 percentage points when they used “climate change.”

In other words, language matters tremendously and the outcome of polls can be highly dependent upon it.


Comments (4)

  1. Science communication is about communicating the science. Basing science communication on word phrasing in instant polls is kind of weird.

  2. ThomasL

    Hasn’t question validity always been recognized as an issue in any attempt to gather self-reported data through the use of standard questioning with multiple choice answers?

  3. Ah, but, Sheril, the phrases really have completely different meanings.

    Everyone who has lived a few decades, or who ever had a chance to talk with someone who lived during the nineteenth century, as I did, knows that of course the climate is changing — the climate is always changing, human influences or not.

    Logically, *everyone* should acknowledge “climate change.” Those Republicans who didn’t probably recognized that “climate change” is often used as a codeword for “global warming.”

    And, there is a similar problem with “global warming.” When I was a kid back in the fifties, my great-grandmother told us how the country had warmed since the late 1800s when she was a kid. Again, everyone knew this – no political bias, just common “folk wisdom.”

    The real issue is to what degree “global warming” is caused by humans and whether or not “global warming” will be a disaster.

    I have often been accused of being a “denialist” because, as a Ph.D. physicist (Stanford, 1983) with a lot of experience in computer modeling in various fields who has followed climate-modeling efforts since the late ‘60s, I do not believe the GCMs have yet reached stable, quantitatively precise, well-confirmed conclusions. But, of course I do know that anthropogenic CO2 does make the globe warmer than it otherwise would have been.

    I myself would answer “No” to simple-minded “global warming” questions simply because I know that “global warming” (and, now, even “climate change”) tends to be short-hand for “proven human-induced global warming that will end up having catastrophic results.” I am sure there is global-warming; I am not so sure it has yet been proven that it will have catastrophic results.

    When you take all of this into account, you can see how what seems to be naïve ideologically-driven responses may in fact be the result of quite sophisticated understandings of how code-words and phrases are used and misused.

    Even Republicans are more semantically sophisticated than academics often think!

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  4. Solitha

    Sounds like an ironic twist of “political correctness”.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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