Peter Friederici, in a recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, reminds us that “the language used to characterize the climate problem is far more important than is generally recognized”. Mr. Friederici’s article links to a CBS piece which states things more bluntly:
If you’re trying to get someone to care about the way the environment is changing, you might want to refer to it as “global warming,” rather than “climate change,” according to a new study
The idea is that global warming sounds more dire than climate change. Global warming is more likely to inspire people to do something drastic or force their government to take major steps, but climate change requires only minor steps to solve. So tree-hugging liberals will want to use global warming to fire up their base, while the term climate change is more amenable to the conservative approach of letting the free market sort things out. This idea has been floating around for just over ten years. It was inspired by the American political pollster Frank Luntz. While consulting the Republican Party in 2002, Luntz wrote a memo to President George W. Bush’s staff which read in part:
It’s time for us to start talking about “climate change” instead of global warming […] “Climate change” is less frightening than “global warming.” […] While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.
Similar ideas about the differences between these seemingly synonymous terms have been raised in other news outlets. The two articles above also report the results of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, which found that:
the term “global warming” is associated with greater public understanding, emotional engagement, and support for personal and national action than the term “climate change.” […] Our findings strongly suggest that the terms global warming and climate change are used differently and mean different things in the minds of many Americans.
The report also says that:
Americans are four times more likely to say they hear the term global warming in public discourse than climate change.
The crucial element missing from all of these news articles and reports is any actual data about how often these terms are used. So let’s see if we can find that out.
Easier said than done
There are a few things to think about before we get started with the data. First, although Luntz’s recommendations were informed by his discussions with voters, we don’t know if President Bush or the Republican party actually listened to him. Reporting that Republicans were advised to use climate change instead of global warming doesn’t mean that they actually did so. Perhaps the reason for this is that it seems Bush didn’t use either term. He didn’t use them in his debates with Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and he only used the term global climate change once in both his 2007 and 2008 State of the Union addresses:
And these technologies will help us be better stewards of the environment, and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change. – George W. Bush, State of the Union 2007
The United States is committed to strengthening our energy security and confronting global climate change. – George W. Bush, State of the Union 2008
So it’s hard to report on something happening when it didn’t happen. Ironically, Kerry used global warming once in his debate in St. Louis and twice in Coral Gables, so maybe he also got Luntz’s memo?
The second thing to think about is that reporting that Americans claim they hear global warming more often that climate change doesn’t mean that they actually do. People are really bad at accurately reporting things like this. For example, before I present the data to you, I want you to ask yourself which term you think is more common on various American news outlets. Based on the information above, do you think Fox News uses global warming more often or climate change? How about NPR and MSNBC? We’ll see whether the numbers back you up in a bit.
Finally, I’m going to take my data from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which is a 450 million word database of speech and writing that is “suitable for looking at current, ongoing changes in the language”. I wrote about why it is better to use corpora like COCA instead of the Google N-gram viewer here.
Crunching the numbers
Let’s first see how common each of these terms are. COCA allows us to split up our data into different genres depending on where the texts come from – Spoken, Fiction, Magazine, Academic, and Newspaper – so we can look at only the genres we are interested in. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to look at news texts, magazine texts and spoken language data. We could also look at academic genres, but that might be problematic since according to the CBS article “Scientists have largely started using the term climate change because it more accurately describes the myriad changes to the climate […] while global warming refers to a single phenomenon.” So academics are very particular in the terms they use (seriously, we write whole sections of our theses just to define our terms and we love doing it).
Here we can see the raw count (FREQ) for climate change in the Spoken, Magazine, and Newspaper sections of COCA, as well as for the term in different time periods. This is basically the number of times that the term appears in each section. We also have the frequency per million words (PER MIL), which is a way of normalizing the various sections because they each have a different amount of total words. Looking at this more accurate stat, we can see that climate change is most common in the Magazine genre and that its usage (in all genres taken together) increases over time.
Here we have the same stats for global warming. They show that the term is more common in all of the genres and time periods, except for 2010–2012, when the normalized frequency drops down to 10.02. In the same time period, the frequency for climate change is 17.02. Conservatives are winning!
Not so fast, tiger. We still don’t know who is using these words. Remember that global warming only refers to one of the many changes happening to our planet. Maybe those in the media picked up on this and started using climate change where it was more appropriate. So let’s cut up the genres.
Didn’t you get the memo?
So President Bush didn’t use climate change or global warming. But perhaps this idea that the opposing sides of the debate should use different terms has filtered down to the talking heads on TV. If we remember the idea that people believe they hear global warming more often than climate change in public discourse, we can look at the Spoken section of the corpus to check this claim. Here is where you can check your guesses about which term is more common on various news outlets. Below are the frequencies for climate change in the different sections of the Spoken corpus.
|Spoken||# PER MILLION||# TOKENS||# WORDS|
So climate change occurs about 19 times per million words on Fox News and about 3 times per million words on MSNBC. #TOKENS refers to the actual number of times the term appears in each subsection, while # WORDS refers to how many words make up each subsection.
Here are the same stats for global warming:
|Spoken||# PER MILLION||# TOKENS||# WORDS|
Interestingly enough, Fox news tops both lists. What’s strange, though, is that we should have expected a conservative/Republican news site like Fox to use the climate change much more than global warming, but that is not the case (they really are fair and balanced!). NPR and PBS use the terms with almost equal frequency, while the commie pinkos over at MSNBC use global warming at a much higher rate than climate change (they’re coming for your guns too!).
But hold on a second. What do these numbers really tell us? First, in terms of the spoken data in COCA, global warming really is more frequent. That doesn’t account for all of the language people hear every day, but it is representative of the public discourse they are likely to hear. Only NBC used climate change more often, and even then only barely.
While we can say that the issue of climate change or global warming seems to feature more prominently on Fox News compared to CBS or ABC, we don’t really have a way of saying how these terms are used on any channel.
For that we have to look at the concordances (the passages from the texts where our search terms appear). There we can see things like Fox News’s Sean Hannity saying:
Al Gore has a financial stake in spreading global warming hysteria…
Al Gore’s friends in the liberal media jumped on the global warming bandwagon…
And finally tonight, Al Gore’ s global warming manipulation isn’t just affecting food prices…
Could it be possible that Fox News uses global warming in its scare tactics and/or liberal bashing?
We can compare this with Hannity’s use of climate change:
the University of Alaska at Fairbanks used 50,000 stimulus dollars to send 11 students to Copenhagen for the failed climate change conference…
Jones findings have been used for years to bolster the U.N.’s findings on climate change….
But this is probably nitpicking and it misses the larger point. The words around global warming and climate change say more about their meaning than anything else. We know how Sean Hannity feels about climate change. He says so right here:
HANNITY: Carol, I love you. You’re a great liberal. You defend your side well. If it is hot, it is global warming. If it is cold, it is global warming. If it rains, it’s global warming. If it hails, it is global warming.
CAROLINE HELDMAN: Gingrich and Romney are both saying that climate change is happening, are you behind them on this one?
HANNITY: I disagree. I don’t think the science is conclusive. Now, I do believe man has an impact on the environment. I want clean air. I want clean water. I want to leave a good planet for our kids and grandkids. But I’m not going to buy lies that are perpetrated by people […] with a political agenda.
I can’t tell if that last line was tongue in cheek, but Hannity seems to opt for another message that was in Luntz’s memo and stress that the scientific jury is still out on global warming. This has also become a conservative talking point. Obviously, the science is firmly in favor of man-made climate change, but even if we replace climate change with global warming in any of the quotes from Sean Hannity, the meaning will not change. The same goes for any of the news outlets above because the difference between these two terms is not that vast. We can all think of two terms which roughly mean the same thing, but are not interchangable in the same way that climate change and global warming are also not. (To his credit, Frank Luntz realizes the complex nature of language and his advice to President Bush on how to talk about environmental issues was nuanced and erudite.)
The idea here is to make sure not to put the cart in front of the horse. Frank Luntz advised President Bush to start using climate change instead of global warming as one way to swing the environmental issue into the Republicans’ favor. This idea would presumably trickle down to other Republicans in the government and to members of the media sympathetic to Republican views. So the first step would be to look at whether the frequency of global warming rose above that of climate change or not. Judging from the data in COCA, I would say this is not what happened. Global warming was already more common than climate change before Luntz issued his memo to President Bush, and both terms were on the rise. Luntz’s advice could certainly have been a contributing factor to climate change’s gain in usage, but it is certainly not the only one. And global warming is still more common on major American news outlets.
I don’t doubt that the terms have a difference in meaning for many people. No matter how small, there is always some semantic difference between even the closest of synonyms. These differences in meanings are based on many different factors, such as the hearer’s education, social background, nationality, familiarity with the speaker, and the context of the situation. What this boils down to is that it doesn’t matter what we call global warming. Focusing on who uses what term misses the point, even if people have more emotional reactions to one term or the other. Climate change is happening and all that matters is that we do something about it.
In the next post, I’ll do a more in depth quantitative analysis of President Bush’s use of these terms. I’ll also look at the problems with reporting Google Search statistics in research on language, which was a method employed by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication (the same project that studied people’s feelings about the terms).
2 thoughts on “The language of the environment: climate change vs global warming”
hi thanks nice post
have you tried using the New York Chronicle tool? e.g. http://chronicle.nytlabs.com/?keyword=climate%20change.global%20warming
i assume that the New York Chronicle is more right than left on political spectrum?
Thanks, elfnotes, I did have a look at the New York Chronicle tool, but decided to include it in the next post since I’ll also be referencing an article from the New York Times. Stay tuned!