, Volume 105, Issue 1-2, pp 1-12

Global warming vs. climate change, taxes vs. prices: Does word choice matter?

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Does “climate change” seem like a less serious problem than “global warming” to Americans and Europeans? Does describing the costs of climate change mitigation in terms of “higher taxes” instead of “higher prices” reduce public support for such efforts? In an experiment embedded in an American national survey, respondents were randomly assigned to rate the seriousness of “global warming,” “climate change,” or “global climate change.” Contrary to predictions made by a leading political strategist, the full sample and political Independents perceived “climate change” and “global warming” to be equally serious. Among Republicans, “climate change” was perceived to be more serious than “global warming,” whereas the reverse was true among Democrats. A similar experiment embedded in a survey of residents of 31 European countries showed that “global warming” and “climate change” were perceived to be equally serious problems. And an experiment embedded in an American survey showed that describing the increased costs of climate change mitigation legislation via “higher taxes” instead of via “higher prices” did not reduce popular support for such legislation, also contradicting a political strategy memo. Thus, word choice may sometimes affect public perceptions of the climate change seriousness or support for mitigation policies, but a single choice of terminology may not influence all people the same way, making strategic language choices difficult to implement.

This project was funded by the Woods Institute for the Environment. The data used in Study 3 were collected in a survey funded by the Associated Press and the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. The authors thank Trevor Tompson for his collaboration, Kinesis Survey Technologies for carrying out the data collection for Study 1, and Survey Sampling International for providing the respondent sample for Study 1. Jon Krosnick is University Fellow at Resources for the Future.