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Does the label really matter? Evidence that the US public continues to doubt “global warming” more than “climate change”


Does the public doubt the existence of “global warming” more than “climate change”? While previously published research suggests that it does, others have argued that this effect either never existed or has disappeared amid broader shifts in public opinion. We draw on survey response theory to help reconcile this debate. We then analyze data from an October 2016 probability-based survey experiment (n = 1461 US adults) to test the prediction that the US public (and particularly, Republicans) continue to respond differently when asked whether global warming vs. climate change exists. Indeed, respondents who were asked about climate change responded “Yes” (definitely or somewhat) more often (85.8%) than respondents who were asked about global warming (80.9%), an effect observed for Republicans (74.4 vs. 65.5%) but not Democrats (94% in both conditions). We discuss broader implications for US public opinion and discourse in an era of significant proposed government rollbacks of climate and environmental policy.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    In a recent interview, Scott Pruitt, the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency who was appointed by Mr. Trump, disagreed that carbon dioxide is a “primary contributor” to global warming (Davenport 2017).

  2. 2.

    Of course, partisan evaluations have diverged on other issues too, including the economy (e.g., Enns, Kellstedt, and McAvoy 2012). Much of the survey data used in these studies are available through the iPOLL Databank maintained by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research (

  3. 3.

    Dunlap (2014) also found that Republicans responded similarly to global warming and climate change when both terms appeared in adjacent survey questions (as opposed to a split-ballot design). This result, however, is not as surprising because soliciting the public’s responses to both labels in the same block of survey questions likely inflates the consistency of responses by rendering cognitive associations shared by both terms highly accessible and because respondents may infer that pollsters are intentionally using the terms interchangeably (see Conrad et al. 2014; Zaller and Feldman 1992).

  4. 4.

    Leiserowitz et al. (2014) have also done important work on the potential for differential responses to global warming and climate change and have found partisan differences in open-ended responses and perceiving the issue as a problem.

  5. 5.

    Villar and Krosnick’s (2011) study offers some support for this notion, as they did not find significant differences with regard to whether Republicans and Democrats judge global warming or climate change as serious.

  6. 6.

    The non-collapsed belief responses reveal different patterns particularly for the Yes, definitely (55.4% for climate change vs. 49.2% for global warming) and No responses (14.2% for climate change vs. 19.1% for global warming). Similar percentages of Yes, somewhat responses were observed across conditions (30.4% for climate change vs. 31.7% for global warming).

  7. 7.

    We also conducted a separate identical telephone (cell and landline) survey through Cornell’s Survey Research Institute. Although we focus on the GfK survey because the analytic sample size is much larger (1,422 vs. 604), the weighted results were substantively equivalent in both surveys, with a greater proportion of respondents indicating that “climate change” is happening than “global warming.” Because of the small sample size and because the partisanship response options were different, we did not analyze the experimental manipulation in the SRI survey by partisanship.

  8. 8.

    Due to the small number of independents in the sample after leaners were coded as partisans (n = 28), we excluded these respondents from the party identification analysis.

  9. 9.

    As in the overall sample, among Republicans, the non-collapsed belief responses reveal different patterns particularly for the Yes, definitely (33.9% for climate change vs. 24.3% for global warming) and No responses (25.6% for climate change vs. 34.3% for global warming). Republicans’ Yes, somewhat responses were similar across conditions (40.5% for climate change vs. 41.3% for global warming).

  10. 10.

    The corpus of Donald Trump’s Twitter posts can be searched here: A search conducted on May 3, 2017, returned a total of 106 tweets containing global warming and 38 containing climate change.


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Correspondence to Jonathon P. Schuldt.



Table 1

Table 1 Odds ratios from logistic regression models in the overall sample and by partisanship (Republicans vs. Democrats), controlling for covariates

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Schuldt, J.P., Enns, P.K. & Cavaliere, V. Does the label really matter? Evidence that the US public continues to doubt “global warming” more than “climate change”. Climatic Change 143, 271–280 (2017).

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