By guest blogger Jesse Singal
One of the biggest political challenges of this era is getting powerful people to take the threat of climate change seriously. The most straightforward way to do that would be with bottom-up pressure: if the people who vote demand that their leaders take assertive action against climate change, then politicians will have no choice but to do so (at least if they want to get into office, or to stay there). The major challenge to this, in turn, has been the lingering influence of climate denialism: disbelief in the reality that humans are the cause of climate change, or in the seriousness of the problem.
What can be done to combat climate denialism? Back in 2011, the researchers Jonathon P. Schuldt, Sara H. Konrath, and Norbert Schwarz published an article in Public Opinion Quarterly which suggested one possible partial remedy: framing the issue a bit differently. They found that 75.0% of Americans expressed belief in “climate change,” but only 67.7% in “global warming.” It was Republicans driving this effect: among this more politically conservative subset of Americans, the difference was 60.2% versus 44.0%.
Those findings suggested that environmental campaigns and policy initiatives might do better if they refer to “climate change” rather than “global warming”, write Alistair Raymond Bryce Soutter and René Mõttus in a new paper in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. But while some follow-up studies had been conducted on this issue, with fairly mixed results, no one had yet carried out a direct, pre-registered replication. So Soutter and Mõttus attempted to both replicate the original result and expand it to two other countries: the United Kingdom and Australia. (This gave them a total sample size of 5,717, about double that of the original study.)
As in the first study, the researchers simply asked respondents about whether they believed in climate change in one of two conditions — one which referred to the climate “changing”, and one which referred to it “warming” (see full wording below). This time around, though, the researchers found no statistically significant difference between the two conditions (88.8% registered agreement that “climate change” was occurring, while 88.0% said “global warming” was.) That pattern repeated itself in the study’s three main subgroups: in neither the US, the UK, nor Australia did word choice matter. Interestingly, and contrary to the original experiment, word choice didn’t matter among political conservatives, either. One aspect of the 2011 finding — unfortunately — was replicated: in all countries, conservatives were less likely than liberals to believe in climate change.
Why the generally different results this time around? The researchers explain that there’s no way to know, but they speculate it could be some combination of causes: one is simply that the American sample was a bit different, politically, with more self-identified Democrats and Republicans and fewer Independents and Others than in the 2011 sample (though it’s hard to imagine that having much of an impact on what had been such a giant-sized effect on Republicans). Perhaps more importantly, the 2011 study drew on data collected in 2009, and “[s]ince then there have been major social, political, and indeed environmental changes.” The terms might simply mean different things to people today than they did back then.
There’s one arguably questionable aspect of the original study’s methodology — and, since it was a direct replication, the follow-up as well — that bears mentioning. Here’s the language presented to the two groups, with the differences bolded by me:
You may have heard about the idea that the world’s temperature may have been changing over the past 100 years, a phenomenon sometimes called ‘climate change’. What is your personal opinion regarding whether or not this has been happening?
You may have heard about the idea that the world’s temperature may have been going up over the past 100 years, a phenomenon sometimes called ‘global warming’. What is your personal opinion regarding whether or not this has been happening?
It could be argued that this doesn’t capture exactly what researchers are interested in. What matters is whether and to what extent people agree that the planet is warming, and the first passage doesn’t mention that concept at all due to the fact that two word choices, not just one, are different. So a different rate of agreement with the two statements could just reflect the fact that they are saying two different things — the first is asking the respondent whether the planet’s climate is merely “changing” (up, down, up and then down over time, whatever), while the second specifically points out “warming”. A cleaner test would have mentioned the temperature going up in both conditions, only swapping out “global warming” versus “climate change.”
Setting that aside, this partially failed replication is compatible with belief held by many researchers: when issues become politicised, people cling more tightly to their opinions. It could be that word choice matters more for issues that don’t have much of a bearing on someone’s ideological or social allegiances. But once an idea becomes politicised, it feels threatening to have the ‘wrong’ view on it, which suggests subtle matters like word choice likely matter less. And climate change (or global warming, if you like) has certainly become more politicised since 2009, unfortunately.
All of which suggests that something as minor as word choice is rarely going to nudge people’s beliefs on as contentious an issue as this one.
Post written by Jesse Singal (@JesseSingal) for the BPS Research Digest. Jesse is a contributing writer at New York Magazine, and he publishes his own newsletter featuring behavioral-science-talk. He is also working on a book about why shoddy behavioral-science claims sometimes go viral for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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