Research Summary

Words That (Don’t) Matter: An Exploratory Study of Four Climate Change Names in Environmental Discourse

Investigating the Best Term for Global Warming

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

Research shows that what communicators call a phenomenon, or how they frame it, has a tremendous effect on how audiences come to perceive that phenomenon. Although most Americans are familiar with the term global warming, there are three other phrases that have been coined by different influential advocates to describe environmental changes: climate change, climate crisis, and climatic disruption. Despite a general awareness found in the literature that the way an item is named makes a difference in audience perception, the researchers found no evidence of any study empirically examining the differences in the perceptions of these four phrases. Given this, the researchers conducted a pilot study to investigate whether and how these different terms affect beliefs related to changes in the Earth’s temperature. This study offers insights that can be applied in a variety of communication contexts and provides a research framework for future experiments.

In reviewing the literature, the authors found that the term global warming has been associated with more concerned responses from participants, while climate change resulted in less concerned responses. In addition, they found more people stating they were unaware of the topic climate change, compared to surveys using global warming. The terms climate crisis and climate disruption have not been previously investigated.

For this study, a convenience sample of 10 undergraduate public speaking classes from a midsized Western university resulted in a final sample (N = 224) comprised of 103 male and 121 female participants. The majority of participants (90%) were freshmen and represented every college within the university. The independent variable was an article manipulated to ensure it presented a brief, yet balanced, perspective on the Earth’s atmosphere and environment. There were five experimental conditions: four manipulations, each using one of the coined phrases, plus one control condition. In each manipulation, participants were given an article to read that mentioned the respective term once in the title and six times in the body of the text. The article was not administered to the control group. Also within each condition, the Consent to Participate form mentioned the respective term twice. The authors used a survey to capture the audience’s responses regarding the subject matter, as well as demographic data.

Results indicated the young adults were least concerned when presented with the term climate crisis, while climatic disruption elicited the greatest concern. The researchers suggest the term climate crisis performed the worst because it created a backlash effect of disbelief and perceptions of exaggeration. The term global warming also garnered concern from students, almost on par with climatic disruption.

Despite this feedback, the majority of participants reported a neutral position on the idea of having a moral duty to do something about this environmental issue. This finding is in keeping with previous research showing that naming an issue doesn’t significantly impact an individual’s willingness to act. The participants responded that, if any of their money or time needs to be spent on correcting issues with the environment, they would rather their contribution come through the normal day-to-day activities, such as environmentally friendly purchases. The students indicated they were more willing to make a purchase considered energy efficient—such as buying a light bulb, a household appliance, or a motor vehicle—than commit to a personal investment or involvement—such as joining, donating money to, or volunteering time with an organization working on the issues of the environment.

The findings from this research suggest the importance of understanding the impact of particular words or phrases will have on audiences. This initial research concurs with other findings, suggesting that a person’s perception of the “seriousness of the problem” does not significantly change when the terms global warming or climate change are used. The authors’ exploratory study builds on previous research and confirms prior studies by including an understanding of reactions to the terms climate crisis and climatic disruption. Implications suggest that, if a communicator is writing or speaking to a concurring audience, the terms may be appropriate to use interchangeably. On the other hand, if a researcher, policymaker, linguist, or student is looking to make a persuasive case for there being an issue with regard to the Earth’s rising temperatures, these phrases should not be seen as synonymous, because in environmental rhetoric, the names really do matter.

The Bottom Line

Initial research suggests that the phrases used to name environmental issues truly do matter. In each of the areas where significance was discovered, the term climate crisis was most likely to create backlash effects of disbelief and reduced perceptions of concern, most likely due to perceptions of exaggeration. On the other hand, climatic disruption and global warming performed either the best or second best in each of the areas of significance. Climate change was next best. Although debate continues over which phrase is best, this research suggests that climatic disruption and global warming should be used instead of climate crisis, particularly when communicating with skeptical audiences.