Framing the Issue: Global Warming or Climate Change?

Key Takeaways:

  • It is possible to increase support for global climate change conservation by framing effects. 
  • The framing that surrounds a message matters. Subtle effects in the message can have larger effects in the response.
  • Labels matter. Global warming has more support among likely skeptics if the cues imply warming and heating. Global climate change is more supportive when the cues are incongruent.
  • Salience of the cue and the environment received have a huge effect on the message. 
  • There is no panacea, as these are all comparisons. Future tense can be more supported than present, warming more than climate change. It’s not that some labels are “better”, but context plays a huge role in how a message is received.

A Diseased Oyster

Undoubtably, you’ve heard it been called global warming and global climate change. They mean the same thing – the human made phenomena by which the global climate is changing and part’s of the Earth are warming up with huge implications. It’s been called maybe the biggest issue facing us as a society today. But what you may not know is both monikers – warming and climate change may be perceived very differently.

A research study polled ferry passengers via iPad (there really is an app for everything) of San Juan Islands of Washington State, who read a fictitious news article detailing the oceanic temperature rises and acidification of the Pacific Northwest. These reports either portrayed the issues as just risks to the marine population and flora or as an issue to both the marine and public health. For the just marine issue conditions, “global warming” was a more useful label for inspiring support among the likely skeptics (those people again). However, when both marine and human risks were stressed, the labels did not seem to matter as much – neither label affected those stubborn low biospheric value individuals.

The use of passengers on a ferry as a sample is unusual, and was done with an effort to make an environmental cue is very salient. As in you’re floating in it kind of salient.
The idea for the experiment design was conceived when a researchers remarked how global warming was causing the March snow storm, which was met by the retort that it should be called “global cooling.” This led to conducting small experiments around the cold Ithaca campus of Cornell University during an unseasonably cold and snowy 2011 season about climate change. It’s harder to sell people on global warming (compared to climate change) when in the middle of a blizzard- people respond better to cues and messages if they’re congruent and line up how they think they should. This idea was backed by the results of the experiment at sea.

Since the cues in the first instance lined up- the sea and fake news report where environmental and focused on the warming of the oceans and acidification of the forest and stressing maritime importance – people were more responsive and supportive of the global warming label compared to global climate change. The cues were congruent and matched up well – which inspired more support in the low biospheric values.

When the public health risk was stressed, as opposed to just the maritime risk – the labeling didn’t matter. The public health risk was a stretch with the cues (ocean, ferry, forests) so they didn’t click as much. The labeling didn’t matter since the label and the cues didn’t interact.

Global climate change has more support than global warming in some cases, and vice versa. But it’s just a comparison. A comparison that is affected by subtle framing. Maybe there’s a third term thats better, yet to be ideated. There is no panacea. Global climate change versus warming isn’t a binary issue. Labeling matters, but its context dependent. And we have to think labels are placing things into categories. It matters what we’re the comparison is – global warming compared to what? Just because it’s better than the comparisons, doesn’t make it perfect. Climate change is a bit of a catch-all, and kind of sanitized, even if its more accurate than global warming.

Very subtle cues can shift opinions. Climate change can inspire more support if the events in question don’t fit the traditional maladies associated with global warming (i.e. cold things), but the message is we have to be aware and vigilant of our labeling. Since you can’t always deliver messages set ten years in the future to people when they’re on a ferry in the great Pacific Northwest, its important to be aware. The same message can be received differently depending on if you’re in middle of a snow storm in Ithaca or sweltering in Arizona.

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