Climate Change vs. Global Warming: What’s In a Name?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Despite the snow melting and the rapid arrival of spring now in sight, most probably haven’t forgotten just how cold it got this winter. And those who follow environmental issues, in turn, likely haven’t forgotten the rhetoric that came with the cold weather. Namely those skeptics who used the biting cold as evidence that global warming was a hoax after all — clips of which Jon Stewart so kindly compiled for us in the video below.

One he doesn’t mention, but is worth a gander, is Donald Trump’s words in a series of discussions with Fox News, in which he uses the cold snap as proof that scientists are wrong, referring at one time to a global warming study being conducted in the arctic that found its ship frozen. He also bemoaned the impact environmental legislation has had on the coal industry — particularly relevant today, just after the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the Environmental Protection Agency’s coal plant emission reduction requirements. What this whole mess really highlighted in the end was a new emphasis on word choice, with some being more careful to say “climate change” rather than “global warming” to avoid misunderstandings from those who do not understand the distinction between climate and weather.


First, let’s take a look at the distinction between global warming and cold weather with a simple graphic, taken from this animated explanation on trend and variation made by the Norwegian infotainment program Siffer. Then we’ll take a look at the polls. In the image, the man walking the dog would represent climate. The dog would be weather. While the dog (climate) may range rather drastically at times, he is always being led in the direction that his owner pulls him. As the video points out, looking zoomed in at one single point where the dog walks would give an incomplete understanding of where the owner is headed.

Having addressed this confusion, it should be noted that confusion over statistics and terms are not the only arguments given against climate change. There are other reasons that some disagree on just what international weather events — such as increased national disasters — are connected to the issue at large. But putting those aside, general concern and belief regarding global warming is at 39 percent for the U.S., reports Gallup. There is then a “Mixed Middle” group who ring in at 36 percent of Americans, and finally the 25 percent who say they are not worried about global warming “much or at all.”

Gallup, acknowledging the recently highlighted phrasing implications of “warming” for certain groups by examining how the public responded based on party and terminology. Interestingly, the poll found that in general, 60 percent worried either a great deal or a fair amount about climate change, while 56 percent felt the same for global warming — a 4 percentage point difference that is not statistically significant. The difference is a little bit more striking when examined based on party and political ideology, but ultimately the greatest difference is unsurprisingly seen between parties, rather than between words.

Between global warming and climate change respectively, conservatives show 37 percent and 42 percent concerned, moderates show 58 to 64 percent, and liberals show a close 79 and 78 percent. Thirty-six percent of Republicans are concerned about global warming, versus the 39 percent that are worried about climate change. Independents see 49 percent and 56 percent concern for both, and Democrats do not distinguish between the two, tied at 83 percent worried about both global warming and climate change.

A number of subsequent studies found similarly comparable responses to both terms, but did eventually see that “Democrats and liberals are somewhat more likely to view global warming as more problematic than climate change,” possibly because of the degree to which that term has been politicized and used over time, compared with climate change. So while using climate change may avoid some of the problems seen this winter, ultimately reactions between the two don’t really necessitate making that change in rhetoric, especially considering the long history of rhetoric surrounding “global warming.”

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