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Climate change label leads to climate science acceptance

June 21, 2017

ITHACA, N.Y. - On the heels of President Donald Trump's decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, a new Cornell University study finds that labels matter when it comes to acceptance of climate science.

The U.S. public doubts the existence of "global warming" more than it doubts "climate change" -- and Republicans are driving the effect, the research shows.

In a nationally representative survey, 74.4 percent of respondents identified as Republicans said they believed that climate change is really happening. But only 65.5 percent said they believed in global warming. In contrast, 94 percent of Democrats replied "yes" to both questions.

Some Republicans may discredit climate science because they may not like the policies that have been proposed to address the problem, said the study's co-author, Jonathon Schuldt, assistant professor of communication at Cornell.

"Acknowledging the reality of global warming or climate change may lead to new government regulations on businesses, which goes against core conservative values," Schuldt said. "So, telling a pollster that the phenomenon isn't happening may reflect something about a person's general policy preferences, not just their level of certainty that the global climate is changing."

The research is an extension of an earlier study co-written by Schuldt. The first study included references to temperatures going up versus changing. The new research focuses on how labels impact acceptance of climate-science in a now more charged political environment.

Nonetheless, it's important to remember that 65 percent of Republicans did indicate that global warming is occurring, said co-author Peter Enns, associate professor of government. "In other words, although the term matters -- climate change versus global warming -- an overwhelming majority of Republicans still state that global warming is happening," he said.

The labels' effect the researchers identified is especially relevant given Trump's decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, Enns said. "Nearly 75 percent of Republicans in our sample indicated that climate change is really happening and almost all coverage of Trump's decision on this issue emphasizes the word 'climate.'"

In contrast, Trump's Twitter messages use "global warming" more often than "climate change" and often characterize global warming as a hoax. The researchers conducted a search of Trump's tweets and found 106 contained "global warming" but only 36 mentioned "climate change."

"Our results suggest that Trump's emphasis on 'global warming' may be an effective rhetorical strategy that resonates with his Republican constituents, who express more skepticism in response to that term in particular," said Schuldt.

Although the United States seems to be entering a new era of climate politicization, the chasm between Republicans and Democrats on climate science might not be as large as it seems, Schuldt said.

"If you ask people what they think about climate change -- not global warming -- we find that the partisan gap shrinks by about 30 percent," he said. "There's actually more agreement here than we think."

This research appeared in the journal "Climatic Change".
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Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews. For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.

Cornell University

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