The Changing Language of Our Changing Climate 

Image courtesy of Flickr/ Nick Humphries.

Researchers from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) are using a novel method to measure public opinion on climate change—studying how people react to different phrases used to describe emissions of carbon dioxide and methane. “Over the last few decades, there has been an increased interest in the terms ‘carbon emissions’ and ‘greenhouse gasses,’” said Matthew Goldberg, an author of the study and associate research scientist at the YPCCC. The team asked study participants questions about climate change, which were identical between participants apart from the specific phrase used to describe carbon emissions—either “greenhouse gas emissions,” “carbon emissions,” or “carbon pollution.”

Then, the team tracked differences in responses based on the phrases used. “We were interested in getting a holistic perspective of these terms,” Goldberg said. A key finding was that different reactions to these phrases revealed more about the general associations that participants held with each term. For example, the phrases “carbon pollution” and “carbon emissions” evoked more negative reactions and correlated with a greater understanding of the environmental harms of climate change than the phrase “greenhouse gas emissions.” 

These insights are crucial for policymakers and environmentalists who want to effectively communicate the urgency of addressing climate change. By paying attention to how people react to the different words used to describe these crucial issues, we can gain insight into how we can best emphasize the need for action. Experts can tailor messaging to better resonate with their audience by being cognizant of widely held associations with key scientific phrases in their communication.