The table above, issued today as part of a report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, illustrates the results of a poll of 1,657 Americans on their perceptions of the relative dangers of “climate change” versus “global warming.”
The terms are today used mostly interchangeably (at least by non-scientists) to describe the same process of rising average global temperatures and the attendant changes in the natural environment. But the difference in what we call it—the brand—has a huge effect on how the public perceives it. The pollsters split their sample in two and asked half whether they thought “climate change” was a good thing or a bad thing; they asked the other half the same question but substituted “global warming.” Global warming sounded scarier by a margin of 13 percentage points.
The lesson is clear: in every field—from activism to artichoke dip—branding matters. The authors drive this home in their report by quoting academics Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman’s book, The Press Effect:
Language choices not only reflect individual disposition but influence the course of policy as well. Tax cuts or tax relief? Religious or faith-based? Death penalty or execution? Estate tax or death tax? Civilian deaths or collateral damage? In the early stages of almost any policy debate, one can find a battle over which terms will be chosen. Because the terms we use to describe the world determine the ways we see it, those who control the language control the argument, and those who control the argument are more likely to successfully translate belief into policy.
This was also one of the lessons of the Heartbleed affair just a few short weeks ago, one of the first software bugs to receive a full-fledged branding and identity campaign. Activists of all stripes—who often recoil from the slick messaging that we know can actually move public opinion—would do well to bear this in mind.