In the past decade, the images and feelings Americans associate with the term 'global warming' have shifted dramatically.
Researchers at the Yale Project on Climate Communication recently published an article in the journal Risk Analysis that identifies and analyzes these shifts in the connotative meaning of 'global warming.'
The most striking result is the increase in the proportion of Americans who express strong doubt or rejection of the reality of global warming through their free associations. In 2003, only 7% of Americans provided 'naysayer' images (e.g., 'hoax,' or 'no such thing') when asked what thought or image first came to mind when they heard the term 'global warming.'
By 2010, however, 23% of Americans provided 'naysayer' images. Over the same time, alarmist imagery (e.g., 'death of the planet') slightly increased. Both types of images became charged with more negative feelings over time.
The graph below summarizes how Americans' associations to 'global warming' changed from 2003 to 2010 (more data can be found in the full paper). Also included below are extracts from the full paper.
Global warming is one of the most pressing problems facing the world. Through their energy use, consumer behavior, and support for or opposition to climate policies, the public will play an important role in each nation's effort to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
The American public's climate change risk perceptions, policy preferences, and behavior are particularly important as the United States alone produces approximately 20% of global carbon emissions. With only 5% of the global population, the United States emits 19.10 tons of carbon dioxide per person per year, compared to 4.85 tons in China and 1.18 tons in India.
Generally, a majority of Americans have been somewhat concerned about the issue for many years. As a policy priority, however, global warming has always been lower than other economic and social issues.
For example, in 2009 the Pew Research Center found that only 30% of Americans said that global warming should be a top priority for the new president, compared to 85% who said strengthening the economy should be a top priority. Similarly, only 35% of Americans considered global warming to be a very serious problem compared to 44% in 2008.
However, research by the Yale Project on Climate Communication found that many more Americans now associate global warming with naysayer imagery, ranging from skepticism that global warming is real or a serious threat to outright conspiracy theories. In 2002, only 7% of Americans provided naysayer associations; by 2010, however, this rose to over 20%.
Several factors may have contributed to these trends. Climate change seems distant and abstract to most Americans, while carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases, and the impacts that have already been observed around the world are largely invisible and outside of most people's direct experience.
The recent scandal, dubbed 'Climategate,' over the unauthorized release of e-mails from several climate scientists in the United States and United Kingdom probably also had an important influence on public associations to global warming.
This study demonstrates that while affective images are individual mental representations and feelings, they cannot be separated from larger-scale political, economic, and cultural dynamics.
Risk-related affective images and connotative meanings diffuse through complex social networks where they are subject to reinterpretation, amplification, or attenuation by different actors within the social system. Some of these images are used by advocates in an attempt to increase public risk perceptions to motivate individual and collective action to mitigate risk, whereas other images are promulgated by opponents who seek to raise public doubts, dampen public concerns, and delay action.
Affective imagery analysis thus provides a powerful tool to measure, track, and explain shifting public perceptions of risk over time.
The full article is available for free and can be downloaded here.