The phrase “climate crisis” engages voters emotionally better than either “climate change” or “global warming.”
That’s the new finding from the brain science startup SPARK Neuro, which used an electroencephalogram (EEG) and other bio-measurements to examine how 120 Democrats, Republicans, and independents responded to different terms for the growing threat we face from rising levels of carbon pollution.
According to the study, “climate crisis” got a 60% higher emotional response from Democrats than “climate change.” It triggered triple the response from Republicans.
It’s no surprise that different words have different emotional impacts in the climate debate. Way back in 2002, Republican messaging expert Frank Luntz wrote an infamous 2002 memo to conservatives and the George W. Bush White House with a variety of tested scripts — messages Republicans still use today in an effort to convey they care about the climate.
Luntz urged Republicans to use the phrase “climate change,” arguing that it is “less frightening” than “global warming.” He quoted one focus group participant saying climate change “sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale.”
But nearly three decades later, the state-of-the-art tools for measuring the emotional impact of different words has gone far beyond focus groups and polls.
SPARK Neuro uses a proprietary algorithm to integrate four biometric measurements: An EEG that “collects brain activity to quantify attention and emotion,” skin sweat response (also used in lie detectors), micro-facial expressions that indicate specific emotions, and eye tracking to help measure engagement.
In the test, subjects heard audio recordings of a variety of phrases. Climate change and global warming had the least emotional impact and engagement, whereas “climate crisis” and “environmental destruction” had the most (see chart).
Interestingly, the chart above shows Luntz was right: Global warming elicits a stronger emotional response than climate change — especially among independents and Republicans.
But other terms garner an even more powerful reaction. “Environmental destruction” generated the most intense response among Republicans, but had a relatively poor response from independents. For SPARK Neuro, that extreme response “raised a red flag in comparison with terms like ‘climate crisis,’ which performed well across all three political affiliations.”
As a result, SPARK Neuro recommends “climate crisis” as the phrase to use to hit the “sweet spot” that could help “engage unconvinced voters.”
What helps make “climate crisis” a winning phrase is in part the fact that it uses multiple figures of speech, including alliteration (both start with a hard “c”) and assonance (the vowel sounds rhyme). Research by social scientists and Madison Avenue has long shown that these types of figures of speech are important to being memorable and persuasive. One major study of print ads found that three-fourths of ad headlines use figures of speech, with alliteration and assonance being among the most popular.
Finally, from a scientific perspective, “climate crisis” is certainly accurate. Last October, the nations of the world unanimously approved a landmark report from scientists warning that we must make sharp reductions in global carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 to have any plausible chance of averting catastrophic climate change.
We have a decade to make deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions or we face decades, if not centuries, of ever worsening climate impacts. That is the very definition of a crisis.