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What comes to mind when you think of global warming?

Dear Friends,

Today we are pleased to announce the publication of an article entitled, “Affective imagery, risk perceptions, and climate change communication” in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science.

Affective images are positive or negative feelings, associated with particular concepts or stimuli. For example, the word “cancer” evokes negative associations of death or illness for most people, while “sushi” often evokes either positive or negative associations to raw fish. Affective images occur rapidly, automatically, and often unconsciously. Affective images also guide decision-making; seeing “sushi” on a dinner menu causes some people to react with disgust, while others salivate in anticipation, guiding their subsequent decision-making and behavior (what to order for dinner).

For more than a decade, using nationally representative surveys, we have been collecting Americans’ top-of-mind associations to “global warming”, thus making it possible to study how these connotative meanings are distributed among the public and how they change over time.

For example, the original study from 2003 found that the most common associations Americans had to “global warming” were images of melting ice -- the loss of sea ice on the Arctic Ocean, ice shelves breaking off Antarctica, and the loss of glaciers around the world. These mental images reflect the pervasive use of photographs and videos of melting ice by the media, with thousands of news stories using these images to illustrate the problem of global warming. This particular icon, however, has positive and negative consequences for public engagement, as we describe in the article.

We also identified two interpretive communities – Alarmists and Naysayers – with diametrically opposed interpretations of “global warming.” Alarmists interpret global warming in catastrophic terms (e.g., "death of the planet"), while Naysayers interpret global warming in various shades of doubt and dismissal, including conspiracy theories. The proportion of these two groups changed over time, with a sharp increase of Naysayers in 2010, with the rise of the Tea Party, the hacking and weaponization of climate scientists’ emails, and the failure of national cap and trade legislation and the Copenhagen Climate Summit.

This study also found that from 2007, associations to weather increased more than 4 times, reaching 13 percent of all associations in early 2016. Moreover, the increase in these associations correlate reasonably well with shifts in the seasonal Climate Extremes Index (NCEI, 2016), suggesting that extreme weather events have increasingly influenced how some Americans interpret “global warming.” These results further indicate that extreme weather events are potential “teachable moments” when Americans are paying attention to events that, in some cases, are strongly connected to climate change.

The full article traces the development of affective imagery analysis, examines how affective images influence climate change risk perceptions and policy support, and charts several future directions of research.

Leiserowitz, A. & Smith, N. (2017) Affective imagery, risk perceptions, and climate change communication. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190228620.013.307

The article is available here to those with a subscription to the Oxford Research Encyclopedia. If you would like to request a copy, please send an email to, with the subject line "Request Affective Imagery Paper".

As always, thank you for your interest and support!


Anthony Leiserowitz, Ph.D.
Director, Yale Program on Climate Change Communication
Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies
(203) 432-4865


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