Does the term "climate change" need a makeover? Some think so — here's why.

By Jeff Berardelli

/ CBS News

Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old who leads a global climate movement, asked in a recent tweet, "Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?"

She's not alone in her sentiment. Many of those engaged in environmental advocacy feel the term "climate change" fails to convey the specificity or urgency needed to address the gravity of the climate challenge.

A new recent study shows they may be right.

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New York City-based SPARK Neuro, a neuroanalytics company that measures emotion and attention, studied how participants responded to six terms — "climate crisis," "environmental destruction," "environmental collapse," "weather destabilization," "global warming" and "climate change."

A total of 120 people — 40 Republicans, 40 Democrats and 40 independents — participated in the study, which measured the "emotional intensity" of responses to audio recordings of various controversial phrases, with each term inserted, like this example below:

"Sea levels will rise dramatically, to the point that many coastal cities will be submerged, as a result of [INSERT TERM]."

The electrical activity of the participants' brains and skin was rated on a scale of zero to five — five being the strongest. Those results were then compared to a traditional survey for reference.

Two terms stood out from the pack: climate crisis and environmental destruction.

Among Democrats, the study found a 60% greater emotional response to the term "climate crisis" than to "climate change," and a tripling in emotional response among Republicans.

Spencer Gerrol, CEO of SPARK Neuro, said evoking emotion is vital to getting people to act. Because terms like climate change and global warming do not imply good or bad, they don't spark passion, he said.

"People tend to underestimate how much emotions factor in," he said. "Ultimately it is emotions that change hearts and minds and lead to actions."

Among the Republicans in the study, the term "environmental destruction" evoked what was considered an extreme reaction, registering an emotional response almost four times greater than that of their responses to the term "climate change."

However, Gerrol said that kind of visceral intensity can backfire.

"The term 'environmental destruction' seems to have crossed a line with Republicans. It is likely seen as alarmist, perhaps even implying blame, which can lead to counterarguing and pushback," he said.

SPARK Neuro

The term "climate crisis" appeared to fall in a sweet spot. It performed well in terms of responses across the political spectrum and elicited the greatest emotional response among independents.

"Independents are thinking less about what camp they fall into because they are not driven by partisan beliefs and visceral reactions. It implies they are thinking more critically about the term," Gerrol said.

One online petition from The Action Network, a progressive advocacy organization, shows some are pushing for this change. It calls on major TV networks to "call the climate crisis transforming the Earth exactly what it is: a climate crisis."

This week, people in the climate-engaged community have fielded a flurry of emails from organizations like The Climate Reality Project and 350.org. The climate advocacy non-profits have asked them to sign the petition, which garnered more than 35,000 signatures by Thursday morning.

Sarah Finnie Robinson, a senior fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Energy at Boston University, said she signed "because we have not addressed climate change properly, despite scientists' dire warnings."

"It's now a crisis, an emergency, and we need to engage people to demand smart policy and innovation," she said. "Time is not on our side."

But not everyone is convinced a name change is needed or even possible.

"I think it is too late to attempt to change the terms global warming and climate change," said David Fenton, founder and chairman of Fenton Communications, a social change agency. "They are now fully implanted in people's consciousness and would be very hard to change."

More important, Fenton said, is "to simply explain how we are heating the planet and how that is hurting people, communities and the economy. Too few people really understand this in simple terms or images."

Whether it's rebranding or reframing, one thing everyone in the climate conscious community agrees on is: "climate change needs a kick in the butt." Those are the words of an Ohio woman involved in a focus group conducted by John Marshall, a senior client advisor at Lippincott, a brand strategy consultancy.

In Marshall's words, this is the most "wicked" branding and communications challenge because of vast political divisions and feelings of detachment from climate change, such as people believing, "It's not important to me and I'm not important to it." Marshall said the term seriously lacks energy and relevance, and "badly" needs rebranding.

To help formulate a messaging strategy, he united 16 prominent firms in the creative industry that are forming a non-profit coalition called the Potential Energy Coalition. It will soon launch a series of creative climate campaigns that will appear in print and digital media, as well as on TV and radio. The campaigns are designed for awareness and persuasion.

"We hope to find very new and effective ways to engage people in the climate crisis, and scale what works to help dramatically accelerate action," Marshall said. "Our goal is to help people realize how massively important this issue is."

First published on May 16, 2019 / 12:07 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Jeff Berardelli

Meteorologist Jeff Berardelli is a CBS News Climate & Weather Contributor. Follow him on Twitter @WeatherProf.

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