Carbon neutral. Mitigation. Tipping point. Unprecedented transition.
If asked, could you explicitly define the terms above, words that are often used in discussions about climate change? If not, you’re not alone. In August of this year, a study found that U.S. residents struggle to understand the expressions frequently used by scientists to describe our changing climate. Some of those who participated in the study felt that such terms were too complex to understand. Other phrases were misunderstood in the context of climate change.
So, let’s take a deeper look into that communication investigation and at how we’re doing as a nation to dispel the misinformation about climate change that proliferated over the past few years.
Here’s a teaser: the ranks of climate change deniers have started to shrink.
In a study, part of a collection titled Climate Change Communication and the IPCC, carried out by a team of University of Southern California researchers and United Nations Foundation personnel that was published in a special edition of the science journal Climatic Change, participants were asked to rate how easy it was to understand eight terms drawn from publicly available reports written by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The respondents were diverse in age, education, gender and race and had a variety of backgrounds and views about climate change. The eight terms were: adaptation, abrupt change, carbon dioxide removal, carbon neutral, mitigation, sustainable development, tipping point and unprecedented transition.
The results of the survey showed that mitigation was the most difficult term to understand and abrupt change was the easiest. When the participants were asked to provide suggestions for alternative language, they advised using simpler words and more elegant phrases. For example, for the term unprecedented transition, which the IPCC defines as “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” the participants suggested “a change not seen before.”
For tipping point, which the IPCC defines as “an irreversible change in the climate system,” one respondent offered the very precise: “too late to fix anything.”
Previously published research suggests that simplifying language to increase comprehension can be achieved by:
• limiting sentences to between 16 and 20 words and using only those with two syllables, whenever possible, and
• writing for the public at the level of a reader who is 12 or 13 years old, equivalent to U.S. grade level six to seven.
According to the study’s authors, “One survey respondent summed it up nicely when saying, ‘It sounds like you’re talking over people.’” It reminded them that, even though climate change is a complex issue, there’s no need to make it even more convoluted by using incomprehensible words. Scientists need to replace jargon with everyday language in order to be understood by a lay audience.
Here are a few more climate change terms and their meanings to help us all “decode” the headlines and messages regarding climate change.
1. What is the United Nation’s COP26 (or COP27, COP28, etc.)?
The 26th United Nations (U.N.) Climate Change Conference, held in Glasgow, Scotland, this year, has just ended. It’s officially known as the 26th Conference of the Parties (or COP) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
To break it down further, the UNFCCC was established following the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (often referred to as the Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The stated aim of the UNFCCC is to reduce greenhouse gases to prevent the dangerous climate change being caused by human activity.
COPs are the formal meetings that have taken place every year since 1995, with the exception of 2020; the COVID-19 pandemic meant that COP26 was delayed by a year.
2. What is the IPCC?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the U.N. body for assessing the science related to climate change.
Created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the U.N. Environment Programme, the IPCC was established to provide all levels of governments with scientific information that they can use to develop climate policies.
IPCC reports are key inputs into the international climate change negotiations that happen during the COPs. A major report released in August 2021 shows that unless there are rapid, sustained and large-scale reductions of greenhouse gas emissions—including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and others—the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 Celsius will be beyond reach.
3. What is the significance of “1.5 degrees Celsius”?
In 2018 an IPCC report, reviewed by thousands of scientists and governments, found that limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels (those in the mid-18th century) would help us avoid the worst climate impacts and maintain a livable climate.
According to the latest data, our world has already warmed between 1.06 to 1.26 above preindustrial levels; and even if current promises are met, we would still be on a course to reach 2.7 degrees Celsius this century. This would mean a “climate catastrophe,” as stated by the U.N. Secretary-General, with a possible collapse of ecosystems and life as we know it.
4. What does “net zero” mean?
Net zero means cutting emissions to as close to zero as possible, such as by moving toward a green economy and clean, renewable energy, with any remaining emissions reabsorbed, for example, by forests and oceans.
Nearly every country has joined the Paris Agreement on climate change, which called for keeping the global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. A growing number of countries are also making commitments to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
5. What are “nature-based solutions”?
Nature-based solutions are actions that are taken or need to be taken to protect, sustainably manage and restore ecosystems while simultaneously addressing societal challenges. They ideally provide biodiversity benefits and human well-being.
Nature-based solutions are an essential part of the overall global effort to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. Examples are carbon farming; rebuilding mangroves, which provide effective and cheap, natural barriers against coastal floods and shoreline erosion; regenerative agriculture; tree-planting programs, which absorb carbon and provide protection from intense rainfall; and establishing climate-resilient societies in general.
Thanks to algorithms that learn about your social media content preferences, your Facebook and Twitter feeds, suggested YouTube videos and other news streams often look startlingly different from anybody else’s. And when it comes to online content that contains disinformation—inaccurate messages or propaganda intended to deceive and influence you—why are some more likely to believe the falsehoods? One researcher decided to find out.
Boston University College of Communication researcher Arunima Krishna is currently studying public perceptions of controversial social issues and the spread of disinformation, specifically related to climate science. In her latest study, Krishna surveyed 645 Americans about their beliefs on climate change—whether those beliefs are informed by fact or fiction.
Krishna has said that she thinks that a lot of people don’t see how close to home climate change is. Even though we’re seeing climate refugees, worsening hurricanes and other disasters, there is still a level of disconnection from the problem. Physical distance from the effects of climate change could be partly why some people find it easier to separate themselves from the climate crisis. Plus, climate solutions are often things many people don’t readily want to do, such as eating less meat, buying less material goods and using less plastic. Fossil fuel companies and industry lobbyists have also worked extremely hard to keep the public from knowing about the full extent of the damaging impact of burning fossil fuels.
According to the survey, seven in 10 people who are susceptible to believing climate change disinformation self-identified as politically conservative. In contrast, eight in 10 Americans who self-identified as liberal were found to be immune to disinformation about climate change. There was also an age difference: more than half of the respondents immune to false information about climate change were under age 45. Those most receptive to climate disinformation were, on average, over the age of 46.
Those findings double down on past research from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which found liberals and Democrats are significantly more worried about climate change than conservatives and Republicans. Liberals and Democrats are also more likely to believe humans are causing the climate crisis.
Krishna categorized the survey results into four different groups. The first segment, made up of people she calls the “disinformation immune,” have not accepted any disinformation about climate change and humans’ role in it, and they likely never will. The second group, the “disinformation vulnerable,” have negative attitudes about how humans are influencing the climate. While they haven’t yet accepted disinformation, some of their responses to facts about climate change—as well as their attitudes and motivations—indicate they could possibly believe climate disinformation in the future.
The third group, the “disinformation receptive,” have accepted false information about climate change already. Lastly, the fourth group, the “disinformation amplifying,” is made up of people who hold extremely negative attitudes about climate change and doubt humans’ role in accelerating it, have already accepted disinformation and are highly motivated to spread the disinformation they believe.
Krishna calls the amplifiers lacuna publics, a term she coined in 2017 when researching vaccine-hesitant groups. (The word publics refers to groups connected by issue-specific motivation, and lacuna means a gap in knowledge.) Though the disinformation amplifiers, or lacuna publics, are in the minority, they are different from groups that are disinformation receptive or vulnerable because of their willingness to disseminate disinformation.
Another sad fact is that the United States has more climate skeptics than anywhere else in the world. There is a bit of light, though: their ranks have started to shrink. Climate scientists around the world have found unequivocally that the more we continue to emit heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the worse the consequences will be for humans, most other species and Earth’s ecosystems.
Though there is no single solution to stopping the spread of climate disinformation, it is important to engage with people most vulnerable to it. On the other hand, true lacuna publics will be difficult or impossible to sway; and it might not be worth using resources to try to reach them.
We know that the words we use—whether they be about the creatures with whom we share the Earth or environmental issues—matter. We also know that we need to get better at communicating the dire threat from climate change if we expect to build support for more forceful action to stop it.
A good start would be to elevate the voices of the disinformation immune—and use words that most of us will understand.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,