Say What? Climate Language Confuses the Public, Study Shows

Terms like “mitigation” and “tipping point” make it difficult for laypeople to understand climate change problems and solutions.

Climate change labeled file folder tab
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In American public discourse, green words might as well be Greek words. So finds a new study of climate change terminology by researchers at the United Nations Foundation and the University of Southern California (USC) Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.

Published last month in a special edition of the journal Climatic Change, the study is based on interviews with 20 members of the general public in the United States, each of who was asked to rate how easy or how difficult it is to understand eight common climate-change terms that appear in publicly available reports written by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The terms are: “mitigation,” “carbon neutral,” “unprecedented transition,” “tipping point,” “sustainable development,” “carbon dioxide removal,” “adaptation,” and “abrupt change.”

On a scale of 1 to 5—where 1 is “not easy at all” to understand and 5 is “very easy” to understand—subjects said the most difficult term to grasp is “mitigation,” which received a rating of just 2.48.

In the context of climate change, “mitigation” refers to actions that reduce the rate of climate change. More than half of survey respondents, however, viewed the word through a legal or insurance lens.

“To me, personally, it means mitigating costs, keeping costs low … To prevent the expenditure of filing a lawsuit,” one survey respondent said. Other survey respondents confused the word “mitigation” with the word “mediation.”

Interview subjects said the next most difficult terms to comprehend are “carbon neutral,” which received a rating of 3.11; “unprecedented transition,” which received a rating of 3.48; “tipping point,” which received a rating of 3.58; and “sustainable development,” which received a rating of 3.63. Among climate scientists, the latter refers to economic growth that makes the world livable for future generations. Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents, however, interpreted the word “development” as having something to do with housing and infrastructure.

Terms that are easiest to understand, according to interview subjects, are “carbon dioxide,” which received a rating of 4.10; “adaptation,” which received a rating of 4.25; and “abrupt change,” which received a rating of 4.65. Although survey respondents said the latter was the easiest term to grasp, there was still confusion. Many respondents, for example, were surprised to learn that in the context of climate change, “abrupt change”—a change in climate that is so rapid and unexpected that humans have difficulty adapting to it—may occur over centuries.

“We have to get better at communicating the dire threat from climate change if we expect to build support for more forceful action to stop it,” Pete Ogden, vice president for energy, climate, and the environment at the UN Foundation, told USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. “We need to start by using language that anyone can understand.”

Echoed Wändi Bruine de Bruin, the study’s lead author and provost professor of public policy, psychology, and behavioral sciences at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and USC Price School of Public Policy, “One survey respondent summed it up nicely when saying, ‘It sounds like you’re talking over people.’ Scientists need to replace jargon with everyday language to be understood by a lay audience.”

On that note, participants also were asked to suggest alternatives for the climate-change terms they didn’t understand. Instead of “unprecedent transition,” for example—which the IPCC defines as “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”—participants suggested the phrase “a change not seen before.” And for “tipping point,” which the IPCC defines as “an irreversible change in the climate system,” one respondent proposed the phrase “too late to fix anything.”

“In several cases, the respondents proposed simple, elegant alternatives to existing language,” Bruine de Bruin said. “It reminded us that, even though climate change may be a complex issue, there is no need to make it even more complex by using complicated words.”

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  1. Bruine de Bruin, Wändi, et al. "Public Understanding of Climate Change Terminology." Climatic Change, vol. 167, no. 3-4, 2021, doi:10.1007/s10584-021-03183-0