Climate Change Terminology Needs to Be Simplified Study Finds

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climate change adaptation terminologies simplified

“The two words ‘information’ and communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.”

Sidney J. Harris

The IPCC and other institutions communicate climate change to people with diverse backgrounds, including the average population. But how effective is their communication in terms of the message being clearly understood by its audience? 

A study published in a special edition of Climatic Change titled, “Climate Change Communication and the IPCC” finds that research participants find it hard to understand some climate change terminology.

The study examined how participants interpreted key terminology from the IPCC report, including tipping point, unprecedented transition, carbon neutral, carbon dioxide removal, adaptation, mitigation, sustainable development, and abrupt change.

It revealed that among these terms, participants find mitigation, carbon-neutral, and unprecedented transition as the most difficult to understand, while adaptation and abrupt change are terms that are easiest to understand.

Even if the terms appear pretty easy to understand, participants are still unclear how it applies to climate change, and if terms have other meanings, they tend to associate it with existing concept or framework that is unrelated to climate change.

When participants were asked to give suggestions on what language to use when communicating climate change, they recommended using more accessible to understand words and phrases.

For example, instead of using the term ‘unprecedented transition’ which the IPCC defines as “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” participants suggest using “a change not seen before”.

For “tipping point”, that IPCC defines as “an irreversible change in the climate system,” to use “too late to fix anything”.

Previous studies also suggest keeping the language simple to increase comprehension by offering the following:

  • “Limiting sentences to 16-20 words and using words with no more than two syllables, whenever possible (Cutts 2013; Kadayat and Eika 2020; McLaughlin 1969).”
  • “Writing for the public at the level of a reader who is 12 or 13 years old (U.S. grade level 6-7; Wong-Parodi et al., 2013).”

Science Direct shares the following researcher commentary regarding the study findings.

Wändi Bruine de Bruin, the study’s lead author and Provost Professor of Public Policy, Psychology, and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Southern California (USC):

“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.”

“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.”

“Pete Ogden, vice president for energy, climate, and the environment at the United Nations Foundation, said, “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. We need to start by using language that anyone can understand. “

The study concludes that “generally, recommendations are to simplify wording, make links to climate change explicit, and describe underlying processes. Our findings are relevant to climate change communications by the IPCC and other institutions.”

To read the study, click the link below:

Source Citation:

Bruine de Bruin, W., Rabinovich, L., Weber, K. et al. Public understanding of climate change terminology. Climatic Change 167, 37 (2021).

University of Southern California. “Climate change challenge: Terminology used by scientists confounds public: Study participants offered helpful suggestions for improving climate language.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 August 2021.

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