Climate Change Challenge: Terminology Used by Scientists Confounds Public

September 1, 2021

“It sounds like you’re talking over people,” said one study participant in a USC/United Nations Foundation study. Participants offered helpful suggestions for improving climate language.

Contact: Jenesse Miller, 213-810-8554 or jenessem@usc.edu

new study finds that U.S. residents struggle to understand terms frequently used by scientists to describe climate change. Study participants said some of the terms were too complex to understand. Other terms were misunderstood in the context of climate change. Participants suggested simpler, alternative language.

The study was published in a special edition of Climatic Change titled Climate Change Communication and the IPCC.

The study was spearheaded by the USC Dornsife Public Exchange and included a team of USC researchers and personnel from the United Nations Foundation.

Study 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. (The documents used for the study did not include the IPCC’s latest report, which was released to the public on Aug. 9, 2021.) The UN Foundation chose the terms through informal consultation with the IPCC.

The eight terms were “mitigation,” “carbon neutral,” “unprecedented transition,” “tipping point,” “sustainable development,” “carbon dioxide removal,” “adaptation” and “abrupt change.” “Mitigation” was the most difficult term to understand; “abrupt change” was the easiest.

Participants were also asked to provide suggestions for alternative language. In general, they advised using simpler terms and using them in the context of climate change. For example, for the term “unprecedented transition,” which the IPCC defines as “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” 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: “too late to fix anything.”

Previously published research suggests simplifying language to increase comprehension by:

  • 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).

Researcher Commentary

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:

“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.”

Study Design

A qualitative researcher from USC Dornsife’s Center for Economic and Social Research posed the terms to 20 participants with a variety of backgrounds and views about climate change. The participants were drawn from USC Dornsife’s Understanding America Study for their varying views about climate change and diversity in terms of age, race, gender and education.

In a qualitative study such as this one, a sample of 20 is large enough to find terms that are likely to be misunderstood (Morgan et al. 2002). Indeed, 88% of the misunderstandings in this study were raised in the first 10 interviews. After 17 interviews, no new misunderstandings were raised. Researchers say a follow-up survey would be needed to examine how often misunderstandings occur or who is most likely to experience them.

About

The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences is the academic core of the University of California. Its diverse community works across the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, exploring fundamental questions about who we are, how the world works and what we can do to improve and enrich society.

Public Exchange is an office at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences that fast-tracks collaborations between academic researchers and the public and private sectors to define, analyze and solve complex problems together.

The United Nations Foundation is an independent charitable organization created to be a strategic partner for the United Nations to address humanity’s greatest challenges, build initiatives across sectors to solve problems at scale and drive global progress.

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