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Climate communications: Laura Helmuth and Susan Hassol talk about language

Posted on 8 May 2023 by Doug Bostrom

Do people hear what we're saying about climate change and why it's important? Making sure we're understood needs displacement— into other sets of ears. 

The right words are crucial to solving climate change – but too often the way that scientists share information can be confusing for the general public. How can researchers and other science communicators more clearly get across their findings and potential solutions, to help us together make progress on such important global challenges? Join Laura Helmuth, Editor-in-Chief at Scientific American, in conversation with Susan Hassol Director, Climate Communication.

This interview from Springer Nature's In Conversation pairs with Hassol's recent article The Right Words Are Crucial to Solving Climate Change, published in Scientific American

Helmuth and Hassol explore choosing terminology for better mutual understanding. The same linguistic barriers Helmuth and Hassol tackle lead Skeptical Science to undertake a massive revision project aimed at leveling the hill between climate talk and climate listen— by using plain language.  Here are three examples of how language goes amiss, and how to land on target: 

Scientist  says Public hears Clarity added
Climate change Any change of climate Climate disruption
Positive feedback Good response Self-reinforcing cycle
Greenhouse gas emissions Hothouse exhaust Heat-trapping pollution

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Comments 1 to 4:

  1. Excellent video.

    I have an old  book titled "Asimovs Guide to Science" 1987 edition Penguin Books, 880 pages that cover every branch of science and in surprising detail for one volume. The man is a genius. Its all beautifully written in a public friendly style. The writting does have a lot of jargon but its explained and he just has this smooth easy to grasp style of writing, all beautifully well structured and organised and easy to follow.

    There are no equations in the main text but some apendicies at the back include some maths of the key issues. Once you put equations in the body of the text you pretty much alienate most of the general public and Asimov understood this. The more equations and maths the worse it gets. I recall a book publisher discussing the issue of equations and the dismal affect this has on sales of a book. Sadly to say, because an equation explains something that requires a lot of words to explain.

    However I have some reservations about the suggestions in the video on terminology:

    Global warming became climate change and the denialists used that to accuse scientists of changing the story for nefarious purposes. The denialists were wrong on every level but mud sticks. Now we hand them more ammunition by calling it "climate disruption: I really dislike changes in terminology unless its really necessary.

    Postive feedback is the scientific term. Yes it makes it sound like a good thing but is using different terminology like self reinforcing cycle  the right response to the problem? Why not just define postive feedback  in brackets as "a self reinforcing cycle that amplifies the warming process" (or whatever process is being discussed ). Generally I think definitions in brackets is best. It only needs to be done once in an article. If every science writer comes up with their own terms as substitutes for jargon, it will just confuse the public even more.

    Heat trapping pollution is not a great term. There was controversy about whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant as such, started of course by the denialists. There is a good argument that carbon dioxide is a pollutant but why hand the denialists ammunition? The public generally understand pollution to be something added to the atmosphere that directly affects health or degrades the environment and this is the typical dictionary definition. CO2 acts more indirectly.Heat trapping gases would be better terminology (the video did suggest that as another option).

    Perhaps these are nit picks. Clearly the writer is correct that the scientific jargon often creates the wrong impression with the public. But the simple answer is just define it in brackets in plain language where possible, or as a footnote, as opposed to dreaming up completely new terms and using those.

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  2. I don't think it is accurate to state that "global warming became climate change" without noting that the two terms were used interchangeably over many years - for example the landmark Plass paper in 1955 was titled, "The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change".

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  3. You can read more about the "they changed the name..." myth on this SkS page.

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  4. I accept the terms climate change and global warming were always both used in the scientific literature. However this discussion page is about popular use of terms.  In New Zealand the media used the word global warming for some years after the climate problem became known, and  then the term climate change became the dominant  term used. My understanding is its the same in other countries.

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