Climate Change Communication Challenges Part 1: Language

A 2009 survey of Earth scientists shows that 90% of the 3146 respondents believe the Earth’s temperature is warming.  Of those surveyed, 82% believe human activity is a significant contributing factor.  The numbers are even more stark for self-identified climatologists.  Of the 79 individuals, 96% believe temperatures are rising and 95% believe humans are the cause.  This indicates a strong scientific consensus on climate change.  Yet public opinion lags far behind these numbers, with only 57% of US citizens saying they believe climate change is real.  Why the discrepancy?  Part of it is due to a communication problem.

This three part series will examine some of the challenges of communicating climate change.  This first part examines the “language barrier.”  Next week’s installment will explore the media’s role in communicating (and not communicating) information.  The final installment will discuss the challenges of visualizing climate change causes and effects.

Two weeks ago, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) released a report on the climate change policy debate authored by an unlikely source: Frank Luntz, a conservative pollster who advised President George W. Bush to focus on the lack of scientific certainty to stall any action on climate change.  The new report is a complete turn around from Bush era stall tactics (though Luntz did provide Republicans with talking points this week to stall financial reform legislation.  I guess money talks from both sides of the aisle.).  In particular, it focuses on how to frame the debate about climate change to inspire action in the form of a national legislation.

Finding a common language is one of the key hurdles to explaining climate change and getting individuals and politicians on board to solve the problem.  There are two major facets to the language barrier: the challenging nature of scientific language and the framing of the issue.

Climate scientists are trained as, well, scientists, not communicators. Terms like thermohaline circulation, anthropogenic forcing, and a gigaton carbon are rich in meaning in the esoteric language of climate and atmospheric studies. However, those meanings are lost in translation as these terms have very little grounding in the day-to-day language most people use.  This doesn’t mean that science should be dumbed down for the public.  It means that scientists need to be smarter about the language they use.  Or more money needs to be put towards hiring staff who understand the science and can act as interpreters.

In politics, framing is everything.  For better or worse, climate change has become politicized.  While making the scientific grounding of climate change clearer is important, it’s foolhardy to believe that facts alone will win out over strong messaging.  When I worked for the Park Service as an environmental educator, I was trained in the use of techniques that put emotional oomph behind facts.  Understanding how many parts per million of carbon dioxide there are in our atmosphere doesn’t necessarily lead to caring that it’s in the atmosphere.  But telling someone that it will affect their health, safety, and their children’s future certainly has an impact.

However, using negative language can be dangerous. Witness the current flare up over the IPCC’s disappearing Himalayan glacier mix up.  Though the report wasn’t necessarily trying to create undue alarm, the overstatement is drawing attention away from the real problems climate change is already causing.  In fact, Luntz’s report suggests using positive language based around energy efficiency and national security will get the strongest public reaction.  Rather than discussing the negative impacts climate change might have on an individual’s health and safety, it might be better to stress the positive benefits of mitigating it.

The words used to date to define climate change and inspire action have had little effect.  The US never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, public belief in climate change hasn’t really seen any major increases in 20 years, and US climate legislation looks to be in danger of not passing the Senate.  This is not just due a lack of effective keywords.  At times war, healthcare, the economy, and Tiger Woods’ sex life have taken precedence over climate change.  Focusing on a positive message, explaining confusing scientific language, and framing it in a way that appeals to more Americans might make more inroads than other strategies have to date, though.  It doesn’t hurt to try, does it?

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