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WNC science communicators help clear the climate word confusion

A word cloud  focuses on how to avoid confusing jargon on climate.  Word Cloud Generator
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A word cloud of some of the confusing jargon on climate.

One of the biggest challenges for climate scientists is communication - communicating to the public. The field is chock full of complicated calculations and jargon. But as Blue ridge Public Radio’s Helen Chickering found out, it’s not necessarily the big words and phrases that are the problem.

If you’ve heard or read a recent climate report, perhaps caught the headlines in the news, chances are some of those words were edited by Tom Maycock, a science editor with NC State University's North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies  in Asheville. Maycock is part of a vast network of science writers and editors who work behind the scenes helping climate scientists organize and translate their data and research findings - that are read by everyone from the president to the public.

 “And really what, what I do is, help the scientists who are authoring those reports try to frame their language, in a way that is more accessible, but also accurate and precise as it can be,” says Maycock.

It’s a challenging job. The wordy technical terms are the obvious culprits, but a recent study suggests there’s another not so obvious layer of jargon that needs the editor’s attention. Researchers with the United Nations Foundation and the University of Southern California tested the public’s knowledge on some uncomplicated terms that show up in climate science reports. USC’s Wändi Bruine de Bruin was the lead author on the study.

Words they selected, were like, adaptation, mitigation, sustainable development,” says Bruine de Bruin. “These are words that you may or may not have heard before, but they are used a lot in climate communication.”

The study findings suggest these fairly simple sounding words and terms are an overlooked source confusion and misinterpretation.

“Even if people thought that some of those terms were easy to understand didn't necessarily mean that they actually defined those words in the way in the way that climate scientists would.”

And that’s a problem says veteran climate science communicator Susan Joy Hassol, who directs the nonprofit Climatecommunication.org, and who for years, has been collecting such words – she dubs a different kind of jargon

“It's words that people do understand. They just understand them to mean something completely different,” says Hassol. “So, for example, to the public, positive is good and negative is bad. But in climate science, they don't use the terms that way positive is upward. So, they'll talk about a positive trend in temperature. The public thinks that sounds good, right? It's not in the era of global warming, a positive trend in temperature is bad, right?”

The definition disconnect is a pet peeve that Hassol has turned into a public service campaign. We tapped into her expertise to help clear some of the climate word confusion, here are a few from her list.

 Greenhouse gas

“The public hears a term like greenhouse gases, they don't know what that means. It kind of depends on them understanding the metaphor of a greenhouse for global warming. I like to call it ‘heat trapping pollution’ rather than greenhouse gases, because heat trapping tells you the mechanism, these things trap heat. So, carbon dioxide and other heat trapping gases act like a blanket. They hold heat in the earth's atmosphere.”

Carbon Neutral

“Carbon neutral means you don't emit more carbon dioxide than you can take up. So we know that trees take up carbon dioxide. We know that we're emitting much more carbon dioxide than the trees on earth can take up. So, we need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide. We're emitting to the level that the trees and the oceans and the other, we call them sinks for carbon can take up.”

Carbon Sink

“That's the way earth stores carbon. And it's another one of these words that mean different things, right? When you hear sink, you think of that vessel where you wash dishes. What scientists are talking about with carbon sinks are places where carbon is stored in the soil, in vegetation, in trees, in the oceans, those are carbon sinks. So, we want to balance the sources and the sinks so that we're no longer putting in more carbon dioxide than we're taking up.”

Mitigation
“I once had a washing machine hose burst and flooded my house. I called a flood mitigation service. They came in after the fact and cleaned up the mess. So that's not at all what we mean when we used it that way around climate change. We mean to proactively reduce, to reduce future climate change, but the public uses it in a different way. We use it to mean clean up or reduce the impact of in any way. So, it’s different. And I sometimes have to remind my scientists, colleagues that not everyone knows what we mean when we say that. So, let's just say reduce future climate change instead of mitigation.”

It's message that’s not lost on science editor Tom Maycock. “I think those are terms we need to be careful about explaining and sometimes just avoiding. If you mean reducing emissions - just say reducing emissions. “

Maycock helped edit North Carolina’s 2020 Climate Science Report - which includes a plain language summary – and the phrase - heat trapping gasses .

This story is part of an hour-long special Adapt: Changing Climate in the Carolinas

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.
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