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WNC science communicators continue their campaign to declutter the climate change conversation

A word cloud of some of the confusing climate jargon local climate science communicators are working to clarify.BPR
BPR/word cloud generator
A word cloud of some of the confusing climate jargon local climate science communicators are working to clarify.BPR

One of the biggest challenges for climate scientists is communicating to the public. The field is chock full of complicated calculations and jargon.

BPR's Helen Chickering has been following the work of climate science communicators based in Western North Carolina including 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,” Maycock said.

It is 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,” Bruine de Bruin said. “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.”

Veteran climate science communicator Susan Joy Hassol directs the Asheville based nonprofit Climatecommunication.org.

“It's words that people do understand. They just understand them to mean something completely different,” says Hassol.

The definition disconnect is a pet peeve that Hassol has turned into an ongoing public service campaign. Last fall, BPR tapped into her expertiseto help clear some of the climate word confusion including common words likeGreenhouse Gas,Carbon NeutralandMitigation.

Here are a few more to consider:

Global Warming

"Global warming also doesn't really capture all of what it means, right? This is more than just a little warming. So global warming doesn't capture what we're doing to things like extreme weather. And when you say climate change, scientists use climate change to refer to any climate change any, anytime in Earth's history for any reason. So what we're seeing now is different than just climate change."

"This is climate disruption. I think that's the best term for it, because then you get in the human piece of this, this is human caused climate disruption. We are disrupting the natural climate system with what we are doing by adding all these heat trapping gases by burning coal, oil, and gas. So it's climate disruption better than global warming, better than climate change. But because people have heard the term climate change or global warming, I'll often start by using that term. But then I'll segue to using climate disruption because I think that's a better term."

Nuisance Flooding

"So if you're at the coast, the tides at high tides, you're seeing water in the streets in many places where the land is low lying. So in Miami, for example, you're seeing water in the streets coming from the high tide - it's not coming from rain. Scientists will sometimes call that nuisance flooding, which drives me crazy because it's way more than a nuisance. You have water in the streets in Miami Beach, they're spending 300 million on a pumping system to pump that water out of the streets. That's far more than a nuisance. I like to call it recurrent flooding, because that means it's coming back on a regular basis and you don't need to have rain to have it. "

Retreat

"So if you're down at the coast, you may have heard the term retreat, managed retreat - as in we are going to have to retreat/move back from the coast because the sea level is rising. But I don't like to call it retreat. I like to call it proactive relocation. We want to get out ahead of this. We don't want to wait till we're flooded, and the houses are falling into the ocean. We want to proactively move back, relocate to safer, higher ground. But we can talk about it in a way that doesn't sound so negative. You know, like the Army generals like to say - we never retreat, w just advance in a different direction. And so we need to do that. We need to proactively move to advancement zones to safer."

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.