Talking Through The Tangled Terms Of Climate Change

17:19 minutes

When scientists talk about climate change, there are certain words and phrases that get brought up often. Terms like “mitigation,” “carbon neutral” and “tipping point” are used frequently to explain how the climate crisis is unfolding. They’re often found in reports meant to educate the public on climate change, such as the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

It turns out a lot of words and phrases that scientists use to talk about climate change are not understood by the general public. That’s according to a recent study from the University of Southern California and the United Nations Foundation. This begs the question: if the public scientists are trying to reach don’t understand what’s being discussed, what’s the point?

Joining Ira to talk about better communicating climate change is Wändi Bruine de Bruin, lead author of the study and provost professor of public policy, psychology and behavioral science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California. Also joining Ira is Anthony Leiserowitz, founder and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication in New Haven, Connecticut.

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Segment Guests

Wändi Bruine de Bruin

Wändi Bruine de Bruin is Provost Professor of Public Policy, Psychology, and Behavioral Science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California.

Anthony Leiserowitz

Anthony Leiserowitz is Founder and Director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication in New Haven, Connecticut.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. When you hear scientists talk about climate change, there are some words and phrases that get brought up a lot, like mitigation, carbon neutral, and tipping point. They are often used to explain how far we are in the climate crisis. You find them a lot in reports, meant to discuss climate change with the public. Maybe you’ve heard these terms on, well, on this very show.

It turns out that a lot of the words and phrases that scientists use to talk about climate change are not understood by the rest of us. That’s according to a recent study from the University of Southern California and the United Nations Foundation. This begs the question, if the public you’re trying to reach doesn’t know what you’re talking about, what’s the point?

Joining me today to talk about better communicating climate change are my guests, Wandi Bruine de Bruin is provost professor of Public Policy, Psychology, and Behavioral Science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. And Anthony Leiserowitz is founder and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. That’s through Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. Welcome to Science Friday, both of you.

WANDI BRUINE DE BRUIN: Thanks for having me.


IRA FLATOW: Wandi, let me talk with you first. Your study found that the public had trouble understanding these terms, and as the lead author, I wanted to ask you was the result surprising to you at all, or was it expected?

WANDI BRUINE DE BRUIN: Well, some of the results were expected, and some were surprising. So what was expected is that in the science of science communication, we’ve long been telling experts that it’s important to use everyday language when communicating with general audiences. And so it was not surprising, to me, that some of the climate change terminology was difficult for people to understand.

So what was surprising to me is that, so we interviewed people who varied in their concerns about climate change, and we found that even people who said that they were concerned about climate change did not necessarily know what to make of this climate change terminology. And so that means that people who might be willing to engage with climate change communications may have trouble doing so.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that is very interesting. Can you walk us through some of the specific terms that you looked at in terms the people had trouble with?

WANDI BRUINE DE BRUIN: This is how we did the study. We asked these climate scientists and climate communicators to identify the key terminology that is central to understanding climate change communication. So they selected the terms, and they included mitigation, carbon neutral, adaptation, and so on. And then we interviewed people from across the United States, who varied in their climate change concerns about these terms, and we asked them to define the terms and give us suggestions for describing these terms in a more simple way that is easier for people to understand.

IRA FLATOW: I find that unfortunate for us because those are terms we use on Science Friday over and over again. Tony, what about you? Does it surprise you at all that the public is confused by terms that we use all the time?

ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: Well, I think I had a very similar reaction to Wandi. I mean, in many ways, this is very much consistent with what we’ve learned over many decades of research on science communication, and that is you’ve got to keep it simple. You’ve got to use terms that people do understand in their everyday language. And I would just say that this is a very common problem for all of us, and then we call this the veil of knowledge, not the veil of ignorance, but the veil of knowledge.

And that once you come to be an expert in something, and it could be anything, it could be auto mechanics, that you tend to assume that everybody around you understands what you understand. And I mean, how many times have you visited your doctor and said, hey, doc, what’s wrong with me, and they start using all these terms that you have no idea what they’re talking about. And they just assume that you know what they mean.

So this is a very common problem, and I think what this study has really done a nice job of is really digging into what we call the mental models that people have in their heads around these terms. And in fact, the most important audience for these findings is those of us in the climate expert community. Because often, we just assume because of this veil of knowledge, that everybody around us knows what carbon dioxide is, that knows what mitigation or adaptation are. When in fact, many people really don’t know what these terms are because they’ve never encountered them quote unquote, “in the wild.”

IRA FLATOW: That’s really interesting. Wandi, do the people think they know what these mean and then get them wrong, or they just don’t know what they mean at all?

WANDI BRUINE DE BRUIN: Also for some terms like mitigation, people thought that the terms were confusing, and they said that they didn’t know what it meant or they confused it with mediation. But for a term like adaptation, people said, yeah, that is actually a relatively easy term, and they thought they knew what it meant. But when we asked them to define adaptation, we often heard things like adapting a book into a movie, which is a correct definition of adaptation. It’s just not how it’s used in the context of climate change.

IRA FLATOW: Now, you also asked study participants to suggest their own alternative words that scientists could use. Could you give us an idea, how did that work out?

WANDI BRUINE DE BRUIN: So for example, instead of saying mitigation or when you use mitigation, you could explain it as policies that you implement to help stop climate change. That’s something that people suggested. For adaptation, it’s making changes that can help us to survive climate change. And so as you can hear, these are just simpler ways of saying the same thing.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, but Tony, do you think the media that talks about this all the time is going to take a one word and substitute five words for it?

ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: No, probably not. And so look, this is an evolving thing too. I mean, let’s not forget that with experience, with the use of these terms, people become more familiar with them. So it’s not like forever and forever, people will never understand what say, carbon emissions are or what mitigation is. And let’s just be honest that when it comes to actual media conversation and the level, the scale of media communication about climate change, most people say that they almost never hear about it.

So I know– again, for those of us in the climate expert community, we see it all the time. We’re seeing, look at all the coverage that has been happening around this, and it has been increasing, but it’s still a tiny, tiny drop in the bucket in most people’s worlds. They don’t hear the people that they know– their friends, their families, their local communities talking about it. They don’t tend to hear it from the media that they’re paying attention to.

So one thought is though that as climate change becomes ever more present in our collective discourse, in our collective consciousness, we will learn these terms because they do get used more and more. But that doesn’t give experts a pass. You still need to try to, whatever possible, to use simplified language that people automatically understand that doesn’t require a full semester course in climate science to understand what we actually mean.

IRA FLATOW: I want to pull out a phrase you used in that answer, and you said that they don’t hear it in the media they’re used to listening to or perhaps watching. I’ll add that. I mean, climate change has been so politicized in this country, I don’t expect that in some alternate media, you’re going to be hearing people talking about tipping point or carbon dioxide removal or adaptation at all.

ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: Absolutely, and there are definitely differences. We’re seeing different, let’s call them ecosystems, of information about climate change out there. This has, of course, become politically inflected where you see very different conversations about climate change, or frankly, none at all many times within say, more conservative media. But even within those that say the more progressive sides of the fence here in the United States listen to, even there especially, on the networks, climate change has been pretty absent until just very recently because of some of these more extreme events.

We’re starting to see climate change being connected a little bit more, whereas say, the print media, the newspapers, they have done a far better job over the past few years. But TV is still predominantly kind of a wasteland. I call that dereliction of duty, but let’s get away from my editorializing.

WANDI BRUINE DE BRUIN: Can I follow up on that?

IRA FLATOW: Yes. Please, Wandi.

WANDI BRUINE DE BRUIN: So I think, in part, because the weather events are becoming more extreme around the world, I think people are becoming more aware of climate change. I’ve been analyzing the data of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll, and they surveyed more than 150,000 people around the world in 142 countries. And they’re finding that 69% of people around the world are now saying that they’re concerned about climate change. And even in the United States, a majority of people is now concerned about climate change.

So I think people are becoming more aware, slowly, although there’s still work to do, but then when we survey people who are concerned about climate change, what we’re often finding is that they do not necessarily know what they can do to curb climate change. And so for example, I surveyed people about what they can do to reduce the climate impact of their food choices, and a common answer that we’re getting is, choose food that has less packaging.

And reducing the packaging is a good idea, but better thing you can do to reduce the climate impact of your food choices is to eat less meat. And we’re finding that even people who are concerned about climate change do not necessarily know that. And that suggests that climate change communication should start focusing more on the people who are already concerned about climate change, whereas I think in the past, climate change communications have focused more on convincing the climate deniers that climate change is happening.

And so perhaps, we’ve overlooked the people who are concerned about climate change and have perhaps, failed to communicate to them about what they can do about climate change.

IRA FLATOW: So much of the US, as you pointed out, has experienced extreme weather this summer. And of course, just last week, we in the East dealt with Hurricane Ida. And I heard from some people, and I know in New York City, you’ve seen the pictures of those flash floods, the flooding of the subways, they said, you know, we got warnings, but we don’t know what that means because we never get flood warnings in the middle of Manhattan. Do you think the language around severe weather, then needs to be more clear too, Wandi?

WANDI BRUINE DE BRUIN: I think that wherever we can, we should use clear language. Whenever you revert to jargon, it may be difficult for people to understand what you’re trying to say.

IRA FLATOW: And Tony, you agree?

ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: Yeah. I mean, we’ve actually done studies in the past, finding that, for instance, one of the primary communication devices that NOAA and the hurricane centers use to communicate the risk of a hurricane is this so-called cone of uncertainty. I’m sure you’ve seen it on television or in newspapers. And what we found is that people really don’t understand what that is.

I mean, people confuse that cone as this is the swath of destruction, not just the projected path of the eye of the storm. And that’s actually led to real-world decision making where people thought, oh, I’m outside of that cone, therefore, I don’t need to evacuate. And there have been examples in the past where, in fact, they actually did get hit by the hurricane, and thus, suffered damage or even death.

So it’s just to say that, yes, of course, this is a generalized principle is that when you’re speaking to a diverse public that, of course, includes not just diversity of people across race, class, gender, et cetera but also, education levels. It’s really, really important that you be trying to think about how do you use simple, clear language that is repeated often, repeated often, repeated often, repeated often– and we usually forget that part– by a variety of trusted messengers. And that’s really, really a basic set of guidelines around communication.

IRA FLATOW: And who’s going to be responsible for being that responsible party of communicators? Is it the government? Is it the media? Is it the whether people on television?

ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: It’s all of the above. I mean, all of us that are in the business of communicating with the general public, it is partly our responsibility. And so those scientists that do engage the public, and thank goodness, many more of them are stepping up to the plate to actually communicate with local communities, national communities, going on national television, et cetera. When you do that, it’s really imperative that you learn because many scientists haven’t really received much training, how to communicate effectively with a broad audience.

So it’s not just the media, though the media needs help too. It’s also scientists. It’s political leaders. It’s faith leaders. It’s business leaders, I mean, really, anybody that is engaging a larger audience.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I was wondering as I was watching the weather reports and the kinds of things we’re talking about that maybe what we’re going through with COVID, COVID messaging might be a good model. I mean, how many people ever heard of an mRNA protein before, and now you see the spikes on the cells, and the whole nation is getting a lesson at the same time in biology. Could this also be true of climate and weather?

WANDI BRUINE DE BRUIN: If climate and weather received as much media attention as COVID-19, I think what we would see that people would have a better understanding of key climate terminology.

ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: And I would just add to that that, unfortunately, I think COVID also shows us an example of how poor communication works, especially in a politicized environment. People are incredibly confused about the dangers of COVID, and now we’re talking about the dangers of different kinds of so-called cures. This is where it’s not just the fact that people don’t understand what a virus is or how it works and how best to protect yourself and what the scientific community has to say, but then it gets all inflected through our politics.

And those trusted messengers, for some people, are not Dr. Fauci, are not the scientists. They’re trusting other people who are telling them that either this is not a problem at all or you really shouldn’t be worried about it, or hey, here’s a bunch of other potential ways to protect yourself against this potentially dangerous, dangerous virus. So unfortunately, the US is an example, as well, of the power and the influence that politics can have on our mutual understanding of a problem like COVID just like it’s a problem with climate change.

IRA FLATOW: Do scientists understand this themselves, I mean, that they need to be better communicators?

ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: Yeah, I would say there’s been a real sea change in the climate science community over the past, say 15 to 20 years, where for a long time, and an earlier generation of scientists were really brought up in a cultural standpoint of our job is to do research, to publish our findings in peer-reviewed literature, and then to essentially let the policymakers and others learn what they can from it and make policy based on it, that we don’t engage.

That basic philosophy has gone out the window a long, long time ago. Because increasingly, they recognize that we are studying systems that are literally being ripped apart in front of our eyes. That as experts in climate change or species extinction, et cetera, we have unique knowledge about how the world is working and how it’s coming apart. That it’s really important to communicate not just to our fellow scientists, but to the larger set of decision makers throughout society, not necessarily telling them what to do, but absolutely, with the mission of trying to inform the decisions that policymakers make all the way down to everyday people who are making decisions about how to engage these issues.

IRA FLATOW: Wandi, what’s your take on this?

WANDI BRUINE DE BRUIN: Yeah, I think we’re increasingly seeing that climate scientists are very concerned about communicating clearly about climate science to general audiences, but one challenge is that climate scientists are not necessarily trained in science communication. And so they may try to say things in a simple way, but if you’re highly educated in a particular domain, you may not realize how to put things in simple words, and you may not think like a layperson anymore. So it may be difficult to find those simple words.

So something that I often recommend is that if you have a difficult time finding everyday wording to describe your recommendations, what you could do is, work with members of your target audience to help them to simplify your message so that it’s more broadly understood.

IRA FLATOW: Well, unfortunately, I have simple words to say, we have run out of time. I’d like to thank both of you for taking time to be with us. Very interesting conversation. Wandi Bruine de Bruin, provost professor of Public Policy, Psychology, and Behavioral Science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Anthony Leiserowitz, founder and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication in New Haven, Connecticut. As I say, thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

WANDI BRUINE DE BRUIN: Thank you very much.


IRA FLATOW: You’re Welcome.

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