Climate Change Challenge: Terminology Used By Scientists Confounds Public


A new study finds that U.S. residents struggle to understand terms frequently used by scientists to describe climate change. Study participants said some of the terms were too complex to understand. Other terms were misunderstood in the context of climate change. Participants suggested simpler, alternative language.

The study was published in a special edition of Climatic Change titled Climate Change Communication and the IPCC.

The study was spearheaded by the USC Dornsife Public Exchange and included a team of USC researchers and personnel from the United Nations Foundation.

Study participants were asked to rate how easy it was to understand eight terms drawn from publicly available reports written by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (The documents used for the study did not include the IPCC’s latest report, which was released to the public on Aug. 9, 2021.) The UN Foundation chose the terms through informal consultation with the IPCC.

The eight terms were “mitigation,” “carbon neutral,” “unprecedented transition,” “tipping point,” “sustainable development,” “carbon dioxide removal,” “adaptation” and “abrupt change.” “Mitigation” was the most difficult term to understand; “abrupt change” was the easiest.

Participants were also asked to provide suggestions for alternative language. In general, they advised using simpler terms and using them in the context of climate change. For example, for the term “unprecedented transition,” which the IPCC defines as “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” participants suggested: “a change not seen before.”

For “tipping point,” which the IPCC defines as “an irreversible change in the climate system,” one respondent offered: “too late to fix anything.”

Previously published research suggests simplifying language to increase comprehension by:

  • Limiting sentences to 16-20 words and using words with no more than two syllables, whenever possible (Cutts 2013; Kadayat and Eika 2020; McLaughlin 1969).
  • Writing for the public at the level of a reader who is 12 or 13 years old (U.S. grade level 6-7; Wong-Parodi et al. 2013).

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