Climate scientists and journalists looking to communicate the urgent messages of the climate crisis are being told to avoid jargon, skip the acronyms, and remember that an easily discouraged and already highly apprehensive public will respond better to being spoken with, rather than talked at.
Climate communication experts from across the United States are urging scientists and journalists to think harder about how their delivery may or may not encourage citizens to pay attention to, and understand, the imperatives of climate change and its solutions, writes Grist.
Dismissing concerns about “dumbing down” the concepts involved, Susan Joy Hassol, director of the Carolina-based non-profit science outreach group Climate Communication, told Grist that “the only thing that’s dumb is speaking to people in language that they don’t understand.”
Big, abstract words typically have the compounding effect of both disengaging and demoralizing non-expert audiences, said Hillary Shulman, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, and lead author of a recent study published in the journal PLOS ONE. She told Grist experts need to drop the jargon of their professions if they want to reach a broad audience.
“If you limit your work to the people who really work hard to read it, you’re probably missing out on the audience you actually need to be reading the work,” Shulman said.
Acronyms can be another barrier to clear communication. Grist cites the accidentally comical case of a recent climate-related study in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences whose authors used the acronym STI as nifty shorthand for the phrase “social tipping interventions”. That acronym “means something, uh, totally different” to the rest of us, Grist notes.
Often, said Hassol, the full term is most evocative, and therefore most powerful. As an example, she noted the frequent tendency of experts to refer to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as ANWR. Pronounced an-whar, this insiders’ term erases compelling imagery of caribou, endangered polar bear dens, or Indigenous culture.
“The best way to communicate about science might just be…to talk like a normal human being,” writes Grist. That means showing emotion, using “filler words like uh, um, and like”, and generally writing and talking with alert attention to whoever you’re trying to reach.
An important step, Hassol added, is to recognize that many climate terms (150, according to a recent list she assembled) “mean one thing to scientists and another to the general public.” The phrase “positive feedback,” for example, is used by scientists to describe a vicious cycle, but means something altogether different to the general public.
Overused, unclear scientific terms can also become “buzzwords,” creating unintended consequences. Grist points to Republican climate strategist Frank Luntz who, during testimony before the U.S. Senate last year, noted that the phrase “sustainability” has increasingly come to be associated with maintenance of the status quo, rather than social change.
“What American people really want is something that is cleaner, safer, healthier,” he said, according to Grist. “What they’re asking for is improvement, not the status quo.”