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Public understanding of climate change terminology

Abstract

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other institutions communicate about climate change to diverse audiences without a background in climate science, including the general public. The effectiveness of these communications depends in part on how well the presented terminology is understood. In qualitative interviews, we examined how US residents interpreted key terms drawn from IPCC reports, including tipping point, unprecedented transition, carbon neutral, carbon dioxide removal, adaptation, mitigation, sustainable development, and abrupt change. We recruited twenty participants with diverse views on climate change from a nationally representative sample. We identified common themes and misunderstandings. Overall, 88% of the themes arose by the tenth interview, and no new themes arose after the seventeenth interview. Mitigation, carbon neutral, and unprecedented transition were perceived as the most difficult to understand. Adaptation and abrupt change were perceived as the easiest to understand. However, even if a term appeared to be understood, participants were not always clear about how it applied to climate change. Participants tended to draw on their mental models of non-climate contexts where terms had different meanings. Reading the terms in the context of sentences taken from communication materials was not always helpful due to the use of complex language. Based on participants’ interpretations and the science communication literature, we provide suggestions for communicating about each term. Generally, recommendations are to simplify wording, make links to climate change explicit, and describe underlying processes. Our findings are relevant to climate change communications by the IPCC and other institutions.

Introduction

Climate scientists increasingly aim to communicate their expertise to audiences without a background in climate science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created by the United Nations to provide policy-relevant scientific assessments on climate change. The IPCC releases publicly available reports, including summaries for policymakers, which are widely read and cited in the media (O’Neill et al. 2015). Key insights and terminology from climate change communications such as “carbon emissions” have entered the public discourse, through news coverage and on social media (Pearce et al. 2014; Russill and Nyssa 2009). Hence, people may come across those terms without the context provided by the climate change communications from which they were taken.

IPCC communications are a form of science communication, which aims to share scientific knowledge about climate science with nonexpert audiences. According to a National Academies of Sciences Report on the Science of Science Communication (NAS 2016, p. 23), “people approach science communication from their own starting points—a combination of expectations, knowledge, skills, beliefs, and values that are in turn shaped by broader social, political, and economic influences.” These personal starting points form the lens through which people interpret new information and are also referred to by social scientists as “mental models” (as well as “cognitive representations” and “schema”; Bruine de Bruin and Bostrom 2013; Busselle 2017; Gentner 2002; Kempton 1986; Marshall 1995; Morgan et al. 2002; Nersessian 1992). Hence, effective science communication goes beyond the outdated “knowledge deficit model” in which people are treated as empty vessels waiting to be filled with information selected for them by knowledgeable experts (Nerlich et al. 2010). Instead, key information should be presented in a way that connects with what people already know, deem useful, and find compelling (see "Discussion section").

To make sense of new information, people may draw on their existing mental models of other contexts—which can introduce misunderstandings (Reynolds et al. 2010). For example, a common confusion that has persisted since the 1990s is that the causes of climate change are similar to the causes of other types of environmental pollution (Reynolds et al., 2010). As a result, misconceptions persist that promoting recycling, avoiding nuclear power, and reducing air pollution from sulfur and nitrogen oxides will help to curb climate change (Kempton, 1991; Reynolds et al., 2010). The conflation of climate change with air pollution also leads to the incorrect inference that “the air will clear” soon after emissions are reduced (Weber and Stern 2011). Indeed, most people do not seem to realize that carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries, while common air pollutants typically clear up within hours or days (Dryden et al. 2018).

One recommendation from the science communication literature is to avoid technical terminology that is unfamiliar to the intended audience (Neuhauser and Paul 2011). Presenting information in everyday language increases the likelihood that recipients will read, understand, recall, and use it (Michie and Lester 2008; Jefford and Moore 2008). On average, adults in the United States (US) Canada, United Kingdom (UK) and other developed countries read at the level of educated 12–13-year-olds (Daraz et al. 2011; Davis et al. 2006; Neuhauser and Paul 2011; OECD 2013; Paasche-Orlow et al. 2003). Yet, readability assessments of IPCC summaries for policymakers show that they are written at the university level (Barkemeyer et al. 2015).Footnote 1 They include technical terms such as “greenhouse gases” which have been called “science babble” by members of the UK public (Lyndhurst 2007). As a rule of thumb, words that have no more than two syllables are easier to understand and more commonly used in everyday language (Cutts 2013; Kadayat and Eika 2020; McLaughlin 1969). Longer words tend to be less widely recognized and more likely to reflect jargon (Flesch 1948; Kincaid et al. 1975; McLaughlin 1969; Oakland and Lane 2009).

However, even short words like “carbon” may cause confusion between carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, and which one causes climate change, while the connection to personal behaviors remains unclear (Whitmarsh et al. 2011). This insight comes from a mail survey conducted in the UK, in which participants wrote down their definition of “carbon,” with responses being interpreted by the research team (Whitmarsh et al. 2011). Automated analysis of open-ended survey responses has increased the feasibility of asking such open-ended questions in surveys with large samples (Tvinnereim and Fløttum 2015). However, a limitation of these surveys is that people tend to write on average only ten words (Tvinnereim and Fløttum 2015). Moreover, there is no opportunity for an in-depth conversation to assess how participants arrived at their responses, how they relied on their existing mental models of other contexts, or which alternative wording they may prefer.

To gain a deeper understanding of how key terms in communications are interpreted by intended audiences, qualitative interviews have been recommended (Bruine de Bruin and Bostrom 2013; Morgan et al. 2002). Unlike surveys, qualitative interviews allow participants to describe their interpretation of presented terms, elaborate on how they arrived at their interpretation, describe any inferences they made from their mental models of other contexts, and suggest alternative wording. Samples for qualitative interviews tend to be smaller than for surveys because the goal of the interviews is to identify which interpretations of words occur. To assess how often interpretations of words occur, or who is more likely to use these interpretations, follow-up surveys with larger samples are recommended (Bruine de Bruin and Bostrom 2013).

In our study, we therefore interviewed 20 members of the US general public to examine their responses to key terms drawn from publicly available IPCC materials, which are central to climate change communications. The USA is especially of interest for this research because of the diversity in public views on climate change (Chryst et al. 2018).

To inform communications about climate change, our research asked the following questions.

  1. 1.

    How did interviewees rate the understandability of key terms?

  2. 2.

    How did participants interpret the terms?

  3. 3.

    Which improvements did participants suggest?

Method

Sample

Participants were selected for their diverse views about climate change from the University of Southern California’s Understanding America Study (UAS), a nationally representative online survey panel. UAS participants were surveyed about their views on climate change in 2018. We included nine participants from the 2018 survey who had responded that climate change was “caused mostly by human activities,” six who responded that it was caused by “natural changes in the environment,” three who indicated it “isn’t happening,” and two who responded with “none of these.” At the end of the interviews, we asked the same question about climate change again and found that this diversity was retained: Nine participants responded that climate change was “caused mostly by human activities,” seven selected both “human activities” and “natural changes in the environment,” three chose only “natural changes in the environment,” and one indicated “none of these.” This diversity was also reflected in participants’ responses to a question about the likelihood that climate change is currently happening (1 = very unlikely to 5 = very likely), with responses ranging from 2 to 5 (M = 4.3; SD = 1.0). Additionally, our sample showed diversity in demographics. Three participants identified as Hispanic/Latino, two as mixed race, one as African-American/Black, one as Asian, and the remainder as non-Hispanic white. Ten participants were men, ten were younger than the age of 38 (age range 19–74), and five did not have a college degree.

Procedure

Ethics approval was obtained by the Institutional Review Board at the University of Southern California. Interviews were conducted over the phone in September 2020, with each taking about 30–40 min. Although qualitative interviews are often conducted face-to-face, phone interviews tend to be just as effective—and can make it easier for interviewees to disclose potentially sensitive issues (Holt 2010; Midanik and Greenfield 2003; Moum 1998; Novick 2008; Sturges and Hanrahan 2004).

Participants received invitations for interviews about “words and phrases that are typical in climate communications” and were assured that “we welcome a wide variety of views.” We emailed participants a link just before the interview, which they were asked to open on their computer, tablet, or smartphone. The link provided access to terms and sentences.

The presented terms and associated sentences were selected through two rounds of consultation with all IPCC Working Group co-chairs, and associated communication officers for the Sixth Assessment Report. The co-chairs were internationally renowned for their expertise in various aspects of climate change and represented the three IPCC Working Groups tasked with communicating about, respectively, climate change, adaptation, and mitigation. Based on their own experience in climate change communications, the co-chairs and communications officers sought to identify terms that were (1) relevant for understanding science-based climate policy, (3) commonly misunderstood by nonscientific audiences, and (3) prominently used in IPCC communications. In the first round, they consulted separately with their respective working groups, producing a cumulative list of 67 terms and associated phrases from IPCC communication materials that illustrated the use of the terms use in context. In the second round, they reduced this list to eight terms that best met the three criteria above, while also being useful to all three IPCC Working Groups. Given the projected length of the interviews, eight terms were the maximum that could be included.

Participants were presented, in order, with the terms tipping point, unprecedented transition, carbon neutral, carbon dioxide removal, adaptation, mitigation, sustainable development, and abrupt change. Each term first appeared on its own. Participants read the term out loud and provided their own interpretation of its meaning. They then rated how easy it was to understand (with 1 meaning not easy at all and 5 meaning very easy) and explained their rating. Subsequently, participants indicated whether they had heard the term before. On the next screen, the term was presented as part of a sentence taken from IPCC communications (Table 1). After reading the sentence out loud, participants rated how easy it was to understand (with 1 meaning not easy at all and 5 meaning very easy) and explained their rating. Participants interpreted the sentence and provided further suggestions for improving the language. We followed the standards of qualitative interviewing by encouraging participants to share their views and elaborate on their responses (Bruine de Bruin and Bostrom 2013; Kvale and Brinkmann 2009; Morgan et al. 2002; Spradley 1979). After reporting their views on climate change at the end of the interview, participants received $30.

Table 1 Ratings of presented terms and sentences

Coding

Each interview was recorded and transcribed verbatim. For each transcript, the second author or a research assistant identified the interpretations given for each term. Two transcripts were reviewed by both of them, showing 91% agreement. Cohen’s (1960) kappa was 0.81, representing percent agreement after accounting for agreement by chance. Disagreements were resolved through discussion.

Sufficiency of sample size

Overall, 88% of identified interpretations emerged within the first ten interviews. Across terms, “saturation,” or the point at which no more new interpretations emerged, was reached on average by the ninth interview. This saturation point varied from the fourth interview (for adaptation, unprecedented transition, and abrupt change) to the seventeenth interview (for mitigation).

Results

How did interviewees rate the terms?

Table 1 shows the presented terms in order of participants’ mean ratings on a scale from 1 (not easy at all) to 5 (very easy). It also indicates whether mean ratings were significantly different from the scale midpoint of 3, as indicated by one-sample t-tests. The lowest mean ratings were given to mitigation, carbon neutral, and unprecedented transition. Five terms received mean ratings that were significantly above the scale midpoint of 3, suggesting that they were perceived as easy to understand: sustainable development, carbon dioxide removal, tipping point, adaptation, and abrupt change. Table 1 also shows participants’ mean ratings after seeing the sentences, and results of paired t-tests that examined whether mean ratings changed significantly after (vs. before) seeing the sentence. For mitigation, the most difficult term, reading the sentence improved participants’ mean ratings. For four terms, reading the sentence reduced mean ratings, while for three of the terms, it made no difference. Nevertheless, participants’ interpretations revealed some potential confusion about each term (see below).

While a sample size of 20 is large enough to identify medium-to-large effect sizes of ≥.67 in paired-sample t-tests (power = .8, alpha = .05), it can only identify extremely large effect sizes of ≥1.40 in between-group t-tests (power = .80, alpha = .05). Hence, it should be no surprise that we did not find any significant differences between participants’ ratings of the terms, by whether they had indicated that climate change was mostly human-caused vs. selected other responses. Even the mean rating across the eight terms, which had good internal consistency (Cronbach’s alpha = 0.76), did not show a significant difference between participants who had indicated that climate change was mostly human-caused vs. selected other responses (M = 3.55, SD = 0.67 vs. M = 3.84, SD = 0.81), t(18) = 0.86, p = 0.40.

Climate-concerned vs. climate-ambivalent participants

Despite having limited statistical power for between-subjects t-tests, we did find that participants who viewed climate change as human-caused judged it much more likely that climate change was happening now, as compared to participants who thought of climate change as having other causes (M = 5.00, SD = 0.00 vs. M = 3.73, SD = 1.10), t(18) = −3.44, p < .01. To illustrate how these groups of participants discussed the presented terms, we indicate for each quote below whether it was shared by a participant from the former group (henceforth: climate-concerned) or the latter group (henceforth: climate-ambivalent).

How did interviewees interpret the terms?

We identified potential confusion that arose in participants’ interpretations of each presented term, when presented alone and in a sentence (Table 2). We also identified simplified wording that participants suggested if it agreed with IPCC’s intended meaning (Table 3). Below, we indicate the next steps for how participants’ suggestions may be used to describe terms when preparing public communications about climate change. For brevity, our discussion of participants’ responses to the sentences is limited to what was said about the focal terms. Below, we also report how many participants used each interpretation of a presented term and indicate whether example quotes were taken from climate-concerned or climate-ambivalent participants Section 3.1.. However, we repeat the caution that qualitative interviews are designed to identify which and not how often interpretations arose in this sample or its subgroups (Bruine de Bruin and Bostrom 2013).

Table 2 Potential confusion about each term
Table 3 IPCC definitions of presented terms

Mitigation

Potential confusion

As many as seven participants (35%) indicated not knowing how to describe mitigation in their own words. Participants who attempted to describe the term mitigation tended to interpret it based on their mental models of other contexts, where the meaning differed from the climate context. Eleven participants (55%) referred to legal or insurance contexts, where mitigation had negative connotations. For example, one climate-concerned participant said, “Mitigation, oh God I hate this word. […] To me personally it means mitigating costs, keeping costs low […] to prevent the expenditure of filing a lawsuit” (interview 16). A climate-ambivalent participant said, “this is the way people in companies get out of being in trouble. Mitigation is a workaround. It means I can continue doing something bad over here, if I help something over there. I mean, that’s basically legally what it means” (interview 13). Furthermore, seven participants (35%) seemed to confuse mitigation with mediation, referring to intervening if there is a conflict, or finding common ground. For example, one climate-concerned participant said, “I feel like I’ve heard it here and there but I have no idea what it means. I would assume like discussion, like discussing with peers. […] I don’t think this is a word very commonly used outside of academia.” (interview 3). One climate-ambivalent participant stated, “say you were having an argument with someone, and you have someone come in, a third party, to mitigate or go between” (interview 5).

Next steps

Combining participants’ suggestions to use straightforward wording and to emphasize links to climate change, mitigation might be described as “policies that reduce emissions to stop climate change (from getting worse).” References to specific climate change actions or climate change policies should reduce confusion with other contexts, in which mitigation may have a different meaning.

Carbon neutral

Potential confusion

The term carbon neutral was rated as the second-most difficult (Table 1). Five participants (25%) indicated that they did not know the definition. For example, a climate-concerned participant said, “I know carbon is used in front of a lot of words, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide. […] Carbon neutral means – I don’t know.” (interview 7). A climate-ambivalent participant said, “it’s definitely not in my everyday language” (interview 1).

Additionally, three participants confused the term neutral with zero emissions. For example, a climate-ambivalent participant said, “Neutral [means] you have to make it zero. No plus, no minus. No positive, no negative. […] I don’t think that’s possible, but that would be no carbon released into the atmosphere.” (interview 11). In line with this thinking, three participants (15%) thought that carbon neutral referred to balancing good and bad effects of carbon emissions. For example, one climate-concerned participant stated, “I guess carbon neutral [means that] the atmosphere wouldn’t be affected by whether there’s too much carbon in the air or too little carbon.” (interview 19). Upon reading carbon neutral in the sentence (Table 1), a climate-ambivalent participant recognized that “It’s a process that doesn’t [necessarily] wind up with zero emissions. Well, it’s actually, if you want to really get technical, it’s net carbon neutral.” (interview 13). Yet, the sentence did not help everyone, as seen in this statement by a climate-concerned participant: “I thought I understood it but the more that I read it I kind of do not understand this one.” (interview 18).

Furthermore, the process of achieving a carbon neutral state was unclear. For example, one climate-concerned participant said, “I don’t remember how [it works] specifically. I know through, like, maybe – maybe you adjust how, if, you know, you’re a company and you have a fleet of trucks, maybe you switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles in your fleet. Or you know, adjust your production so it’s not as polluting. Or, I don’t know if they still do this, but carbon credits that you purchase.” (interviewee 2). One climate-ambivalent participant said, “if one group adds some and somebody else somehow somewhere else in a system somewhere, somebody else has to leave less, so that it’s neutral.” (interview 4).

Alternative wording

Eleven participants (55%) used definitions of carbon neutral that referred to compensation upon first seeing the term. A climate-concerned participant said, “even though you are not ceasing carbon emissions you are compensating for carbon emissions by reducing or eliminating emissions in other ways” (interview 6).Footnote 2 Nine participants (45%) knew that carbon neutral meant not increasing the overall carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Specifically, one climate-concerned participant stated: “It’s something that doesn’t increase or decrease the amount of carbon dioxide that is released into the air” (interview 16). When asked for improvements, a climate-ambivalent participant suggested that the term carbon neutral was too technical (interview 10) and a climate-concerned participant suggested providing a definition whenever it is used (interview 18). For example, a climate-concerned participant suggested “to balance out the emissions we put in the air to an even level” (interview 20), and a climate-ambivalent participant suggested “net amount of carbon added to the environment is zero” (interview 4). Six participants used “carbon dioxide” instead of “carbon,” but none used “CO2.”

Next steps

Overall, our findings suggest the need for everyday wording. Spelling out “carbon dioxide” may avoid confusion about the type of carbon involved. Referring to “no net increases in carbon dioxide in the air” or to “balance out the carbon dioxide we put into the air” may help to avoid confusion with “zero carbon.” To clarify the process, these descriptions may need to include examples of carbon dioxide removal (see below).

Unprecedented transition

Potential confusion

When presented with the term unprecedented transition, which was rated as the third-most difficult, five participants (25%) indicated not knowing how to describe it. One climate-ambivalent participant noted, “I feel like unprecedented is kind of a big word. [But] transition, I think that seems like an easy word.” (interview 4). Thirteen participants (65%) recognized that transition meant “change,” with two (10%) referring to it as “movement.”

Eight participants (40%) mistook unprecedented to mean “unexpected” or “unknown.” Eleven participants (55%) mentioned that unprecedented had recently become more familiar. One climate-concerned participant clarified this sentiment by saying, “unprecedented is actually not that common of a word, until now of course with the pandemic” (interview 18).

Only three participants (15%) referred to unprecedented transition in the context of extreme weather or climate change. For example, one climate-concerned participant explained, “it’s in the 80s today and then tomorrow during the day it drops down to like 50 or 60. […] I haven’t been aware of that happening here, or if I did I’ve forgotten about it, but that’s how I would see it, an unprecedented transition” (interview 19). A climate-ambivalent participant stated, “it has never been seen, these types of temperatures” (interview 5). Although the presented sentence referred to unprecedented transitions as actions society should take to address climate change (Table 1), participants’ initial definitions tended to treat the term as referring to climatic or environmental changes.

Alternative wording

When prompted for improvements, participants suggested using everyday language. After seeing an unprecedented transition in its sentence (Table 1), a climate-concerned participant said it was “too wordy” and a climate-ambivalent participant said, “It sounds like you’re talking over people (...) when I see this stuff on TV, and you see these talking heads on Nova and whatnot, they’re talking way over people’s heads” (interview 13). When describing unprecedented transition, eight participants (40%) suggested simplified wording. For example, a climate-concerned participant suggested “a change that never occurred before” (interview 17), and a climate-ambivalent participant suggested “a change not seen before” (interview 12). The sentence clarified for some that unprecedented transition would require action in the context of climate change.Footnote 3 For example, a climate-concerned participant said, “it’s going to be a big job to do it” (interview 6), and a climate-ambivalent participant said, “[it] would require massive changes in every aspect of what we do in our daily life” (interview 10). Participants also suggested giving examples of what unprecedented transition entails, with one climate-ambivalent participant stating: “you’ve got to let people know what you’re talking about.” (interview 5).

Next steps

Combining the suggestion to use simple wording and clarify the context of climate action, descriptions of unprecedented transition could include “making big changes together to stop climate change.” Examples should specify which big changes are required.

Tipping point

Potential confusion

Tipping point was, on average, rated as the fourth-most difficult term (Table 1), with only three participants (15%) indicating that they did not know it. Twelve participants (60%) defined it as the tipping of a balance, and eight (40%) as difficulties in reverting back to a previous state. Although three participants (15%) mentioned climate change in their initial definition of tipping point, none described tipping point as a change with cascading effects, whether in the climate system or in any other context. Yet, for the climate system, tipping point refers to a critical threshold at which the global or regional climate changes from one stable state to another stable state (Table 3).

As an example, a climate-concerned participant defined tipping point by relying on a mental model of another context: “like [in] an argument [when] people are trying to persuade the other person and then you get to a fact or something that happened or whatever, a reality, and it – that could be the tipping point that could persuade the other person to change their mind” (interview 19). Similarly, a climate-ambivalent participant said: “To me the tipping point is when you’re pushing somebody [and] before they break there’s a tipping point – a breaking point, tipping point. If you’re trying to level something out like a seesaw you get [to] the tipping point where it goes on over or it’ll tip over. You can push something, like say a life float. You can tip it so far and then there’s a certain point, it’d be a tipping point and then it just goes.” (interview 11).

Alternative wording

When asked for definitions and improvements, participants again suggested simplified language. Five participants (25%) suggested the simple phrase “point of no return,” and two (10%) used the more complex term “inflection point.” When seeing the sentence (Table 1), a climate-concerned participant also suggested that tipping point could mean “danger zone” (interview 7) and two climate-ambivalent participants mentioned consequences such as “once we reach that point there is no turning back” (interview 9) and it would be “too late to fix anything” (interview 11).

The three participants (15%) who did refer to climate change in their initial definitions of tipping point provided the following insights. Two climate-concerned participants said: “the point when there is no longer a way for us to reverse the course of action that has led to climate change.” (interview 17) and “It’s the end of the ability to reverse the damage that’s been done.” (interview 16). A climate-ambivalent participant said, “as soon as we hit this particular point of heat or carbon emissions or something that there’s a big change in the environment” (interview 4).

Next steps

Our findings suggest a need for descriptions of tipping point that highlights the connection with climate change, the seriousness of the issue at hand, and the role of cascading effects in the climate system. For example, this may include a phrase such as “point at which we can no longer undo climate change (and its effects on ...)” or “when it is too late to stop climate change (and its effects on ...),” with specific examples.

Sustainable development

Potential confusion

Only two participants (10%) expressed not knowing how to describe sustainable development, which was on average ranked among the four most easy terms to understand (Table 1). A climate-concerned participant noted issues with sustainability: “It’s a pretty popular term to try to be sustainable but it is a little bit opaque as to what sustainability means in each different context” (interview 6). A climate-ambivalent participant stated: “I don’t know what sustainable means. I know what development is. If you’re putting these two words together, it’s saying that something is growing. But, it’s growing in a stable manner” (interview 15). While technically not wrong (Table 3), four participants (20%) associated sustainable development with “a renewable resource” and four (20%) mentioned, “it’s self-sufficient.”

Furthermore, the term development led to the potential confusion, with thirteen participants (65%) defining it as buildings and infrastructure. For example, one climate-concerned participant said, “Development being like buildings or infrastructure that has a lessor impact on the environment” (interview 2) and one climate-ambivalent participant said, “environmentally friendly construction.” (interview 13). This interpretation did not necessarily change after seeing sustainable development presented within the sentence, which was a climate-concerned participant referred to as “absolutely too wordy” (interview 7).

Alternative wording

Nine participants (45%) provided useful definitions of sustainable development that referred to its positive or neutral impact on the environment. For example, one climate-concerned participant defined it as “that we can continue to do it and that we can continue to support the population as a whole without overtaxing the environment.” (interview 16), and a climate-ambivalent participant described it as “something that can be ongoing, that it’s not suicidal” (interview 10). Five (25%) participants referred to the development as plans or policies. After being asked for improvements, a climate-concerned participant suggested “controlled growth” (interview 19) and two climate-ambivalent participants suggested “environmentally friendly” (interviews 4, 13).

Participants also needed more information. A climate-concerned participant asked for “just a little bit more information about what sustainable development means as a goal and as a target” (interview 6). A climate-ambivalent participant recommended saying, “sustainable development of, and then like put what topic or like area you’re thinking like sustainable development of, you know, manufacturing facilities or whatever it might be” (interview 8).

Next steps

Combining participants’ suggestions to use everyday wording and provide detail, definitions could include “environmentally friendly policies to…” or “environmentally friendly growth in….” However, the definition of sustainable development is more complex than what is captured by these simplified wordings and refers to meeting the needs of people living today without compromising the needs of people living in the future (Table 3).

Carbon dioxide removal

Potential confusion

Only two participants (10%) indicated not knowing this term, which was rated as third easiest to understand. Thirteen participants (65%) recognized that it meant removing carbon dioxide from somewhere. Thirteen (65%) mentioned removal from the atmosphere or the air, and seven (35%) mentioned removal from manufacturing or emissions. Seven participants (35%) expressed confusion about the process of carbon dioxide removal. For example, a climate-concerned participant said, “I know they want to remove carbon dioxide, obviously, but … I didn’t know how the process is done” (interview 20). A climate-ambivalent participant wondered, “It doesn’t say from what, you know? It just says carbon dioxide removal. Does that mean from, you know, my basement? Does it mean from my car? I don’t know.” (interview 8). Four participants (20%) mentioned natural processes of carbon dioxide removal, without expressing awareness of technological processes. For example, one climate-concerned participant stated, “when I think of carbon dioxide removal, I think of photosynthesis and plants,” but when prompted, admitted, “it could refer to any kind of process in which carbon dioxide is removed from the air or a vacuum or wherever.” (interview 16). A climate-ambivalent participant said, “Trees live off carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide goes into trees and comes out as oxygen, whereas we take oxygen in as humans and breathe out carbon dioxide. I mean, I think it’s easy to understand that you’re just trying to remove carbon dioxide” (interview 5).

The sentence did not necessarily help to clarify the process of carbon dioxide removal. One climate-concerned participant said, “I’m still not clear on what carbon dioxide removal is.” However, a climate-ambivalent participant did become aware of technological processes for carbon dioxide removal: “The sentence is saying that we know that there’s gonna be emissions of some sort that will have carbon dioxide emitted, and for those scenarios, there’s ways that we can remove that emitted carbon dioxide. I would not have guessed technological by itself. I would’ve assumed the simple natural way of a tree, at first.” (interview 9).

Alternative wording

To clarify the process of carbon dioxide removal, it might be possible to borrow from other participants’ explanations. One climate-concerned participant provided a description of the natural process of carbon dioxide removal: “In terms of like biology and ecology that’s kind of the process of we, as humans, we expel carbon dioxide and there has to be a process for removing that carbon dioxide and converting back into breathable oxygen, which is why we have trees, basically,” while also suggesting to use CO2 instead of carbon dioxide (interview 6). A climate-ambivalent participant described a technological process: “I think [to] remove carbon dioxide they need to filter it somehow to get rid of the carbon dioxide. They need to filter out the emissions” (interview 11).

Next steps

Descriptions of carbon dioxide removal could incorporate participants’ suggestions to specify what carbon dioxide is removed from, how it is removed, and where emissions come from. Simplified descriptions could include: “taking carbon dioxide out of the air” and “removing carbon dioxide from the air.” Natural carbon dioxide removal processes, like “planting trees,” and more advanced technologies could be mentioned separately.

Adaptation

Potential confusion

All participants indicated knowing the term adaptation, which was rated as the second easiest term to understand (Table 1). One climate-concerned participant noted: “Adaptation is very commonly used and so I feel like it’s a very well-known word” (interview 2). Yet, there was a call for improvement, with one climate-ambivalent participant noting: “Just say you’ll need to adjust. I hate to say adapt” (interview 11). Five participants (25%) referred to adaptation with its synonym “adaption.” One climate-concerned and one climate-ambivalent participant referred to adaptation as “books that are made into movies” (interviews 16 and 13), thus drawing from a mental model or context where the term had a different meaning than for climate change (Table 3).

Although nineteen participants (95%) referred to adaptation as a process of adjustment or getting used to something, they did not necessarily draw the link to climate change. Four participants (20%) referred to evolution. One climate-concerned participant noted, “In [an] evolutionary context it means to change over time to suit your environment” (interview 6). A climate-ambivalent participant said, “a new way or a new process where plants [are] becoming adapted to their new environment, changing how they live in a particular environment to adapt to where it’s at” (interview 4). Others described adaptation as a part of life. A climate-concerned participant stated, “everybody has to adapt at some time in your life, whether it’s weather, a job, you know, children, a new relationship? Everyone has to adapt, whether you even know what you’re doing is adapting, you know?” (interview 19). A climate-ambivalent participant said, “You need to adapt to your living situation. If you’re very wealthy [and] you lose everything and you have to live in an old trailer somewhere in the hills you have to learn to adapt” (interview 11).

Seeing adaptation in the presented sentence (Table 1) tended to highlight the climate context, though participants still guessed at the adaptation strategies the sentence referred to. One climate-concerned participant said: “I believe it’s saying that island nations need to change, I’m not sure what, though, need to change certain things in order to prevent flood risks… Maybe potentially moving to higher ground?” (interview 3) and a climate-ambivalent participant said “building levees or dams, or building up on the island to make it higher” (interview 11). As in previous research (Harcourt et al. 2019; Van Kasteren 2014), there was some conflation of adaptation with mitigation: For example, a climate-concerned participant said: “[Adaptation means] that we would make our investments in green energy technology, solar, wind farming I believe is another big thing that people need to get used to” (interview 17).

Alternative wording

When providing their own descriptions of the term adaptation, a climate-concerned participant suggested “survival” (interview 7) and climate-ambivalent participants suggested “getting used to or accustomed to something” (interview 4), as well as to “adjust to your surroundings” (interview 11).

Some descriptions pointed explicitly to more active decisions, with climate-concerned participants suggesting to “make it work” (interview 18) and “compensation” (interview 7), and climate-ambivalent participant suggesting “making necessary changes to deal with your environment” (interview 9), as well as to “overcome things” (interview 12). A climate-concerned participant suggested to “give some sort of indication of what the adaptation is” (interview 6), in line with a climate-ambivalent participants’ question “adaption of what? adapting what?” (interview 4).

Next steps

Using participants’ suggestions to use everyday wording and to make the context of climate action more clear without introducing conflation with mitigation, potential explanations of adaptation could include “make changes to survive climate change,” “adjusting to climate change,” or “to protect against climate change” with specific examples of what those actions would entail.

Abrupt change

Potential confusion

All participants said they understood the term abrupt change, which was rated as the easiest term to understand (Table 1). Although participants had not necessarily heard the words “abrupt” and “change” used together, eighteen participants (90%) were able to define it as a quick or sudden change. Only one participant, who was climate-concerned, described an abrupt change in the context of climate and weather: “[In Hawaii] it would go from being a nice, calm day to all of the sudden, you know, storms and thunder and lightning, you know, thunder and rain, you know? It would just be crazy. […] And then abrupt change, if you do something to – you can make an abrupt change to change what nature is already doing” (interview 19).

The sentence helped participants to put abrupt change in a climate context, though three climate-ambivalent participants (15%) complained that abrupt did not fit the time scale mentioned in the sentence (Table 1). For example, one said: “the word ‘abrupt’ – I was thinking, ‘fast,’ and following words in the sentence say “centuries,” and so centuries is not something I think of as fast.” (interview 9). Another climate-ambivalent participant asked, “And how is it different than abrupt changes that nature sometimes brings us anyway?” (interview 4).

Alternative wording

When providing definitions and improvements for abrupt change, climate-concerned and climate-ambivalent participants made helpful suggestions such as “sudden change” (interview 3, 10, 20), “a change that happens [...] all of a sudden without a warning” (interview 8), “sudden difference” (interview 11), or “a very serious change in a very short time” (interview 14). Climate-concerned and climate-ambivalent participants suggested to “change abrupt to quick or fast” (interview 5) or to “quickly and unexpectedly” (interview 15) or “out of the blue” or “dramatic” (interview 18).

Next steps

While the term “abrupt change” was perceived as well-understood, participants suggested alternatives for the term “abrupt,” such as “sudden” and “quick” to indicate the speed of the change, or “serious” and “dramatic” for the size of the change. It may be useful to make the climate context explicit, with references to the size, speed, timing, or something altogether unexpected.

Discussion

Experts at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other institutions seek to communicate about climate change to audiences without a background in climate science, including members of the public. Here, we conducted qualitative interviews to examine how members of the US general public responded to key terms central to IPCC materials and other climate change communications: tipping point, unprecedented transition, carbon neutral, carbon dioxide removal, adaptation, mitigation, sustainable development, and abrupt change. At least four issues arose across the terms we presented to participants (Table 2). First, many of the terms were unfamiliar or perceived as needlessly complex. Mitigation, carbon neutral, and unprecedented transition were rated by participants as the most difficult terms and introduced the most confusion and misunderstandings. Previous studies in the UK had also found that mitigation and carbon caused confusion (Harcourt et al. 2019; Whitmarsh et al. 2011). However, our study examined a broader range of terms central to climate change communications and identified suggestions some participants had for simplified everyday wording.

Second, participants did not always see the link to climate change, even for terms that participants perceived as easy to understand. The concept of climate change was often omitted from definitions of mitigation, adaptation, unprecedented transition, tipping point, and abrupt change (Table 2), even though participants knew they were participating in interviews about climate change communications. The presented sentences often did not help participants to draw connections to climate change. Instead, participants tended to rely on their mental models of other contexts to generate their interpretations. Making connections to other contexts can be helpful when terms have the same meaning in the climate context. However, it can create misunderstandings when the term has a different meaning in the climate context. For example, some participants interpreted mitigation based on their experience in law or business, referring to meetings and discussions, as well as cost-cutting strategies. Adaptation was perceived as being associated with adapting books to movies, seen as part of a natural evolutionary process, or a normal part of life, with undeliberate adjustment to changing surroundings. As a result, participants suggested that climate change communications make it more explicit how terms are relevant to climate change, rather than assuming that this will be obvious.

A third issue that arose in interpreting terms was that participants perceived that relevant details were missing. For adaptation, it was unclear what the adaptation was to. For mitigation and adaptation, strategies were unclear or confused. For sustainable development, sustainability was perceived as opaque, while development led to confusion with real estate. For carbon dioxide removal, it was unclear what the carbon dioxide would be removed from, whether the process would be natural or technological, and how the technological process would work. Confusion about the meanings of “carbon” also arose, especially with the term carbon neutral. For an abrupt change, it was not clear whether the change was in behavior, in a situation, or climate and weather.

A fourth issue pertained to the sentences that were presented to clarify terms (Table 1). These sentences did not always help participants to understand the terms and sometimes increased their confusion. This is likely due to sentences being relatively long and wordy, and including more jargon that confused participants.

To address these potential issues, communications could build on participants’ suggestions, which include using simple wording as well as providing details and examples. The quotes provided in this paper provide further suggestions for simplified wording that may reduce potential difficulties public audiences may have in interpreting climate change terminology. As a next step, survey-based experiments could be used to identify whether our alternative terminology does in fact improve public understanding and engagement as compared to the original wording (Bruine de Bruin and Bostrom 2013).

Limitations

One limitation of this work is that interviews were conducted with members of the US public. Terms may be more widely understood in regions with stronger concerns about climate change, such as Europe (Bruine de Bruin and Dugan 2021).

Another limitation is that our qualitative interview study did not provide the sample sizes needed to test for significant differences between participants with varying views about climate change. Conducting 20 qualitative interviews is appropriate for identifying which interpretations people may have of climate change terminology, but follow-up surveys are needed to identify the prevalence of specific interpretations or how they varied between groups of participants (Bruine de Bruin and Bostrom 2013). Yet, our findings do suggest that the interpretations we identified tended to be generated by both climate-concerned and climate-ambivalent participants. Both groups tended to refer to their mental models of other contexts, rather than their views about climate change, when interpreting the presented terms. Some terminology has been politicized, with “global warming” eliciting less concern among Republicans than “climate change,” with the opposite or no difference found among Democrats (Schuldt et al. 2011; Villar and Krosnick 2011). “Global warming” tends to be most commonly perceived as referring to heat-related climate impacts (Whitmarsh 2009) and can be questioned during cool periods and extreme winter weather (Weber and Stern 2011). The terms we presented may not yet be politized, at least among our participants. However, unfamiliar terms may leave more room for interpretation and political polarization.

A third limitation is that any identified issues may also have occurred because participants viewed terms in isolation, or in the context of complex sentences taken from IPCC communications (Barkemeyer et al. 2015). Terms may have been easier to understand if they were presented as part of clear and compelling communications.

Implications for climate change communications

Climate change communications may be more widely understood if the presented terminology has the same meaning among the communication designers and their target audiences. Yet, experts may resist using everyday language because technical terms appear more precise to them and their colleagues (Wong-Parodi and Strauss 2014). Indeed, there may seem to be a trade-off between using a scientifically precise term that is not well-understood and using less precise wording that is more widely understood. However, using a more precise technical term may actually make public communications more ambiguous if audience members without a background in climate science do not recognize what it means or interpret it differently. In fact, even experts in other fields may not know the technical terms or use them differently (McEvoy et al. 2013).

Our interview study suggests that to avoid confusion and misunderstandings, key concepts should be explicitly described in simplified language, with sufficient detail to show their relevance to climate change (Table 2). These recommendations may be especially important for press releases, talking points, and presentations in which key findings are summarized for audiences without a background in climate science.

Our recommendations align with those from the communications literature. It has been suggested that public communications will be more understandable if they avoid jargon, use words of no more than two syllables, and present sentences of 16–20 words (Cutts 2013; Kadayat and Eika 2020; McLaughlin 1969). For readability, longer words should be replaced with shorter synonyms, for example, by writing “show” instead of “indicate” and “use” instead of “utilize” (Aldridge 2004). Care should be taken to use simple words that are common in recipients’ everyday language (Nerlich et al. 2010). Even recipients with greater literacy skills tend to prefer communications that are easier to recognize (Davis et al. 2006; Smith et al. 2008). Communications between scientists from multiple disciplines may also be facilitated by plain language. because some technical terms such as “adaptation” may have different meanings in different fields (McEvoy et al. 2013). For many complex topics, it has been possible to present information in everyday language that is both accurate and clear (Bruine de Bruin and Morgan 2019; Fleishman-Mayer and Bruine de Bruin 2014; Morgan et al. 2002).

However, science communication is more complex than simply translating scientific jargon into language the public understands (NAS 2016). Presenting information in a simplified language is likely not enough to stimulate public action or support for climate policies (Nerlich et al. 2010). Simplified wording may still lead to miscommunications when it has a different meaning in everyday language than in scientific language (Nerlich et al. 2010) or when complex topics remain poorly explained (Wong-Parodi et al. 2013). Moreover, some longer terms such as “inflation” may actually be widely recognized and elicit less-varying interpretations than the simplified “prices in general” (Bruine de Bruin et al. 2012).

Climate change communications should also be made more compelling by emphasizing the increased frequency and severity of local weather events (Bostrom et al. 1994; Bruine de Bruin and Dugan 2021; Taylor et al. 2014; Tvinnereim and Fløttum 2015), highlighting societal impacts and other topics audiences care about (Badullovich et al. 2020; Tvinnereim and Fløttum 2015), and framing the uncertain outcomes of climate change positively rather than negatively (Morton et al. 2011). Public attention and media coverage for climate change communications may also be increased by including human interest stories, photos, graphics, or live-action videos (O’Neill et al. 2015).

Thus, there is a social science of science communication on which climate scientists can build (NAS 2016). This field provides methods for testing people’s perceptions of presented language and evidence-based recommendations for improving language (Bruine de Bruin and Bostrom 2013; Morgan et al. 2002; Wong-Parodi and Bruine de Bruin 2016). Our study shows how these social science methods can identify strategies for making climate change communications more accessible for nonscientific audiences.

Notes

  1. 1.

    To check the readability of a document in Microsoft Word, go to File > Options > Proofing and turn on “Select readability statistics.”

  2. 2.

    Six participants (30%) referred to “emissions” though one participant deemed that term confusing due to its association with “exhaust emissions” (interview 15).

  3. 3.

    The sentence also used a “c” that participants guessed was Celsius (interview 12), though they noted that it would have been easier for an American audience to understand if it was changed to Fahrenheit (interview 5).

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Acknowledgements

This project is a collaboration between the University of Southern California and the United Nations Foundation. This research was supported by the University of Southern California Dornsife College Public Exchange. Wändi Bruine de Bruin was additionally supported by the Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making (CEDM) through a cooperative agreement between the National Science Foundation and Carnegie Mellon University (SES-0949710).

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This article is part of the topical collection "Climate Change Communication and the IPCC", edited by Saffron O'Neill and Roz Pidcock

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Bruine de Bruin, W., Rabinovich, L., Weber, K. et al. Public understanding of climate change terminology. Climatic Change 167, 37 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-021-03183-0

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Keywords

  • Science communication
  • Climate change
  • Expert terminology
  • Public understanding