As the earth warms and the effects of extreme weather grow increasingly dire, so too are the warnings from climate scientists. But the message doesn’t seem to be landing.
“The way that climate scientists and other climate experts talk about climate change is not necessarily what people need to realize that this is a serious issue, and to have people realize what they can do about it,” Wändi Bruine de Bruin, provost professor of public policy, psychology, and behavioral science at University of Southern California.
According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications, some 72 percent of adults believe global warming is happening and 65 percent say they’re worried about it. Even so, voters don’t prioritize the issue.
“If your goal was to have political motivation … I think the good news is that the consensus that we should be doing more is broadening. But the bad news is that it's still kind of not rising up the issues,” said Matthew Burgess, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and the director of the Center for Social and Environmental Futures at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
“Global warming” ranked 24th on a list of 29 issues that voters said they would consider when choosing who to vote for in the 2022 midterm elections. The issue still has a partisan bent. Among conservative Republicans, it ranked last, and second to last among more moderate or liberal Republicans, according to Yale. Among liberal Democrats, by contrast, “global warming” ranked third from the top, falling to 16th place among more moderate or conservative Democrats.
So what’s the disconnect?
THE JARGON BARRIER
According to Bruine de Bruin, technical language or jargon is one major barrier standing in the way of broader comprehension of climate change.
Much of the research on climate change is written by scientists for fellow scientists and policymakers. Research from organizations like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) contains expert language that scientists have determined is crucial for communicating about climate change like “mitigation,” “adaptation” and “carbon neutral.” But Bruine de Bruin’s research, published in Climactic Change in August 2021, shows that even if many people have heard those terms, they might not actually understand them.
“When climate scientists use mitigation, they mean actions you can take to stop climate change from happening,” she said. “But people thought it was a very difficult term. They didn't necessarily know what it means. When they tried to define it, they confused it with mediation or trying to resolve a conflict.”
Participants surveyed said that “adaptation” was the second easiest term to understand, but a common misconception among participants was that adaptation meant “books that are made into movies.” In climate science, it actually means actions taken to protect against climate change effects.
A simple solution to the problem is using simpler language.
“If you write at the seventh grade reading level, then people who have difficulty reading can follow what you're trying to say. But also people with higher levels of reading comprehension, tend to benefit from communications that explain complex topics in everyday language,” she said.
The scale of climate change can also be overwhelming and alienating. Change described in terms of fractions of degrees of temperature warming, feet of sea level rise or even decades of time left to halt the effects of climate change, can mean very little to the average American.
“If you talk about the large scale of it, it can become overwhelming, whereas if you can tell a personal story of someone that this happened to, it's much easier to grasp what it means,” Bruine de Bruin said. “Even better, if you can also explain how this is personally relevant to your reader.”
That’s why the very concrete concept of severe weather can be much more impactful than the comparatively abstract concept of climate change. Higher temperatures increase the odds of extreme weather events, like flooding, heat waves and drought, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. And 71 percent of Americans say their community has experienced an extreme weather event including floods, heat, droughts, wildfires or coastal erosion, according to Pew Research.
“How can you be concerned about something that you don't really understand that you don't know is real,” Bruine de Bruin said. “But if you ask about severe weather, there's no effective education on severe weather concerns because you don't need a university degree to understand that heat waves are bad or flooding is bad, or droughts are bad.”
Concrete examples can also be useful when educating people on how to combat climate change in their own lives. Bruine de Bruin said the top three ways people can reduce their own personal carbon footprints are to reduce the amount of meat they are eating (fully vegan is not necessary), reduce the amount of air conditioning they are using and to vote for politicians who will force corporations to do the same.
“The biggest polluters are not individuals but big companies, and so it falls to politicians to do something about that,” she said.
STUDY THE MIDDLE-GROUND SCENARIO
There’s no shortage of headlines showcasing research on the absolute worst-case climate catastrophes. And while it does appear the world is on track to miss its goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, University of Colorado, Boulder, researchers are urging their fellow scientists not to get carried away.
“Our research suggests we're headed to somewhere between two and three degrees [of warming],” Burgess said. “Maybe people don't totally know what to make of that, because there's still a lot of headlines that are based on these four or five degree scenarios that sound really apocalyptic.”
While Burgess emphasized that it is important to have researchers “cranking up the temperature and seeing what happens,” but that there can also be detrimental side effects. The letter cited a statistic that 40 percent of young adults felt thoughts of climate change negatively impacted their daily lives and future plans, like having children.
“On the one hand, if best guess, scientific projections are causing anxiety, that's unfortunate. It is what it is, right? But if apocalyptic, probably not plausible scenarios are contributing to anxiety, then that's a problem.”