How — And Why —To Avoid Jargon When Covering Climate

March 30, 2022

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A word cloud of this article, which focuses on how to avoid confusing jargon on climate. Source: Word Cloud Generator, Jason Davies. Click to enlarge.

Feature: How — And Why —To Avoid Jargon When Covering Climate

By Rebecca Hersher

Environmental journalists generally try to avoid jargon. We describe small particulate matter pollution as soot. Or we use the word poison instead of the phrase acute toxicity. A catastrophic exothermic reaction becomes an explosion. We balance the need to be accurate with the equally important task of being clear.

But when we write about climate change, many of us inadvertently use jargony words that are confusing or misleading. Words like “mitigation,” “carbon neutral” and even “adaptation.”

We know these words are confusing thanks to a 2021 study that tested words that are frequently used in international climate reports.

The study assembled focus groups that represented the U.S. population, to see how average people defined and reacted to common climate terms. The findings may be surprising to those who write about climate change.


Word mix-ups, multiple meanings

One unexpected finding was that participants in the study were often confused because they mistook one word for another. For example, participants mixed up the word "mitigation," which commonly refers to efforts that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with the word "mediation," which is a way to resolve disputes.

The word “adaptation” presents a different problem: it means multiple things. In a climate context, “adaptation” refers to changes humans make in reaction to climate change. At least one participant in the study was confused because adaptation can also refer to a form of storytelling — as in “this is a film adaptation of a bestselling novel.”

Even seemingly simple terms such as "carbon" can be misleading, the study found. Carbon can be shorthand for carbon dioxide or used to refer to various greenhouse gases, including methane.

The same goes for phrases that include the word carbon, such as carbon footprint, carbon budget and carbon capture. If readers don’t know what “carbon” refers to, those phrases become confusing. Are we budgeting for all emissions or only some? Are we capturing only CO2, or also other greenhouse gases?

The goal of this particular study was to help the scientists and economists who write international climate reports do a better job of communicating with their audiences. But the findings can also help environmental journalists write more clearly.


Why do we use jargon?

Environmental journalists sometimes succumb to jargon. But why does that happen more often when we’re covering climate?

Writing about climate change requires that journalists master a wide variety of topics. Climate change stories often include elements of politics, business, science, engineering and mathematics. Sometimes we even dabble in philosophy and art (may require subscription). As a result, we must constantly toggle between fields.


The breadth of climate reporting makes it fulfilling and

challenging, but also means climate reporters are exposed

to even more jargon than other types of reporters.


The breadth of climate reporting makes it both fulfilling and challenging. It also means climate reporters are exposed to even more jargon than other types of reporters. The average climate journalist is swimming in a sea of government acronyms, economic phrases and scientific terms. It’s no wonder that some jargon and technical language make it into our writing.

It’s also possible that journalists, like scientists and politicians, don’t realize that certain words are confusing.

"As experts in a particular field, we may not realize which of the words that we're using are jargon," the lead author of the 2021 study, behavioral scientist Wändi Bruine de Bruin, told me in an interview for NPR last year.


A shared responsibility

Jargon is a big problem. Journalism about climate change should be accessible to everyone because everyone is affected by climate change. But confusing or obscure words make readers less interested in the topic, as this article from Grist expertly explains.

It would be easier for environmental journalists to avoid jargon if experts used more colloquial language, especially in reports and speeches meant to illuminate climate topics for the general public.

Many scientists and public servants are focused on this problem, especially as climate change becomes a top concern for ordinary citizens around the world.

Everyone from nurses to farmers and truck drivers to CEOs needs to understand how climate change is altering everyday life on Earth. As the audience for climate information grows, it’s more and more important that we all use clear, simple and accurate language.


Awareness of audience needs

That doesn’t just mean avoiding confusing words, according to the team that’s putting together the next edition of the U.S. National Climate Assessment, which is scheduled to come out late next year. Communicating clearly also means tailoring the medium to the audience.


‘You shouldn't need an advanced degree or a

decoder ring to figure out a national climate assessment.’

— Allison Crimmins


"You shouldn't need an advanced degree or a decoder ring to figure out a national climate assessment," Allison Crimmins, the director of the assessment, said in an interview with NPR in 2021.

Crimmins said her team is exploring how to use graphs, drawings, text, video and social media to present the assessment to different audiences.

For example, scientists and engineers might need jargon-heavy explanations complete with citations for peer-reviewed studies. Jargon serves a purpose in that context: it lends scientific legitimacy to the document. But a local planning official or teacher might want the same information to be presented as a video or an animation. And a more casual reader might only encounter the findings of the report on social media.

As a result, the same information might be presented in multiple formats — something journalists often do as well.

The United Nations is also trying to make its climate change reports more accessible. The U.N. commissioned the 2021 study about climate jargon, and multiple follow-up studies are in the works. The goal is to make future reports from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change more accessible to people around the world by reducing the amount of jargon, especially in summary sections.

And, as any journalist who has dug into a U.N. climate report knows, making U.N. climate documents simpler could also make life a lot easier for the journalists tasked with covering them.

In the meantime, if you’re trying to reduce climate jargon in your writing, check out this handy glossary published in The Conversation.

[Editor’s Note: For more on covering climate change, explore our growing Climate Change Resource Guide, which includes deadline reporting resources, a climate change primer, source lists, libraries, topical guides and more. Also, see our regional Covering Your Climate special reports and our Topic on the Beat: Climate Change page for more.]

Rebecca Hersher is a science reporter at National Public Radio. She covers how people are adapting to climate change, the science of disasters and climate research.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 13. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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