Is there a danger to environmental jargon?

By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Magazine

Related Topics
Image source, ALAMY

The United Nations is promising a "universal climate change agreement" when leaders from almost 200 countries meet in Paris. But is the jargon used in environmental discussions actually putting people off the subject rather than enthusing them?

Does this make any sense to you?

"Under the Clean Development Mechanism, emission-reduction projects in developing countries can earn certified emission reduction credits. These saleable credits can be used by industrialized countries to meet a part of their emission reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol."

So says the United Nations on a website explaining what's going to be taking place at the climate-change talks in Paris. Politicians and diplomats from 196 countries will attempt to reach agreement on reducing emissions in an effort to limit global temperature rises.

But is there a danger that the debate over the environment is being obscured by jargon?

Terms like "natural capital", "ecosystem services", "Bali Road Map" and "carbon offsetting" have specific meanings to experts, but are at best opaque to most people.

What does it all mean?

Image source, Thinkstock

Natural capital - Natural resources, like water, air and soil

Bali Roadmap - Action plan agreed at UN Climate Change Conference in 2007 to achieve a secure climate future

Carbon offsetting - A way of compensating for emissions of CO2 by participating in, or funding, efforts to take CO2 out of the atmosphere

"It's deliberate," says Dave Powell, co-host of the environmental podcast Sustainababble. "Really, it's the 21st Century equivalent of Latin being recited to the public in church a thousand years ago. Instead of high priests, we have politicians, business leaders and scientists who tell us they understand how we are governed by forces."

It might not aid clarity when the amount of fresh water used in making a product is described as its "water footprint". The acronym LULUCF - land use, land-use change, and forestry - doesn't trip off the tongue. Biosphere means the parts of the Earth's land, sea and air that support life.

Meanwhile, "fugitive emissions" are not produced by criminals nervously anticipating a police raid, but unintended releases of gases, for example during the development of oil wells.

"Post-consumer waste" means people's rubbish. The triple bottom line reminds us that organisations are responsible for social and environmental effects, not just financial ones.

The UN offers its own definition of "hot air" - a concern that some governments can easily meet their emissions targets, meaning they can sell part of their allowance elsewhere. Technology transfer, it adds, means the sharing of knowledge and equipment to help "stakeholders" adapt to the demands of climate change.

Image source, Istock

In a US poll conducted in July, 6% of voters said climate change was the most important issue in deciding their choice in the forthcoming presidential election. A similar survey in Canada in September found 11% felt the same. Polling in the UK in 2008 by Ipsos Mori suggested 61% of people found climate change an interesting subject.

The gulf between the importance of climate change as an issue and its opaqueness to laymen has even inspired comic characters, like Dave Angel - Eco-Warrior in the comedy programme The Fast Show. He's a plain-speaking cockney who explains environmental issues in simple terms.

Image source, Tyson Benton/BBC
Image caption,
Simon Day as Dave Angel the Eco-Warrior

But ordinary language is needed, says actor and science communicator Stephen McGann. He argues that, with hundreds of millions of people likely to be asked to alter their behaviour to reduce carbon emissions in the future, climate change can't be seen as purely the domain of scientists.

There's a "deeply ingrained habit" among experts of not wanting to reduce the "purity" of their research by giving a more basic version to the public, McGann says. "We are public-facing, so we have to talk to the public.

Ipsos Mori found the economy normally outperformed the environment as a concern among the public. But there were occasions when positions were reversed, including when widespread flooding occurred across the UK in the autumn of 2000. The same brief prominence could occur again when the Paris talks begin on 30 November, says Felicity Mellor, senior lecturer in science communication at Imperial College London.

"There's a mismatch in time scales between the subject and the media," she says. "If you've got something like the spread of a disease, you can cover it day by day and it's quite easy to tell that story. With environmental stories you're talking about decades and, in the case of climate change, even centuries. That's difficult to fit into the news cycle and render newsworthy."

Image source, ALAMY

Experts are "very wary and nervous about making bold statements", she says. "That's what you need to make something newsworthy."

Campaigners have tried to make environmental concepts more understandable by developing terms such as "greenhouse effect", "carbon footprint" and "global warming".

About 10 years ago, global warming largely gave way to the term "climate change", says Mellor. It's perhaps a less tangible idea but, she adds, was necessary because the effect of climate change is not universally to raise temperatures.

The Oxford English Dictionary's first recorded mention of the term "carbon footprint", defined as "a measure of the carbon emissions of a particular individual, organisation, or community", came in 1999. It reached a peak of usage in 2007, according to Google Trends, but it has subsided since.

Image source, Istock
Image caption,
The term "carbon footprint" caught the popular imagination

There is a parallel to the discussion of language used in the climate change debate. The biomedical charity Wellcome Trust recently commissioned research on people's perceptions of the threats of growing resistance to antibiotics. Apocalyptic warnings in the media about "killer superbugs" running rampant were dismissed as scaremongering. Statistics didn't get through to people either.

But the research did find that using specific examples of the infections that could kill or harm people once antibiotics became useless helped.

The scientific term "anti-microbial resistance" meant little to the public, the trust found, recommending the use of "antibiotic-resistant infections" instead. The writer Ed Yong has suggested even more brevity: "Bacteria are getting stronger. Antibiotics won't work anymore. You could die."

The Wellcome Trust asked its volunteers whether it would be helpful to compare the risks of growing resistance to antibiotics to those posed by climate change.

Image source, ALAMY

"Climate change was a massive thing ages ago," replied one man. "Even though it's still happening now you forget about it. You don't really care."

Powell believes this attitude can be overcome. "Wordsworth sat on a hill and wrote about beauty. He didn't write about natural capital," he says. "We start talking about the impact of the environment when it comes to events like the floods in Somerset last year. When it comes to actual events that affect their lives, people get interested. They don't get so interested when you have abstract discussions about reducing emissions by 3%."

McGann also has particular hatred for natural capital, which, he says, basically means nature - rocks, soil, air, water and all living things.

"It has very limited applicability," says McGann. "For five scientists on a foggy morning at the UN, discussing the complex issues, it might be useful. You should be shot if you try to use that phrase with Joe Bloggs."

UN climate conference 30 Nov - 11 Dec 2015

COP 21 - the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties - will see more than 190 nations gather in Paris to discuss a possible new global agreement on climate change, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the threat of dangerous warming due to human activities.

Explained: What is climate change?

In video: Why does the Paris conference matter?

Analysis: Latest from BBC environment correspondent Matt McGrath

More: BBC News climate change special report

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

Related Topics