Navigating Jargon and Climate Science
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Perhaps fittingly, Halloween marked the first official day of COP26, the UN's annual climate change 'Conference of the Parties' (UNFCCC, n.d.). In other words, representatives from all of the countries who are signed on to the United Nation's Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will participate in this Conference and review progress made to limit global climate change and set/commit to new goals. Observers (other countries, NGOs, media) will also be in attendance. The civil society group COP26 Coalition (n.d.) summarizes it aptly and very seriously when they say that this COP "will decide who is to be sacrificed, who will escape and who will make a profit."
As we and many others hold on to hope for real and just system transformation away from fossil fuels and capitalistic solutions, there likely will be a lot of jargon, acronyms, and scientific language thrown around in the news and media over the next couple of weeks. You've likely already heard things like limiting warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees, the Paris Agreement, and the IPCC, but there are so many others like AR6, INDCs, LDCs, and Annex I/II countries (the UNFCCC actually has a glossary of climate change acronyms and terms here). So we wanted to spend a bit of time thinking about jargon and scientific language, what this means for social workers and other helping professionals, and how to continue on in spaces of confusing or inaccessible language.
Social workers are no strangers to jargon. Whether it’s reminding colleagues to refrain from using acronyms during client meetings, or creating a plain language summary of research findings for policymakers and stakeholders, it can show up in any setting we work in. Rathi (2021) notes that confusing climate change terminology and acronyms have become a regular occurrence in government settings; however, the more worrying part is that this language can “understate more far-reaching goals”. This has “serious consequences for public dialogue about the environment and therefore for real democracy” (Kimmerer, 2013). Overusing jargon and acronyms in any workplace can result in shortcuts and incorrect uses of the terms, causing unclear communication and misunderstandings. Thanks to this and its amplification within news and social media, “The climate arena has become filled with imprecise shorthand” (Rathi, 2021). This is even more troubling when so few politicians and decision makers (who are in attendance at COP26) have backgrounds in science to be able to identify incorrect uses of terms, or ask for more information without losing face in front of peers (Rathi, 2021).
Despite climate science being based on “immutable laws of physics, which are unfailing in their power of prediction”, the fact of the matter is that scientists use language that “excludes readers”, thus resulting in a lack of clarity, increased confusion, and perpetuation of the harmful status quo (Deaton, 2021; Kimmerer, 2013). Mary Annaïse Heglar (2021) says it clearly in her article There is No Magic Word:
“They’re trained to speak in terms that are precise to the point of inaccessibility, which is how jargon is created. And it doesn’t work outside of their bubble. I’d argue it’s part of the reason it took so long for climate change to become a regular topic of conversation.”
She also notes that due to its scale, magnitude, and emotional impact, climate change on its own is hard enough to talk about, let alone when you add jargon and acronyms to the mix.
An important reminder here is the fact that just a couple of months ago, the release of the first part of the IPCC's 6th Assessment Report triggered conversations about the usefulness of scientific reports if world leaders aren’t listening to them. In an article by Chestney & Januta (2021), three-time IPCC co-author and climate scientist Sonia Seneviratne notes:
“Policy makers have enough information. You can ask: Is it a meaningful use of scientists’ time, if nothing is being done?”
When world-renowned scientists are debating about the utility of their contributions, we should be paying attention.
So, what can social workers do?
I want to start this section with these two beautiful quotes from Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013) in Braiding Sweetgrass:
“I dream of a world guided by a lens of stories rooted in the revelations of science and framed with an indigenous worldview – stories in which matter and spirit are both given voice.”
“For what good is knowing, unless it is coupled with caring? Science can give us knowing, but caring comes from someplace else.”
An important part of this work is decentring western ways of knowing and doing science, and shifting into spaces where the needs of people and other beings on the planet come first and foremost. I believe it to be a problem that life and death decisions are being made in spaces (like COP26) where numbers, jargon, and scientific language are front and centre; where there is the potential for misunderstanding and misrepresentation of facts. And especially when decisions are being made on behalf of billions of people, both present and future generations, for whom climate change is central to their livelihood and survival. Science and climate change information have had tremendous contributions and have laid the groundwork, but if we are to get through the coming years that require complete transformation, we must move beyond reports and jargon. We need to amplify the stories of people affected by the decisions made at these Conferences, and we need swift action.
Social workers and other helping professionals have so much to give to this space. Here are some thoughts of other things we can do:
Start with a clear vision of what just climate action looks like to you and those you serve. What climate change impacts are around you, and what are the stories of resilience, adaptation, and solutions?
Amplify people and organizations who prioritize climate science, ways of knowing, and solutions beyond a western evidence-base, such as COP26 Coalition, Climate Justice Alliance, Indigenous Climate Action, and so many more
Amplify people doing the work to make climate change information accessible and jargon free like Mary Annaïse Heglar and Amy Westervelt at Hot Take, and Emily Atkin at HEATED
Do your best to educate yourself about the basics to be able to engage in conversations with others. You don’t have to know everything, and if there’s something you don’t know, point people towards credible sources of information
Share and promote clear, actionable messages in whatever way you do it best (whether through social media, giving presentations, art, writing articles, sharing resources, facilitating conversations, or literally anything else)
Don't encourage climate click bait or messages of despair. At the other end of the spectrum, don't support Pollyanna-ish messages that everything will be fine (more info here)
Bring your social work lens! Too often climate change conversations don’t touch on the intersections with environmental injustice, systemic racism, poverty, gender inequity, health, and more
Find a community that you can turn to for support in this work. Whether it is a group of friends, activists, and/or other social workers, building community helps on so many levels
Let us know what actions you take to promote climate action in the face of climate jargon. Reach out to us on Twitter (@theISWEJ) or using this form - we would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading!
Bokat-Lindell, S. (2021, September 16). Do we need to shrink the economy to stop climate change? https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/16/opinion/degrowth-cllimate-change.html
Chestney, N., & Januta, A. (2021, August 9). U.N. sounds clarion call over 'irreversible' climate impacts by humans. https://www.reuters.com/article/climate-change-ipcc-report-idAFL1N2PF0BD
COP26 Coalition. (n.d.). About COP26 Coalition. https://cop26coalition.org/about/the-coalition/
Deaton, J. (2021, February 9). The scariest thing about climate change isn’t the weather—it’s us. https://www.fastcompany.com/90602632/the-scariest-thing-about-climate-change-isnt-the-weather-its-us
Gollom, M. (2021, August 11). Why a top climate scientist may stop contributing to future UN assessment reports. https://www.cbc.ca/news/science/un-climate-panel-report-seneviratne-1.6135223
Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Milkweed Editions.
Rathi, A. (2021, February 9). Capitalism Is Struggling With the Language of Climate Change. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-02-09/capitalism-is-struggling-with-the-language-of-climate-change
UNFCCC. (n.d.). Conference of the Parties (COP). https://unfccc.int/process/bodies/supreme-bodies/conference-of-the-parties-cop