June 24, 2019

Words, Language and the Climate Debate

Joan Nodelman

About the Author

Joan is a specialist in governance, education and risk management with over forty years of professional practice. She is committed to helping clients achieve their organizational objectives and goals through holistic risk management.

Words and language in the climate debate can lead to misunderstandings, communication gaps, and conflict. As a bilingual person, I am sensitive to the nuances of meanings words can convey, and how those colourations can affect the messages we are trying to convey.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

– George Bernard Shaw –

My family emigrated from Hong Kong when I was ten.  It was an adventure for my sisters, brother, and me.  Mostly, we grew up in Canada, and went to school here.

I had a fairly strong grounding the English. In Hong Kong I studied in a school ran by American nuns.  So, English was never a problem for me.  However, when we got to Canada, I could see my mother struggling to communicate her ideas, and my father or I would act as translator in shops and watching the news.  She finally started to grasp the language by watching the north American soap operas, which she watched most afternoons.  Almost sixty years later, my mother speaks good English and has many Canadian, American, and European friends.  In fact, this early experience helped me realize how important words and language are in our lives.

The Power of Words in the Climate Debate

Words help us communicate with each other. We write words and speak them to convey our meaning, make requests, or give orders. Because words powerful, we must treat them with respect. Our words can give the wrong impression, create obstacles and conflict. Words and language are important in the climate debate.

Often, people use words differently because of the demands of their work. For instance, a scientist may speak of average temperatures increasing by two to three degrees. They mean the change is big.  Meanwhile, a layperson may perceive a two to three degree temperature change to be small. They see temperature shifts of this size every day. Thus, everything is ok. But, equating the climate and daily weather is not correct. Thus, the average person and scientist speak at cross purposes. The scientist means “big” and the layperson hears “small”. We lose the message and confusion reigns. 

To provide context, I like to compare small climatic temperature changes to a whip handle.  A small wave of the handle causes larger and wider swings of the tip.  Similarly, a small shift in the average temperature will cause wild and unpredictable changes over the entire range. We see more extreme and weirder weather events with severe consequences.

Blurring and Confusing Words in the Climate Debate

The further complicate matters, words can have many meanings. The word “hot” has over eleven uses according to my thesaurus. For example, hot can mean temperature, an emotion, or stolen goods. We understand the meaning from the context of the discussion. George Carlin used make fun how we change the meaning of words to soften unpleasant topics.

There are many ways we blur language in climate change work. For example, the average person may interpret the term “climate” to mean “weather”. Weather and climate are different things. Climate refers to averages and trends, while weather refers to what we experience every day.  Mark Twain said this best:

Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.

Theory and Application of Words and Language in the Climate Debate

Scientists use precise language. They will use words like “likelihood”, and “confidence” in their discussion of weather events. They will not say that an area will flood, but will note a likelihood of a high water level over a period. While this language is precise, it doesn’t convey important ideas to the audience. The scientist may mean “we will definitely see flooding”, while the layperson hears that “flooding is rare”. Their sense of likelihood comes from lotteries where there is little chance of winning. Once again, the intent of the remark is lost.  “Definite” is heard as “unlikely”, and confusion reigns. 

A good example of this is Abbott and Costello skit, “Who’s on First”.  If you have a moment, check it out on YouTube. In the contrived situation, we see real communication frustration.  

Need for Clarity

When we can withstand extreme climate events impacts, it is  called resilience. The first step in resilience is to understand our risks.  We use assessments to pinpoint our climate exposure.  Assessment reports help us manage climate change and draw up plans and policies.

The more you explain it, the more I don’t understand it.

– Mark Twain –

Assessment teams include a range of members who may use words differently. Each member of the team must know that language use may differ across the team.  Often, the differences are minor but sometimes they can be serious. This can cause tension on the team. In fact, folks may have heated arguments, while they actually agree and are simply not understanding each other. In this way, our differing understanding of even simple words can affect productivity. 

Productive teams come from clear and transparent communication among members.  They are able to work together to give good advice.  As well, decision-makers look for clear communication and advice. They need answers to help manage, prevent, and treat their organization’s risks.  So, assessment reports must be clear in how they relate the team’s findings. When folks do not understand each other, they become confused and frustrated.  It is not productive.  

We have seen examples of this at workshops. when folks did not understand each other’s use of words. Instead of sharing ideas they got angry and combative. People believed they were under attack.  So, rather than dealing with issues and moving along, the meetings became chaotic and unproductive. 

With this knowledge, we need to stretch our understanding of words across disciplines. We can work together to combat the many Climate Change impacts facing our lives.

Call to Action

You are not alone.  There are folks here to help you out.  Seek the advice of climate risk and resiliency experts.  Do not be afraid to engage in the debate.  We all have something valuable to offer. 

We provide ongoing commentary on these issues.  Feel free to contact us, we are always happy to discuss your climate, risk and resiliency.

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