9/26/21 Climate Graphic

As science on climate change becomes increasingly clearer, the language used to describe it has begun to change as well.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which works to communicate climate science to policymakers, said “it is unequivocal that humans have warmed the atmosphere” with widespread consequences for human life, in its August report.

President Joe Biden’s administration has opted for stronger language as well. Biden referred to Hurricane Ida as evidence that “the climate crisis is here” in his speech on Sept. 2.

Media organizations have also updated the language they use to describe climate change.

The Guardian announced in 2019 it was changing its style guide to reflect the growing sense of urgency expressed by scientists about climate change. Instead of defaulting to the phrase “climate change,” The Guardian opts for “climate crisis.” Instead of “global warming,” it uses “global heating.”

In light of the powerful scientific consensus on climate change and our increased understanding of climate impacts, The Exponent has reflected on its own use of climate language.

Climate change or climate crisis?

The Guardian said it began using the term “climate crisis” because it more accurately reflected the potential impacts described by climate scientists.

“I completely agree with what The Guardian is doing, trying to use more urgent sounding words such as climate crisis or global heating,” said Hwanseok Song, a communication professor at Purdue. “I think it does the job of delivering that sense of urgency.”

While it’s important to choose words that accurately reflect the scientific consensus of climate change impacts, Song said it’s also important to consider the impact of the words on the reader.

A 2011 study in the Public Opinion Quarterly, a scientific journal that publishes papers about public opinion, found Republicans were more likely to believe that “global warming” was real than “climate change.” The study found that Democrats weren’t affected by word choice.

“It’s something we call a ceiling effect,” Song said. “(Liberals) will say that climate change or global warming is happening regardless of what word you say.”

However, for those who might be more hesitant to believe in climate change, word choice might matter more.

It’s also important for words to reflect the lived experience of the readers, said Linda Pfeiffer, professor in the College of Agriculture. Pfeiffer has a joint Ph.D. in mass communication and environmental resources, and teaches scientists how to more clearly communicate to the public about their research.

Phrases like “climate crisis” might alienate audiences who don’t see climate change as a crisis.

“If you haven’t experienced impacts of climate change, or not attributed the impacts you’ve experienced to climate science,” Pfeiffer said, “those words can pretty quickly be discounted.”

As “climate crisis” is a term that has been adopted by some more left-leaning readers and media outlets, it may alienate more conservative readers who don’t feel that climate change has reached a “crisis” level.

“Once a word has become politicized, people are less likely to actually engage with the science and more likely to respond based on heuristic decision making,” she said.

She also cautioned against terms like “climate crisis” because they may be perceived as dire messaging, which has not been shown to be effective for communicating about climate change, and may even disengage readers.

Instead, Pfeiffer said she recommends that news stories acknowledge the threat of climate change while exploring solutions that can work to mitigate the negative effects.

“The research would show that efficacy cues need to be there when there’s any element of threat,” she said, “or people will not attend to your story.”

The Exponent has chosen to defer updating its style guide to use climate crisis language until more research exists to determine whether it helps improve climate coverage.

‘Weight of evidence’ journalism

Until recently, climate change coverage by the media has consistently presented what some consider to be false equivalencies.

Journalistic practices require reporters to cover both sides of any particular issue. In the case of climate change, this practice resulted in climate scientists and climate science deniers being given equal coverage, which can distort the public perceptions of scientific consensus.

“When you’re including one climate scientist who is reporting on the effects of climate change, and you’re including one person who is a climate denier and might not be working in their field or might not be a climatologist in any way, but nonetheless has a title, it gets confusing for the public,” Pfeiffer said.

Instead, Pfeiffer teaches journalists to use the “weight of evidence” model, which divides coverage based on where the scientific consensus is.

For instance, surveys have shown that 97% of research papers on climate change support the consensus view. Thus, Pfeiffer said 97% of the article should be made up of perspectives that support the existence of climate change.

The Exponent will use “weight of evidence” reporting on climate change issues.

Importance of local climate journalism

Climate change is a slow-moving global issue that is particularly challenging for the human brain to grasp and respond to, Pfeiffer said.

Even though the science has been clear for some time, public acceptance has lagged behind, she said.

One way to improve communication about climate change is to highlight how climate change is affecting one’s local community, using proximity cues.

“If you’re writing for a student audience, you want to include things that are more proximate to them (and) more important to them,” she said. “How will climate change impact students on campus?”

Laura Gustafson, a junior in the College of Engineering and the vice president of the Purdue Student Sustainability Council, said she wants to see coverage that answers that question.

“I think it would be important for The Exponent to cover climate change to point out more of the local perspective of what changes are occurring,” she said. “Because it’s easy for us in the Midwest to say, ‘Oh, well, we’re not getting flooded by Hurricane Ida. We’re not having all the forest fires that are occurring on the west coast. That’s not affecting us.’”

“So it’s really important for those changes to be pointed out in a clear way for our population.”

This is also one of the reasons the Purdue Climate Change Research Center issues the Indiana Climate Change Impact Assessment reports.

The reports were initially requested by U.S. Senator Richard Lugar after noticing a lack of quality information about climate impacts in Indiana, said Jeffrey Dukes, professor in the College of Agriculture and Director of the PCCRC.

“(Lugar) was trying to decide how he should vote on some climate change-related legislation, and he couldn’t find good information about how the state was going to be affected by climate change,” Dukes said.

Since then, the PCCRC has continued to publish reports about the impacts of climate change in Indiana to help communicate the scientific understanding to all Hoosiers.

In reality, the climate in Indiana has been changing for a while, Dukes said. The state is already 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer on average than it was 125 years ago. Climate change has also affected precipitation patterns; the state now receives on average 6.5 inches more precipitation a year compared to 125 years ago.

Not only has the quantity of precipitation changed, Dukes said, but its distribution has as well. The trend has shown more precipitation to be concentrated in the winter and spring months when it’s not needed as much by agriculture, which can actually lead to delayed planting. Additionally, more rainfall is deposited during heavy rain events, which increase the threat of flooding, he said.

“It’s changing rapidly right now, and if we are making decisions based on the climate we are used to, we are wasting money and making mistakes,” he said. “We’re making bad investments, building infrastructure tailored to yesterday’s climate. But that climate is gone already.”

It’s critical that the people of Indiana are aware of the local impacts so they can not only understand the urgency of the issue but to enable them to make informed decisions about the future, he said.

As of fall 2021, The Exponent has dedicated a staff member full-time to be a climate reporter, who is also the writer of this article.

More than just the weather

Another way The Guardian updated its climate coverage was by reporting global carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations alongside its weather report.

This provides readers with a reminder that humans are continuing to change the composition of the atmosphere.

“It would certainly be a visual reminder,” Gustafson said, “but I’m not sure how far people would look into it.”

She compared the idea to when a newspaper reports the air quality index, a measure of air pollution, and how that hasn’t been very effective.

Dukes said that for this change to be effective, readers must be given some information to help put the numbers in perspective. Global CO2 levels fluctuate on a daily cycle as well as a seasonal cycle, so showing daily CO2 levels could be confusing for readers.

To fully appreciate the increasing global CO2 levels, one must look at the long-term trend which shows that CO2 levels have increased substantially since the pre-industrial era.

“I think the question is how you put that number in context, how you make that more than just a number,” he said. “How do you make that something that people actually can understand the implications of?”

The Exponent will consider ways of including climate change information in the website’s weather information.

Editor’s Note: This reporting is supported by Carbon Neutral Indiana, a nonprofit helping “individuals and businesses clean up their carbon footprints.”

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