Jill Sanford
Jill Sanford
Project Assistant, Civic Spark AmeriCorps Fellow

The Problem with the Phrase “Well Below” and Needlessly Complicated Jargon in Wake of COP21




Like all scientific fields, climatology is often explained with an abundance of technical terms and precise language. Because this science is so multifaceted, the jargon used by climate experts is complex out of necessity. I can’t help but wonder, however, if the dense nature of climate language hinders the public acceptance of this field more than helps it.

In the wake of the December climate agreement in Paris, I find myself similarly frustrated at the overly complicated descriptions of the event. I believe that the average person with little to no knowledge of climate science should be able to easily understand the agreement. Yet, most websites that promise quick and concise information fall short, catering to the climate expert rather than the climate rookie.COMM JS BlogImage2 2016

On each of these sites, I find myself constantly hung up on one purposefully obtuse phrase: “Well below 2° C.” It is always included in quotations, and sure enough, it can be found on the White House’s official statement regarding COP21. The phrasing of “well below” represents the worst kind of scientific jargon—that which is complicated even further by political ambiguity.

The science of climate change has already been made controversial enough. Why are we as climate writers perpetuating confusion over (what should be) clear facts by repeating ambiguous phrases like this? In a country where climate deniers twists facts with clever phrases, shouldn’t we aim for clear and concise ways of explaining climate action that leave little room for misunderstandings?

The full phrase from the White House Fact Sheet is “The Agreement sets a goal of keeping warming well below 2 degrees Celsius and for the first time agrees to pursue efforts to limit the increase in temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It also acknowledges that in order to meet that target, countries should aim to peak greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.”

For many of you reading this, that might be clear enough. I commend and envy your ability to follow lengthy and opaque sentences. I personally lack the patience this sentence structure calls for in order to grasp a full understanding on what this agreement actually entails. I even find this broken down explanation from Carbon Brief slightly too nebulous with all of its quotations:

“The final draft of the Paris deal includes a temperature limit of “well below 2C”, and says there should be “efforts” to limit it to 1.5C.”

Like I mentioned above, both the political release from the White House and this analysis from Carbon Brief are informative and appropriate for certain channels, namely individuals seeking to dive deep into the COP21 Agreement. My purpose for this rant, however, is to point out that there are too many jargon heavy reports out there and not enough venues explaining “Well Below 2°” in plain language.

So here is my attempt— 196 nations agreed to stop global temperatures from rising more than 2° C.

Yes, it’s an overly simplified statement that will cause many climate professionals and experts to scoff. Yet, how many of you reading this agree that my 13 word sentence is much more easily and quickly understood than the 26 word description from Carbon Brief that I included above?

If still you find it lacking, I challenge you to come up with your own explanation of the COP21 agreement that makes no mention of the phrase that has become my pet peeve: “Well below.”

 

Image courtesy of www.tribune-intl.com