Just over a week ago, the United Nations made an announcement that prompted a biting put-down from a climate journalist named Megan Darby.
“Ban the UN from naming things. I’m serious,” wrote Darby, after the UN launched an anti-greenwashing unit that it called the “High Level Expert Group on the Net-Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities”, or HLEG for short.
This had to be a frontrunner for the worst jargon award of 2022, said Darby, editor of the UK’s Climate Home News site. Also, she added: “Has there ever been a low-level expert group?”
Her rebuke brightened my day, not just because it was spot on and overdue. It was also a reminder that, much as we all love to hate jargon, some of it goes beyond the laughable and is actively harmful.
I am guilty of dwelling on the comic stuff — the core competencies in leveraging paradigm shifts that infect corporate life. Not to mention the tiresome acronyms and abbreviations that turn the simplest message into indecipherable drivel.
The thing about this type of work jargon is that, for insiders, it has benefits. It can foster a sense of belonging and act as handy shorthand that makes it easier to talk to colleagues quickly. Studies show corporate gibberish in particular can make us feel superior, which is one reason it persists.
But there is no such excuse for jargon that clogs understanding about an issue as vital as climate change as another, more important, UN document reminded me last week.
Monday’s report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the most authoritative source of global climate knowledge, was a clunker.
It was ridiculously long, at more than 2,900 pages, and even its shorter 64-page summary for policymakers was full of phrases like this:
“Estimates of aggregate economic benefits from avoiding damages from climate change, and from reduced adaptation costs, increase with the stringency of mitigation (high confidence).”
I believe this means that doing more to stop climate change from getting worse makes economic sense, because we’ll spend less on things like mopping up after floods or protecting power lines from wildfires.
There were far worse examples, so much so that on the day the report came out, the Associated Press helpfully republished a guide to climate change jargon.
It was written by Wändi Bruine de Bruin, a professor at the University of Southern California who co-authored a recent study showing people in the US are often baffled by the words climate experts use.
That includes two of the most common terms: adaptation and mitigation.
For experts, “adaptation” means making changes to deal with the effects of climate change. “Mitigation” means stopping climate change from getting worse.
But the study found some people think adaptation refers to evolutionary changes in nature, or books being adapted for movies. Others think of costs being mitigated, not climate change. Even the term greenhouse gas “emissions” confuses: it makes some people think of exhaust emissions, which are different.
IPCC reports are especially problematic because they are written at university level and many adults in the US and Europe read at the level of 12 or 13-year-olds. A typical IPCC report page therefore scores woefully in readability tests. (Alas, the same tests show some of my own climate reporting has been far from ideal.)
I do not blame the IPCC for its befuddling documents. Its massive assessments are the ultimate in decision-by-committee, put together over months by hundreds of scientists supported by a small UN secretariat.
The first time I looked at the secretariat’s annual budget, in 2013, I found it was $9.3 million, which is about what the English county of Cumbria had spent fixing potholes in 2012. Its latest budget is still under $10 million and, wonderful as it would be if it had an army of people who could make its reports more readable, it does not.
Still, the good news is that Bruine de Bruin’s study is making headway.
“We have been contacted by climate scientists and climate journalists who wanted to improve how they talk about climate change,” she told me last week. This is good news. Here’s hoping we eventually find a way to mitigate hard-to-abate expert emissions before they reach a tipping point beyond which there is no return.
Pilita Clark is an associate editor and business columnist at the Financial Times. She has worked for the FT since 2003, covering aviation and the environment, and was previously a Washington correspondent for Australian newspapers and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.