Talking Point: Mind your language

Written by on 3 July 2014

Trawl the internet long enough, or in fact ask enough people the same question, however misinformed, and you will get the answer you want.
No matter how many sources may have informed you of the opposite, you can still convince yourself black is white by ignoring all dissenting viewpoints.
Last year should have, by rights, seen environmental campaigners breathing a sigh of relief as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its latest findings on the dramatic man-made impact on the planet.
Thousands of scientists could agree, were “unequivocal” in fact, that humans are to blame for the fact that the last three decades have been successively warmer than any period since 1850 and probably any time in the last 1,400 years.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, doubts and questions continue to be raised over the finest details.
A new study in Nature: Climate Change shows that the IPCC has not been helping itself.
Far from putting the matter to bed, according to the three US and one Australian academics, the language used is causing many who read the conclusions to view the matter with scepticsm. For instance, when the committee uses terms such as “very likely” or “extremely likely”, the authors found people were adjusting their interpretation downwards, while they were doing the opposite for terms like “very unlikely”.
So you can’t convince all of the people all of the time, but any seeds of doubt are unhelpful when these important decisions are required to be made with increasing urgency.
Last month, the committee published its economic analysis, which estimated the cost of mitigating against climate change. It found that diverting the necessary billions from fossil fuels into renewable energy would cut 0.06 per cent off economic growth a year.
US Secretary of State John Kerry called the report a “wake-up call about global economic opportunity”, while EU commissioner Connie Hedegaard pointed out that “the more you wait, the more it will cost [and] the more difficult it will become.”
That news is basically positive. We are not all doomed – not yet anyway, but the longer that the seeds of doubt continue to be sowed, the less likely it is that the mitigation will be in any way affordable.

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