Why is climate change so hard to define? - RSA

Why is climate change so hard to define?


  • Climate change
  • Social brain

“Definition: The vivisection tray upon which a word is splayed; while the gist may be clearly labelled with coloured pins, resuscitation becomes problematic.”

“Definition: The vivisection tray upon which a word is splayed; while the gist may be clearly labelled with coloured pins, resuscitation becomes problematic.”

- Ambrose Beirce, The Devil's Dictionary

The desire to define key terms is understandable, but it is often only pseudo-intelligent, because as Ambrose Beirce suggests, the effect of pinning a word down is often to drain the life out of it.

Still, while designing a national survey on attitudes to climate change recently, I sought out a cogent definition of the term/phenomenon/fact/idea that could be used as a quick and comprehensible reference point for debate and discussion. I googled until it hurt, asked around various people working in the field, sent out a few speculative tweets, and zip, nothing suitable came back.

The definitions were either too short (e.g. The planet is getting hotter, we're causing it, it's bad, we should do something about it) or too long, complex or jargon heavy (see Wikipedia's first paragraph here for instance).

The issue is not just that one person's climate change is another's global warming, or whether 'anthropogenic' is a necessary adjective. The purpose of the short definition is not to close down alternative ideas and interpretations, but rather a pragmatic way to avoid talking at cross purposes.

To do full justice to the science, politics, economics and technology surrounding climate change, we would need many more words and caveats, but for the purpose of the survey (and more generally...) we needed something that described and explained the phenomena, indicated the scientific consensus and highlighted the human relevance. Finding a form of words for this task was surprisingly challenging.

Eventually (with help from Emma Lindley and Ian Christie) I managed to squeeze it in to 135 words, and came up with the following:

The earth’s climate is complex and has always changed over long periods, but there is now a scientific consensus that the climate system is being disrupted rapidly, as a result of human actions.

According to a significant majority of scientific experts in the field of climatology, disruptive climate change is being caused principally by those human activities that currently depend upon energy derived from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil.

These activities have resulted in a growing concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, which over time is likely to make weather patterns increasingly irregular and unpredictable.

The human impact of this change will vary from place to place but might include an increased prevalence of storms, droughts and flooding, and could undermine the security of water, food and energy supplies.

How does that sound?

There is a meta-question on what basis one should judge the quality of a definition, and clearly it's not just about a show of hands, but for what it's worth the representative national survey indicated that 59% of the UK population found this definition fairly convincing or very convincing.

So two questions arise:

1. What kind of score would we expect the 'optimal' definition to achieve? (keeping in mind the purpose of accessibility/agreement)

2. How might this particular definition be improved without adding significantly to the word count?


Be the first to write a comment


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

Related articles