Climate change communication should focus less on specific numbers

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  Created By Carolyn Gramling

What’s in a number? The goals of the 2021 United Nations’ climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, called for nations to keep a warming limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius “within reach.” But when it comes to communicating climate change to the public, some scientists worry that too much emphasis on a specific number is a poor strategy.

Focusing on one number obscures a more important point, they say: Even if nations don’t meet this goal to curb global climate change, any progress is better than none at all. Maybe it’s time to stop talking so much about one number.

On November 13, the United Nations’ 26th annual climate change meeting, or COP26, ended in a new climate deal, the Glasgow Climate Pact. In that pact, the 197 assembled nations reaffirmed a common “ideal” goal: limiting global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees C by 2100, relative to preindustrial times (SN: 12/17/18).

Holding temperature increases to 1.5 degrees C, researchers have found, would be a significant improvement over limiting warming to 2 degrees C, as agreed upon in the 2015 Paris Agreement (SN: 12/12/15). The more stringent limit would mean fewer global hazards, from extreme weather to the speed of sea level rise to habitat loss for species (SN: 12/17/18).

The trouble is that current national pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are nowhere near enough to meet either of those goals. Even accounting for the most recent national pledges to cut emissions, the average global temperature by 2100 is likely to be between 2.2 and 2.7 degrees C warmer than it was roughly 150 years ago (SN: 10/26/21).

And that glaring disparity is leading not just to fury and frustration for many, but also to despair and pervasive feelings of doom, says paleoclimatologist Jessica Tierney of the University of Arizona in Tucson.

“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but I think it was definitely made sort of more front and center with COP,” Tierney says. She describes one news story in the wake of the conference that “mentioned 1.5 degrees C, and then said this is the threshold over which scientists have told us that catastrophic climate change will occur.”

The article reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what the agreed-upon limit really represents, Tierney explains. “A lot of my students, for example, are really worried about climate change, and they are really worried about passing some kind of boundary. People have this idea that if you pass that boundary, you sort of tip over a cliff.”


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🌟 About Carolyn Gramling
The earth & climate writer. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. 

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