Can thoughtful climate lexicon avoid the kind of rhetorical congestion that has so far framed the climate debate?

As the ‘Climategate’ controversy has sent the science and policy community back to the communications drawing board, it’s a good time to return to earlier works on global climate change, or if you like, global warming, or the greenhouse effect, or even the carbon dioxide problem.

The reasons for inaction at the national and international levels are many and complex, but certainly challenges with the language used have contributed to the political deadlock. The situation has implications for how we move forward in the necessary task that our inaction makes more urgent each day: climate change adaptation.

In an excellent social history of the concept, Susanne Moser has demonstrated that 2007 marked the first real breakthrough for coverage of adaptation in mainstream U.S. media coverage, prompted by publication of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. By searching Lexis-Nexis on the terms adaptation and adapting, Moser documented a four-fold increase in reporting from the previous year of 2006.

Adaptation No Longer a Dirty Word

The same factors that drove increased media attention – recognition that climate systems may be more sensitive than previously understood and that climatic impacts are happening already – also led to increased awareness in the climate policy agenda. Long subordinated to the prevailing focus on emission reduction (or mitigation in climate parlance), adaptation policy emerged as an important issue in its own right. No longer were those advocating for attention to adaptation considered defeatists with an agenda that risked undermining efforts to secure aggressive emission reductions.

In 2010, local and state governments across the country are initiating adaptation action planning. Adaptation features prominently in the Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House in 2009 and also in various bills introduced in the Senate. Not waiting for Congress, several Executive Branch agencies have been focusing on adaptation issues, and the Council on Environmental Quality, in the White House, is working to coordinate those efforts across the federal government under the aegis of an October 2009 executive order.

So now that the jargon is loose in the media, it’s worth examining the subtle connotations that the term adaptation contains. This task is complicated by the multiple definitions found in the technical literature. In a 2006 analysis of the lexicon, Office of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) staff noted four distinct definitions of adaptation in use by major international climate bodies. Today, most have adopted the original IPCC definition:

Adaptation – Adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities. Various types of adaptation can be distinguished, including anticipatory and reactive adaptation, private and public adaptation, and autonomous and planned adaptation

For insight into what adaptation is popularly understood to mean, consider the definition of the term from Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary:

Adaptation – adjustment to environmental conditions: as a: adjustment of a sense organ to the intensity or quality of stimulation b: modification of an organism or its parts that makes it more fit for existence under the conditions of its environment

The adaptation described here resonates with anyone having sat through high school biology – it connotes a slow change over time and one driven in response to change as it happens or even after the fact. Yet in practice, adaptation policy involves specific actions or strategies that are primarily proactive in nature. When we speak of the importance of climate adaptation, are we suggesting proactive or reactive action? I’m not sure we know.

‘Resilience’ … Can It Work in Actual Practice?

Resilience is increasingly used to describe the state to which we aspire – social and natural systems able to withstand climate impacts without a qualitative shift to a new, and presumably, less desirable state. For many, this terminology works beautifully in theory, but can it perform in practice? And what if resilience turns out to be as problematic a concept as sustainability has proven to be? It’s not at all clear that resilience for many will connote proactive action. Would someone on the street really know what this means, and appreciate the actions entailed to achieve it?

So how should the hard choices we now confront be communicated? Borrowing from the national defense and disaster response lexicons, Anne Polansky of Climate Science Watch and colleagues here at the University of Oregon’s Climate Leadership Initiative have independently proposed climate preparedness.

They may be onto something. Consider the common meanings:

Preparation – the action or process of making something ready for use or service or of getting ready for some occasion, test, or duty

Preparedness – the quality or state of being prepared

Climate preparedness connotes conscious effort and proactive steps to anticipate and consciously build for the range of climate change-induced stresses that are already occurring and that can be reasonably expected in years ahead. This terminology builds common ground with the disaster response community, which itself will play key roles in developing and implementing responses to climate change.

Cara Pike at the University of Oregon’s Climate Leadership Initiative is organizing a research program to assess how best to communicate the issue of climate adaptation. A preliminary finding from Pike’s previous research suggests that climate preparedness resonates more effectively with the public than climate adaptation, but more research is needed. Her work will replace the suppositions outlined here with empirical data.

Communications professionals and others working in this area of climate policy often emphasize the difficulty of getting public officials to proactively plan for climate change impacts. This observation is often met with calls for more advanced modeling tools and better presentations of the results. It’s clear that decision support tools need additional work, but a decidedly low-tech solution may also include a simple examination of the words used in describing the work that’s to be done.

The Stakes are High: The Words Matter

No matter what the best language turns out to be – adaptation, resiliency or preparedness – we’ll no doubt see another round in the lexicon wars that have tortured the climate debate for years. The reasons are obvious: Adaptation will require the expenditure of political and financial capital. There will be winners and losers – just the sort of environment in which political strategists and spin artists thrive.

Those calling for proactive climate policies – emission reductions and adaptation in the face of the impacts of the greenhouse effect – will be well advised to consider how best to say what they mean.

Given the challenges society faces in confronting a changing climate, we can only hope that they will also mean what they say.

Steve Adams is the Director of Adaptation & Climate Preparedness at the University of Oregon’s Climate Leadership Initiative. He has worked on climate change, energy, environmental and resource management issues for more than 15 years in state and federal government service. (Email:

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