How researchers get heard

Climate Fluency: Who’s Responsible?

Global movers and shakers might at last be making dramatic climate action pledges, writes Bloomberg’s Akshat Rathi, but too many still don’t grasp some of the basic terminology.

For instance: Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, Inc., “the single-largest shareholder on the planet,” has been hammering in his last two annual letter to shareholders on the importance of corporations addressing climate change — including “instructing companies to develop climate-compatible business plans backed by data on their emissions.” Fink’s calls have been hailed in many quarters as transformative for corporate attitudes and commitments on climate action.

As Rathi points out, though, Fink uses “net-zero” to describe companies and economies that emit and remove net-zero carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse gases as a whole, which of course include methane, nitrous oxide and other gases as well as carbon dioxide. Those other gases make up about 25% of the emissions that contribute to global warming.

Fink’s not the only one, writes Rathi. For instance, to which emissions does China President Xi Jinping’s much-ballyhooed pledge for his country to become “carbon neutral” by 2060 actually refer? National and state emissions targets from Europe to California have also used carbon and greenhouse gases interchangeably. Even more weirdly, the 2015 Paris Agreement (which Fink’s letter is pegged to) never mentions achieving net-zero global emissions by 2050, says Rathi — that target comes from the IPCC’s 2018 special report “Global Warming of 1.5C.”

All this might seem like semantics — or cover for greenwashing, if you’re skeptical capitalism can ever clean its own house of the carbon stain. Assuming, however, that CEOs will continue to try to set their corporate or organizational emissions targets in the wake of these targets and declarations, Rathi argues, imprecision like Fink’s matters. “Fink’s letter is likely to set off a race to create satisfactory disclosures by legions of executives who will be less sophisticated on climate issues,” he writes.

Since it’s 2021, it’s now time to ask: Who’s to blame? Rathi doesn’t point fingers, exactly, but he does end by talking about how lightly represented climate and environmental expertise are in corporate board rooms and the national legislatures of both the United States and Britain. This implication is clear: Corporate leaders aren’t surrounding themselves with people who can help them overcome their own lack of climate fluency.

I wonder. Larry Fink, of course, has a raft of climate and sustainability advisors who understand these nuances, recently including former BlackRock head of sustainable investing Brian Deese, who has left to join the Biden administration. I think these people get the difference between methane and CO2.

The case for climate action is no longer broadly polarizing. The conversation (like all conversations) has matured — but not past the point where decision makers still get brownie points for broad but imprecise pledges to climate action.

It’s science’s responsibility to push climate fluency to the next level — to elevate what constitutes climate fluency so it matches up with effective action. Why leave this to decision makers and sporadic board appointments to fix?

Climate science must identify lack of climate fluency among decision makers as a threat to the world. It must mount a campaign to solve the problem through sustained, intensive outreach to the private sector, government and civil society.

It’s on climate science to make sure decision makers know how to differentiate concepts. And it’s on climate science to lift scenarios and solutions out of long, daunting reports and make them comprehensible and available to everyone.

If a city manager doesn’t understand basic terms, or if Larry Fink is being confusing, that’s a referendum on climate science communications. It’s the responsibility of climate scientists and communicators to intervene to correct it — publicly, through all available channels. And to call out the dangers of slippery language when it comes to the future of the planet.

Takeaway: This responsibility extends to any level of fluency your communities need to properly understand your research and act on it. So: How does your organization or institution measure how readily your audiences understand the basic concepts and the paradigms your researchers convey? Surveys? Individual follow ups? Do you measure understanding at all? If not, how do you know you’re achieving it?