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Bill Nye Says the Way We Talk About Climate Change Matters

“The words are always watered down,” he said, pointing to discussions at COP26, a United Nations climate conference. Shifting the language of climate change can be harmful, he said. For example, using the phrase “phasing down coal” instead of “phasing out coal” dilutes the meaning and intensity of the conversation about coal’s effect on the environment.

“Our future depends on getting the tone right,” Daniel Blumstein, a professor at UCLA’s Institute of Environment and Sustainability, said. He added that the goal should be to eliminate as many carbon-producing energy sources as possible and replace them with carbon-free ones. “While there may be a transition that requires some carbon-intensive energy sources,” Blumstein said, “the word ‘out’ connotes a future where coal has no substantial role, where the word ‘down’ implies we just want to reduce it a bit.”

When people say humans are likely to be responsible for climate change, “that’s different from saying it’s our fault,” Nye said. The phrases “climate change” and “global warming” are just two sides of the same coin, he said. And while the conversation about the warming planet can feel daunting, Nye believes that “everybody should be anxious about climate change.”

The phrase “clean coal,” for instance, can be confusing and polarizing. The term, which was popularized by coal industry groups in 2008, is often understood to refer to coal plants that capture carbon dioxide emitted from smokestacks and bury it underground in an effort to limit global warming. It’s important to note that regardless of plant technology, coal mining is a highly polluting practice that often damages streams and other waterways.

“Global warming” has gradually been replaced, in many instances, by “climate change,” Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, said. One disadvantage of the phrase “global warming” is that it can be taken to mean only increasing temperatures, so other catastrophic effects may not seem connected, Tannen said. “Global warming” acknowledges the overall trend toward warmer temperatures, but it largely neglects local effects, which are experienced as shifts in extremes, the climate scientist and Harvard professor Marianna Linz said. Those extremes could include heat, but they could also be droughts, floods or tornadoes.

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