USC Dornsife’s Public Exchange and UN Foundation Partner on Climate Change Communications Study

Study to identify misleading or confusing terminology with the goal of finding ways to improve the public’s understanding of climate science

August 25, 2020


Megan Rabbitt

Public Exchange at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences announced today that it has entered into an agreement with the United Nations Foundation (UNF) to study how to improve the public’s understanding of climate change.

A team of USC researchers assembled by Public Exchange will test how a diverse sample of the American public perceives certain terms that are commonly used to communicate the science of climate change. The goal is to identify terms that are unfamiliar or difficult to understand so that they can be replaced with more useful language without sacrificing scientific accuracy.

“Thanks to more than a century’s worth of scientific inquiry, we know a great deal about how and why human activity is altering our climate,” said Wändi Bruine de Bruin, Provost Professor of Public Policy, Psychology and Behavioral Science at USC and the study’s lead investigator. “But we know much less about how to communicate these findings effectively. Our goal is to provide language that advances public understanding of climate change.”

Bruine de Bruin, who is affiliated with USC Price School of Public Policy and USC Dornsife’s Department of Psychology, previously worked with the United Kingdom’s Met Office to identify potential difficulties that readers, including policymakers, had in interpreting climate-related information. Her team’s findings informed the redesign of those communications.

Word choice matters

The terms to be tested in the coming study were drawn from past reports issued by the Inter- governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body of the United Nations that assesses the science related to climate change. The study will examine people’s responses to terms such as “adaptation,” “mitigation,” “carbon dioxide removal” and “sustainable development.”

This research will inform UNF’s work to support the UN, including the IPCC, and its mission to provide the best scientific information to global leaders and the general public.

“Effective communication using terminology that resonates with the general public and policy- makers is essential for driving progress on climate action,” said Pete Ogden, vice president for energy, climate and the environment at the UN Foundation. “This study is an important step in that direction — and one that the UN Foundation is proud to support.”

Lila Rabinovich, a researcher at the USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research, will interview residents of the United States selected from the center’s Understanding America Study, one of the nation’s most authoritative surveys of public attitudes.

Interviewees will be asked not only about their responses to the key terms, but will be given the opportunity to suggest alternative wordings that could be more easily understood by a non-scientific audience.

“This is only the beginning of what we hope will be a more wide-ranging study of climate change terminology at its most fundamental level,” said Kate Weber, director of Public Exchange. “With the breadth and depth of our behavioral researchers and the power of our Understanding America Study, we have unique capabilities to carry out research-driven studies to inform this critical area of communications.”

About Public Exchange

Based at USC Dornsife, Public Exchange fast-tracks collaborations between academic researchers and the public and private sectors to define, analyze and solve complex problems together.


Kate Weber

Director, Public Exchange