UN climate reports are becoming more optimistic and much harder to read


The United Nations’ widely disseminated reports about climate change, which are often used to set environmental policy, are becoming much harder to read.

A new report (pdf) examined the last five summaries for policymakers produced by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It found that they are getting more and more difficult for the average person to understand.

Published in Nature Climate Change on Oct. 12, the study gauged readability based on the Flesch Reading Ease algorithm, which assumes that texts with longer sentences and more complex words are harder to read. The UN body’s latest summaries for policymakers scored the lowest on the 100-point readability scale, the paper notes. Reports on slashing carbon dioxide emissions to mitigate climate change are among the most difficult to comprehend.

At the same time, print media coverage of the same topics has been getting easier to understand.

The IPCC’s increasingly convoluted text has also adopted a more optimistic outlook, featuring encouraging terms like “growth,” “important,” and “enhance” in greater frequencies, the paper showed.

Most increasingly used positive and negative terms in climate coverage
IPCC SPM Scientific publications Quality newspapers Tabloid newspapers
Risk Problem Power Flood
Growth Needed Worse Poverty
Important Support Problem Threat
Vulnerable Important Clear Blame
Negative Good Good Worse
Enhance Reason Kind Stop
Adverse Knowledge Tornado Suffer
Lose Strong Prime Truth
Health Success Hope Prettier
Productive Hard Reason Crises
Stress Erroneous Fail Disaster
Qualified Gross Love Danger
Positive Sense Poverty Storm
Knowledge Careful Revolution Death
Secure Clear Sacrifice Authoritative

Taking cues from the UN agency, scientific publications including Nature and Science have begun using more words with positive connotations, like “support” and “good,” when reporting on climate change. Media coverage from “quality” US and UK new organizations like the New York Times and tabloids like the Daily News, however, is generally more pessimistic, the study found. Terms like “flood,” “worse,” or “poverty” are more prevalent in these outlets.

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