We have a communications problem.

Next month people from all over the world will attend The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-24) in Katowice, Poland. In addition to heads of state and United Nations agencies, there will be representatives from local and national governments, business leaders environmentalists, scientists, activists and community leaders.

Critically important conversations will take place, including trying to convince government leaders to stay engaged in the Paris agreement and identifying new ways to get more people to “step up” the fight against climate change. 

However, in all of this, we have so far failed to address a fundamental challenge with the general public.  Those of us who work in sustainability – whether in policy, sciences or practical applications, like renewable energy and agriculture – too often fail to communicate exactly how people can join the fight. We talk about carbon neutrality,  greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration and many people have no idea what we are talking about, much less why they should care and what they can do about it. 

And yet, rather than explain that, we stick to jargon, which has the effect of making the speaker seem smart and the listener seem…not so smart. Philosopher Theodor W. Ardorno wrote that jargon sounds as if it says something higher than what it really means. If we really want global climate action like we say we do, then we need to drop the jargon when addressing the public and speak plainly.

Our inability to communicate – effectively and with accessibility – may be what’s making it difficult to gather allies more quickly – and to get to the next level of participation from the public. And that needs to change.

Take “carbon sequestration.”  It’s a term that I’m willing to wager not many outside the sustainability community are familiar with.  But, it refers to an important concept, a function of the natural world that can help us fight climate change by reducing the amount of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  It’s a way to work with nature, rather than against it, to fix a major problem that we face.

And speaking plainly, human beings make a lot of carbon dioxide gas.  Our cars, machinery and power plants that burn fossil fuels – like oil, coal and natural gas – produce carbon dioxide.  Cutting down forests further increases carbon dioxide levels.  What carbon sequestration means is really simple: it’s a way to help the earth absorb and hold carbon dioxide, the main cause of climate change. 

There are several ways to do that. Soils contain approximately 75% of the carbon on land. Plants absorb carbon and convert some of it to oxygen, returning it to the atmosphere.  But, most of the carbon remains in the plants themselves, which are then consumed by animals or added to the soil when the plants die and decompose. Soil holds most of this carbon as a mixture of decomposing plants and animals, microbes, and soil minerals.

Carbon can remain stored in soils for millennia or be quickly released back into the atmosphere – it all depends on how healthy the soil is and how well it is treated.  Here’s where farming practices that promote soil health and natural vegetation and which reduce erosion play an essential role in increasing the amount of carbon soil absorbs from the atmosphere. We have a key solution to climate change at the tip of our tongues – and our shovels.

Now, rather than continuing to use jargon, can we start to explain to people how to keep carbon in the ground, where it belongs? Can we start to make a concerted effort to use language that increases understanding rather than confusion? It’s time to work harder on speaking plainly, because with clarity and awareness comes action. And isn’t that what we want?