A Translation Problem

The world’s leading scientists released their latest report yesterday warning that Earth is on course for serious damage from climate change. But many Americans may have a hard time understanding the report because the analysis, like previous ones, talks about temperatures exclusively in degrees Celsius.

The United States is one of the few countries that still uses Fahrenheit temperatures. And while Americans are a relatively small audience on a global scale, they are important to climate science: Historically, the US has emitted more planet-warming greenhouse gases than any other country. Improving Americans’ understanding of the problem could be crucial to driving any change.

Why is it important to exclude Fahrenheit? Most Americans lack their own life experiences to make sense of scientists’ warnings that the Earth could warm up to 1.5 degrees Celsius above acceptable levels. To them, it’s a small, meaningless number.

By translating that figure into its Fahrenheit equivalent, 2.7 degrees, you can gain a clearer meaning. Katharine Hayhoe, a climatologist, uses the analogy of a fever: She thinks about the worst you feel when you have a fever of 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit, 2.7 degrees above normal. That fever is the equivalent of what the planet is facing.

Most Americans can grasp that analogy because it speaks to their own experiences. They can’t do that with Celsius. “It is absolutely essential to communicate in terms and language that people understand,” said Hayhoe, who is from Canada, who uses Celsius.

The exclusion of Fahrenheit in scientific reports is not the main obstacle to more action on climate change. Broader scientific denial and the world’s reliance on fossil fuels are much bigger barriers. But including Fahrenheit figures is a small change, a matter of plugging some numbers into a calculator, which could help generate more action.

Today’s bulletin will look at the new climate report and how close, or not, the world is to avoiding the worst consequences.

The new analysis, a synthesis of six previous reports from the United Nations climate group, paints a mixed picture of the global fight against climate change. Here are three takeaways:

1) The world is on track to exceed a significant level of warming. The world is likely to reach what scientists consider relatively safe levels of warming — 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial temperatures — by the early 2030s, the report warns. Countries could still take steps to avoid that, cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and stopping adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by the 2050s. But the measures required are so extreme that they seem increasingly most unlikely, say many experts.

2) On the current path, prepare for more disasters. Continued warming will mean more catastrophic floods, deadly heat waves, crop-destroying droughts, and other extreme weather conditions. Some of those effects are already visible. Last year, unprecedented heat waves hit much of the world, including the US and Europe, with floods engulfing a third of Pakistan.

3) The world has made some real progress. In the past, climate reports have warned that warming could exceed four degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by the year 2100. Today, Earth is on a trajectory of around two to three degrees Celsius (3.6 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit), thanks to the absorption of cleaner energy and projections that coal use will decline. That difference of a few degrees can, like a fever, prevent more catastrophic events. And as my colleague Somini Sengupta pointed out, moving away from fossil fuels is the fastest way to stop global warming.

Despite some progress, the world is still on the path to dealing with the devastating results of climate change. To avoid the worst, scientists are calling for a massive effort that will require the world’s richest and most powerful countries to work together.

Getting as much of the world on board requires communicating the problem in a way that everyone can understand. Excluding the temperature measurement used by the US and some other nations makes that mission difficult. Offering different versions of reports with Celsius and Fahrenheit could help address that issue, or scientists and the media could translate Celsius-centric reports to Fahrenheit in their own work.

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