A big hurdle in the effort to slow climate change is climate jargon. Many people don’t fully understand the complex language surrounding climate action, making it more difficult for them to relate to and take action on climate issues. Fortunately, science communication organizations like the Climate Literacy Project are helping to bridge this gap, but in the meantime, we’ve got common definitions of climate terms to help everyone understand what’s being discussed at COP26 and in other climate change conversations.
The IPCC defines mitigation as “a human intervention to reduce emissions or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases.” In everyday language, this means taking action to stop climate change from getting worse. For example, phasing out fossil fuels immediately will mitigate future emissions and further warming.
Adaptation refers to taking action to live with the effects of climate change. For humans, this largely means infrastructure adjustments like seawalls, tree planting to cool urban areas, and limiting construction near coastlines. The natural world is adapting to climate change, too. Research has found that some corals are evolving to favor algae with higher temperature thresholds to prevent bleaching and sockeye salmon are migrating earlier and earlier each year to avoid warming river temperatures.
Carbon dioxide removal or capture
This refers to removing carbon from the atmosphere, which is done to try and mitigate warming from already-emitted carbon. These can take the form of natural systems, like tree planting, or machine systems, like capturing carbon to make other human goods.
Carbon neutral or “net zero carbon emissions” is defined by the IPCC as being “achieved when anthropogenic CO2 emissions are balanced globally by anthropogenic carbon dioxide removals over a specified period.” This means companies, governments, or individuals are either emitting no carbon, or, more commonly, using carbon offset projects, like carbon capture, to zero out their emissions with an equal amount of captured emissions.
You’ve likely heard the term tipping point when discussing melting ice sheets. This term refers to the point at which it is too late to stop the effects of climate change. This could occur (or already has according to some scientists) because planetary warming is a positive feedback loop, meaning the more the earth warms, the more quickly it will continue to do so. This effect can be seen in melting ice sheets because as ice melts and becomes water, it no longer reflects as much sunlight, meaning it absorbs even more heat, leading to further warming.
This term will likely be heard a lot at COP26, and refers to taking action on climate change at a scale we have not previously done so. The global consensus to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius in accordance with the Paris Accord was seen as unprecedented action on climate change, although many of those commitments have not become reality yet. In the future, this will look like getting the power grid to 100 percent renewable energy or phasing out the sale of gas-powered vehicles.
Many books could be (and have been) written on what sustainable development means, but in broad terms, it refers to living in a way that offers a high standard of living for current and future populations without sacrificing a habitable planet.
In reference to climate change, abrupt change means a large-scale change that takes place over just a few decades. Mass coral bleaching and wildfires in areas of the American West which were once too wet to burn are both examples of abrupt changes.