March 22, 2023

Yesterday’s NY Time’s Morning feed addressed how scientists talk about climate change.  The latest United Nation’s report warned the Earth is on pace for severe climate change damage, but Americans may have a hard time understanding the report because the analysis talks about temperature shifts exclusively in degrees Celsius.  The US is among a few countries that still use a Fahrenheit scale.  Americans are a small global audience, but the US has historically emitted more greenhouse gases than any other country.  Improving Americans’ understanding could be crucial to any push for change.  For most Americans, scientists’ warning the Earth could warm by 1.5 C is a meaningless number.  When expressed as a 2.7 F equivalent it becomes clearer.  If your body temperature is raised 2.7 degrees you are running a fever, and that is an understandable analogy.  Exclusion of Fahrenheit in reports is not the main obstacle to more action on climate change, but including Fahrenheit figures could help push more action.

When I looked online, I found Celsius and Kelvin are the temperature scales used in the International System of Units.  The Celsius scale is named after the Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius (1701–1744) who developed a similar temperature scale in 1742.  This was called centigrade scale until being renamed in 1948 to honor Anders.  Centigrade comes from the Latin centum (100) and gradus (steps), and these 100 gradations are between water freezing (0 C) and boiling (100 C).  Fahrenheit scale is based on a proposal in 1724 by Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit (1686–1736).  Fahrenheit’s paper suggests the lower defining point (0 F) was established as the freezing temperature of a solution of brine made from a mixture of water, ice, and salt.  For much of the 20th century, the Fahrenheit scale was defined by two fixed points, the temperature at which pure water freezes (32 F) and its boiling point (212 F).  While most countries use the Celsius scale, Fahrenheit is used in the US, some island territories, and Liberia.  The Kelvin scale is used in the sciences, with 0 K (−273.15 C) representing absolute zero, or the point when everything freezes.

A new synthesis of six previous reports by the United Nations’ climate group presents a mixed picture of the world’s climate change.  The world will likely hit what is considered safe levels of warming (1.5 C or 2.7 F) by the early 2030’s.  At the current rate, this means catastrophic flooding, deadly heat waves, crop-destroying droughts, and extreme weather.  The world has made progress.  Past climate reports warned that warming could surpass 4 C (7.2 F) by 2100 but we are now on a path toward 2 to 3 C (3.6 to 5.4 F).  This revision is based on increased use of cleaner energy and projections that coal use will continue to decline.  Despite progress, the world is still set to confront destructive change and scientists are calling for a massive effort from the world’s most powerful and richest countries.  This effort will require communicating the problem in a way relevant to all and excluding the temperature scale used by the US and some others hinders that mission.

THOUGHTS:  Language proficiency scales are indicators of how well you speak a language.  These scales provide a standardized measure of fluency as basic, conversational, business, and fluent.  We have all been baffled by instructions for the new product we are putting together and been stymied by the obvious mistranslation provided.  This is true with the English translation I receive and no doubt for the Spanish or Chinese translations read by others.  This also happens in conversation.  If you do not speak in a way relevant to another, they will not pay attention.  Talking past others with eloquent words or deep thoughts may indicate your scale of proficiency, but it is useless if they do not listen.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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