State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Simplifying the Language of the Climate Crisis

The following is an excerpt from a Sustain What blog post. 

There are no magic bullets in climate and clean-energy communication, in part because there is no single problem or solution. As I’ve been saying, the “complexity monster’“ is as much of an impediment to action as, say, fossil fuel companies.

screenshot from andy revkin powerpoint slides


But there are practices and tools that can help folks avoid pitfalls.

Here’s one fun example, along with some additional resources.

Today, thanks to a Twitter conversation sparked by my friend Randy Olson (@abtagenda, a “scientist-turned-filmmaker propagating ‘Narrative Culture’), I discovered the Up-Goer Five Text Editor.

list of simple words
Some of the ten hundred most common English words

This is an engaging writing platform and exercise that restricts the user to the “ten hundred” words most commonly used in English. (“Thousand” isn’t in that list, which is why the name and protocol are a bit stilted.)

Here’s the Up-Goer provocation you see when you visit the site:


The platform was developed by Theo Sanderson, a young scientist at the Francis Crick Institute working in an arena full of jargon — the genetics of pathogens like SARS-CoV-2 and malaria parasites. Maybe it’s working in a field brimming with complexity that inspired his passion for concision.

I broke away from my reporting on the latest jargon-filled report from the IPCC and tried out the tool as a way to describe human-driven climate change.

I immediately got a series of pop-up red alerts when I used words like pollution, energy, warming, fuel, atmosphere that aren’t in the list of ten hundred most common words.

Here’s what I came up with:

For many years, people have been adding stuff to the air that holds in the sun’s power. This is making the world hotter. And that change is making it harder to grow food, have enough water and keep all people and other life safe. Most of the stuff added to the air comes from burning things that help us move around, work, build cities, stay warm or cool. We must find ways to live well without burning things. There’s work for everyone to do to get this done!

But I realized that wasn’t very engaging.

So I paused and recalled Randy’s ABT framework (short for “and, but, therefore”) that helps you hone the habit of building narrative pull into your writing, talks, films and the rest. The most basic point? Any time you see an “and” in a sentence, try substituting a “but” or “therefore.” I’ve been writing about, and promoting, Randy’s work since, gulp, 2009. You can explore my coverage at the bottom of the post.

Here’s my second try using the Up-Goer tool with Randy’s structural tips.

For hundreds of years, people have been burning stuff, making power that helps us move around, make things, build cities, stay warm or cool. But all that burning has added things to the air that hold in the sun’s power, making the world hotter. That change is making it harder to grow food, have enough water and keep all people and other life safe. To continue to live well, we must find ways to get and use power without burning things. There’s work for everyone to do to get this done!

Clearly there’s more work to be done here of course, but hopefully you agree this takes us in the direction of clarity for people who are not already tuned in. Randy predicts that CHATGPT-4 and successors may well help do even better.

Read the rest of the story — and share your own sustainability-related Up-Goer attempts — on the Sustain What blog.

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