Most scientific studies — even those with remarkable findings — have long had their wider appeal dimmed by unremarkable titles. But as researchers — who mostly err on the side of cautious understatement — grow more alarmed by worsening climate change impacts including heatwaves, droughts and melting ice, an unfamiliar piece of punctuation is creeping into their work: the exclamation mark.
“SOS! Summer of smoke” reads the title of one study referenced in a flagship series of reports by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released this year. Another trumpets, “Too hot to help!”. Climate protesters have long deployed the punctuation on banners urging “Climate Action Now!” or warning “There is no planet B!”.
Activists hope that exclamation marks, by stirring visceral feelings to match scientific findings about the deteriorating state of the planet, can spur greater efforts to cut the greenhouse gas emissions heating it up.
“It’s about emotions this affects all our lives,” said Nuala Gathercole Lam, a spokeswoman for the Extinction Rebellion (XR) activist group in Britain. But, she warned, “exclamation marks can seem like over-labouring” an already-clear message.
XR’s global website starts with the sober sentence: “This is an emergency”, followed by a lower section urging “Act Now!”.
Some researchers say the appearance of the exclamation point in scientific work reflects growing concern about rising temperatures among the wider public.
Adeniyi Asiyanbi, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, wrote a report cited by the IPCC entitled: “‘I don’t get this climate stuff!’ Making sense of climate change among the corporate middle class in Lagos”.
He drew the emphatic punctuation from a Nigerian businessman he spoke to, who expressed frustration that climate solutions are hard to understand. “I wont be surprised if more exclamation is being used … deliberately to create a sense of urgency and a sense of fear too,” said Asiyanbi.
“I personally have my reservations about (doing it) — but that’s what I see around increasingly now,” he added in emailed comments.
The IPCC’s February report on adapting to the impacts of climate change refers to more than a dozen studies that include an exclamation mark in the headline, up from just four in the previous albeit shorter — IPCC science assessment in 2014.
The IPCC, whose findings must be approved by all governments ranging from oil-producing OPEC nations to climate-vulnerable Pacific island states, has no specific guidance to authors on using exclamation marks, said spokesman Andrej Mahecic. As a rule, IPCC reports avoid using “!”, except when citing titles of other scientific studies. But a single exclamation mark slipped into Chapter 2 of the February IPCC report in the sentence: “Hotter temperatures also increase mosquito bite rate, parasite development, and viral replication!”.
Editors spotted the rogue “!” and it will be deleted in the final version, said Camille Parmesan, a coordinating lead author of the chapter who is affiliated with Frances National Centre for Scientific Research, the University of Plymouth and the University of Texas at Austin. “No, generally exclamation marks are not used in IPCC (!!!!!),” she wrote in an email interview.