Global Warming Deniers and the English Language

[In his famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote: “The English language … becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” He warns that “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The importance of language and rhetoric is a subject near to my heart (see Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 2: Why deniers out-debate “smart talkers” and Part 1.]

Washington, D.C., is to the English language what Paris is to fashion. Every season, perfectly good words go out of style and new ones are trotted out on the national runway of rhetoric. Some words are considered so worn out, politically incorrect or laden with baggage that they can no longer be used in public discourse. When that happens, people like me find ourselves scrambling for suitable synonyms.

That was the case a few years ago with “sustainable development.” I operated the Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development at the U.S. Department of Energy, helping communities understand and apply the practice. Before long, signals came down from Capitol Hill that the words “sustainable development” had become the kiss of death for any program that used them. The term “smart growth” was invented to take “sustainability’s” place.

More recently, Congress has avoided using the word “climate” in legislation that clearly is meant in part to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions — legislation such as the “Energy Security and Independence Act of 2007”. The Bush people call torture “enhanced interrogation” and call kidnapping “rendition.” Healthy Forests and Clear Skies became the titles of the Bush Administration’s programs to cut trees and pollute the air, respectively.

Our elected leaders aren’t alone in manipulating the English language. Lobbyists and extremists, Left and Right, regularly play the game, too, to obscure facts, incite emotions, insult opponents or get attention from the media, where conflict is red meat.

Coal executives try to persuade us there’s such a thing as “clean coal” and oil executives talk about “energy independence” when they really mean more drilling. In 2003, Orwell prot©g© Frank Luntz counseled in a confidential memo that the Administration and conservatives should stop using the term “global warming” because it was too frightening. Luntz suggested that Republicans refer to themselves as “conservationists” rather than “environmentalists,” since the latter term, in Luntz’s view, is associated with tree-hugging and extremism.

Today, global warming is considered poor wording by some climate-action advocates because people snowbound in their homes by record blizzards and frigid temperatures conclude that “warming” must be a myth. “Global weirding” — a substitute attributed to Paul Hawken — now is embraced by Tom Friedman of the New York Times, among others.

Last June, Fox News posted a column by Steven Milloy, a self-described “junk science expert” at the American Enterprise Institute who warned conservatives not to use the term “denier” in regard to global weirding. Malloy praised a prior “must-read” column in which Charles Krauthammer compared environmentalists to communists and socialists and said they are preparing “canonical legislation that will tell you how much you can travel, what kind of light you will read by, and at what temperature you may set your bedroom thermostat.” [See “Krauthammer, Part 2: The real reason conservatives don’t believe in climate science“]

That was good stuff, Milloy declared, but he didn’t like another passage in which Krauthammer described himself as a global warming “agnostic” rather than a “believer” or a “denier”. Wrote Milloy:

The term “denier” is the environmentalists’ preferred means of tar-and-feathering anyone who dares question climate alarmism — a key tactic in their effort to dupe the nation into consuming the green Kool-Aid.

With that scolding, I have no doubt that deniers everywhere have deleted the word from their dictionaries and burned all the books in which it appears.

What inspires my rant right now is Lake Superior University, which so far as I know is not a hotbed of extremism. It has just published its annual “List of Words to Be Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-Use, Over-use and General Uselessness“. The school identified 15 such words based on a survey of 5,000 people. Most of the nominations were in the environmental category, including “green” and “carbon footprint”, which the university recommends be erased from our vocabulary.

One of the respondents, Ed Haridman of Bristow, Va., explained his vote this way: “If I see one more corporation declare itself ‘green,’ I’m going to start burning tires in my backyard.” Of course, without a reason to be “green”, some corporations would save Mr. Haridman the trouble and burn tires in his backyard without him even asking.

I have a couple of problems with all of this fickle fashion in the environmental lexicon.

First, a question for Lake Superior University: Who speaks the “Queens English” anymore, outside of England? Let’s ban that term.

Second, who cares what we call climate change, climate footprints, or all things green? Climate change is climate change by any other name. Likewise for green, sustainable development and deniers.

Third, why are these “thought leaders” focusing their attention on words rather than the issues behind the words? Shouldn’t we spend more time figuring out how to solve the climate problem than on what we’ll call it?

Fourth, why do some words hold such terror for our leaders? I have never seen so many powerful people so afraid of a three-letter word as they are of “tax”. The record indicates that another three-letter word they should fear more — “war” — is more likely to get their votes than a “tax”. In fact, Congress lately has been unwilling to consider a “tax” even although it’s needed to pay for two “wars”. One result can be summed up by two other three-letter words: “red” and “ink”.

Never mind that leading economists regard a carbon tax as the simplest and quickest way to start making progress against greenhouse gas emissions. Very few members of Congress will let the t-word pass their lips. Instead, they have spent their time designing a cap-and-trade system so complex and riddled with loopholes, safety valves, off-ramps, allowance allocations and other devices that nobody can understand it, which may be the point. If there is any surprise here, it’s that our national leaders haven’t invented a new term for “tax.” Carbon Premium, Sustainability Surcharge, Posterity Tariff and Mitigation Duty all come to mind.

Fifth, don’t proponents of responsible climate action realized that opponents will accuse them of raising taxes no matter what they do? When the Lieberman-Warner carbon trading bill advanced in the Senate last year, opponents in the conservative chattering class called it the “largest tax increase in history” even though it contained no new tax.

Finally, why are “deniers” so good at doublespeak while “environmentalists” are so bad? Is it that most environmentalists, who are sensitive and principled by definition, believe that not all things are fair in love and war and politics? If so, it puts them at a huge disadvantage.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a former journalist. Words are important. But when they become a diversion from the real issues at hand, or a way to obscure those issues, or a tool of polarization, or a way to get attention in media bored by dignified public discussion, then shame on the wordsmiths and shame on us for paying attention to them. Oh, and shame on the media for adopting the doublespeak the doublespeakers purvey.

Let’s just have an honest conversation. That’s one use of words we should never let go out of style.

— Bill Becker

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13 Responses to Global Warming Deniers and the English Language

  1. Anthony says:

    Ah, is that why the deniers now call themselves climate realists? If all those who believe AGW is real are alarmists, what am I? I believe we are on the cusp of too late.

  2. Why? ..Because deniers are really heckler zealots and we give them far to much consideration. They divert energy with their interrupting babble, and it is time to just say “You are crazy and not helping – go away” And not more than that.

    When it comes to hecklers, I prefer the far more entertaining style of George Carlin:

  3. Tim F says:

    George Carlin had good insights on other issues as well:

  4. High Test says:

    Why are “deniers” so good at doublespeak while “environmentalists” are so bad?

    It could also be because environmentalists have a scientific bent, and may even be scientists, so words have solid, agreed-upon, definable meanings, like temperature, carbon, glacier, etc. “Global warming” means “global warming.”
    “Climate change” means the climate is changing.

  5. Dano says:

    Tim F, Carlin was wonderful, but your link is full of false premises.



  6. Rick says:

    just when I was starting to enjoy Carlin’s bit on saving the planet – out comes all the potty language. I guess that was his thing. Too bad.

  7. paulm says:

    looks like he’s going to make it!

  8. Great article, but the T-shirt image blows it badly. The joke goes

    “2 + 2 = 5, for sufficiently large values of 2′

    which is funny to people who had a certain type of teacher in calculus class.

    More seriously, thanks again for this article. It is important to keep the focus on who the deniers are and what they are doing, in order to get the public discussion on track with the facts.

  9. bemclau says:

    Why DO conservatives instinctivly abhor science? It is fear of proving away religion? Is it their paymasters in the coal bidness? And why do they embrace nookular science while denying climate trends? I just dont get it. They are so beyond lame it is laughable except that they get their audience. I mean “650 dissenting scientists is more than 12 times the UN scientists” WTF is that? Is 12 the magic mutiplier of truth? The argument is instantly refuted by my 9 year old.

    I just don’t get it.

  10. Bob Wallace says:

    bemclau –

    I don’t think there’s a single answer as there a multiple groups within the conservative tent.

    There are the religious conservatives who experience conflict between scientific discoveries and their traditional religious beliefs. It goes back at least the the flat earth concept, God stopping the sun in the sky so that the Israelites could whoop up on their enemies, and continues through data that says that teaching only their views on sex does not stop the spread of aides or prevent unwanted pregnancies.

    There are corporate conservatives who oppose science because it points out the damage that they do to others in their quest for additional wealth.

    And there are the knuckle-dragger conservatives who have no idea why they oppose science, but do so because their talking-head mullahs tell them to do so.

  11. llewelly says:

    Why DO conservatives instinctivly abhor science? It is fear of proving away religion? Is it their paymasters in the coal bidness? And why do they embrace nookular science while denying climate trends?

    ‘conservatives’ do not abhor all science – only science that tells them they have made bad decisions, or conflicts with other pre-existing belief systems. In this they are much like other people, but a bit more extreme. And they like nookular science because it brought us the most destructive weapons so far deployed.

  12. bemclau says:

    llewelly & Bob,

    Goods points. Yes I lump conservatives together, they belong in the same stinking tent. The buisness types have convinced the churchies to begrudge a single mother some cash to buy food while cheerleading excessive executive pay. (trickle down) Business types needs votes…so they sing Onward Christian Soldiers and preach the gov’ment is all bad…except the Pentagon.

    But to the deeper question, science upsets their belief system. They refuse to accept the data, that input does not compute with them, blows up their program. So rather than changing the program, they just refuse the data. I will never forget my youth ‘minister’ (cough cough) telling me that my decision to be a physics major in college was a bad idea. Cuz my mind would get clouded with bad ideas. He was right in a sense, physics was a lousy major for me…but only because I got a D in Early Quantum theory! He was also right, physics can lead to Godlessness.

  13. Larry says:

    Don’t exude your refusal to succeed in a capitalist society on me. It does not take a village. Your village and it’s mob mentality will not save the planet. It takes an individual. Only the invention of a capitalist genius can solve the world’s energy crisis.

    AGW is grossly refutable. It relies on computer programmers and their assumptions about climate. Computer climate models belong in circus sideshows. Data collectors for the computer models are placed with frequent negligence, and the majority of them stopped reporting (especially in Russia) in the last 10 years.

    If your AGW religion ever reaches into my wallet, I will create an air passage between your eyes.