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Words Matter When Talking Global Warming: The ‘Good Anthropocene’ Debate

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"Words Matter When Talking Global Warming: The ‘Good Anthropocene’ Debate"

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We spend more of our waking hours communicating than perhaps any other single activity. And while the principles of effective writing and speaking have been understood for centuries if not millennia, they are largely ignored today — sometimes intentionally, as Orwell pointed out nearly seven decades ago.

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” George Orwell wrote in “Politics And The English Language” in 1946. “Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

Nowhere is that clearer than in the arena of climate politics and journalism — which often seems driven by the unproductive extremes of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “STAND BACK AND WATCH THE WORLD BURN.” Ultimately, they are both equally pessimistic, since they both push the premise that there is no chance the human race could actually embrace the kind of aggressive action needed to have a realistic chance of avoiding multiple catastrophes.

I am more optimistic, as I explained in my reply to Ezra Klein’s pessimism. I suppose if I had a motto, it might be: Do Worry, Take Action, THEN Be Happy.

I’ve been thinking about all this because I was on two recent science communications panels: a “Science & Policy Communications Workshop” this week for the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and a Communications Workshop at the American Meteorological Society (AMS) Summer Policy Colloquium last week. Everything I know on the subject can be found in my 2012 book, “Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln and Lady Gaga.”

For those who want the pithy version, start with the great 20th Century essayist, Orwell, in his greatest essay, “Politics And The English Language” — and the great 20th Century orator, Winston Churchill, in his essay metaphorically titled, “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric.”

George Orwell political speech

Orwell offers six simple rules for writing with clarity, “rules that one can rely on when instinct fails,” when you are “in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase”:

  • (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • (ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • (vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
  • What’s interesting is that in his essay, Churchill says some very similar things even though he is focused on oratory. “There is no more important element in the technique of rhetoric than the continual employment of the best possible word,” he argues. “Whatever part of speech it is it must in each case absolutely express the full meaning of the speaker. It will leave no room for alternatives.”

    So clarity is king, just as it is for Orwell. Churchill then takes on a very common myth about rhetoric:

    The unreflecting often imagine that the effects of oratory are produced by the use of long words…. The shorter words of a language are usually the more ancient. Their meaning is more ingrained in the national character and they appeal with greater force to simple understandings than words recently introduced from the Latin and the Greek. All the speeches of great English rhetoricians … display an uniform preference for short, homely words of common usage….

    Short words win. Jargon loses.

    In preparing for my AMS and AGU talks, I asked a senior legislative aide with over two decades of Hill experience for some advice. He told me that if scientists speak to a Legislative Assistant (L.A.) for a member on the climate issue, they “can’t assume the L.A. knows anything.” It would be a mistake, he said, to even use a phrase like “statistically significant”!

    Susan Joy Hassol, an expert in climate communication, made the same point in a 2010 post here — avoid jargon: “Words that seem perfectly common to scientists are still jargon to the wider world and always have simpler substitutes. Rather than anthropogenic, you could say human caused.”

    And this bring us to the latest dust-up over jargon and euphemism. The New York Times climate blog published a piece titled, “Exploring Academia’s Role in Charting Paths to a ‘Good’ Anthropocene.”

    I think it’s safe to say that both Orwell and Churchill would have gagged at “Anthropocene,” which, as perhaps 1% (0.1%?) of the U.S. population knows, means “an informal geologic chronological term that marks the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems.”

    Inside the tiny community of people who actually understand the term, there was widespread objection to the entire phrase, “Good Anthropocene.” Australian author, climate expert and Professor of Public Ethics Clive Hamilton wrote, “those who argue for the ‘good Anthropocene’ are unscientific and live in a fantasy world of their own construction.”

    I very much agree. Elizabeth Kolbert, one of the most thoughtful climate journalists, tweeted:


    The NY Times blogger (Andy Revkin) criticized Kolbert for having tweeted that without having watched the hour talk he gave, “Paths to a ‘Good’ Anthropocene” (video here).

    After she watched it, Kolbert emailed me:

    I don’t see the value in the “good Anthropocene” as a rhetorical construct, even if it’s well-intentioned. What we are doing to the planet, which is of course the reason geologists are considering renaming the epoch in which we live, is in no way good. A few years ago, Paul Crutzen told me that he hoped the word Anthropocene would serve as “a warning to the world.” I think part of the power of the term is that it resists modification.

    I’ve watched the video. In its own way, it is just as much a pessimistic, self-fulfilling prophecy as Ezra Klein’s “7 reasons America will fail on climate change.” We know what we need to do to avoid catastrophic warming — quickly embrace a series of policies (at a national and global level) including a carbon price that drive emissions down sharply decade after decade. The good news is that the world’s leading governments and scientists and energy experts have explained that this strategy is cheap (far cheaper than inaction), and that we have the technology to start ASAP. Oh, and deployment-driven innovation will keep providing new and better and cheaper technology.

    It is certainly a legitimate view to argue that the nation (and the world) aren’t up to that task, as Klein and Revkin do. But it is Orwellian to claim that making such an argument is optimistic and not self-fulfilling. That’s especially true if your recommended alternative is to basically give up (Klein) or to abandon quantitative targets and embrace personal growth and some R&D (Revkin).

    As Hamilton writes:

    The advocates of the “good Anthropocene” do not attempt to repudiate the mass of scientific evidence; instead they choose to reframe it. As you declare so disarmingly in your talk: “You can look at it and go ‘Oh my God’, or you can look at it and go ‘Wow, what an amazing time to be alive!’ I kind of choose the latter overall.”

    Talking of a “good Anthropocene” while proposing strategies that can’t possibly achieve it — and while repeatedly attacking those (including the National Academy of Sciences) who propose strategies that could — is the road to a very, very bad Anthropocene. In jargon-free terms, it is the road to Hell and High Water.

    The phrase “good Anthropocene” as some are using it, is a euphemism as Orwellian as “enhanced interrogation.” As Hamilton puts it:

    the “good Anthropocene” is a story about the world that could have been written by the powerful interests that have got us into this mess and who are fighting so effectively to prevent us from getting out of it. In the long term this kind of thinking will prove more insidious than climate science denial.

    The eco-pragmatists, as Hamilton calls them, never offer any set of specific proposals that any credible group of independent experts has said could possibly keeps us far from 7°F warming (the end of modern civilization as we know it) — let alone the unimaginable 10+°F. All they offer is the euphemism, hand-waving, and sheer cloudy vagueness Orwell warned about.

    Revkin tweets: “I trust those bridling at vision of a “good” #Anthropocene aren’t hoping for bad one. http://nyti.ms/1qdcd0F @CliveCHamilton @ElizKolbert.”

    Seriously. Hamilton and Kolbert have dedicated themselves to informing the public about the worst impacts — and how to avoid them. Kolbert’s terrific 2006 book, “Field Notes from a Catastrophe,” famously ends, “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”

    That kind of clarity is what we are missing from the current discussion. The climate debate isn’t about what people are “hoping for” — it is about the kind of future that we are choosing through our climate policy. So far we have chosen poorly.

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