Public Comment

The Climate Crisis: Language Is Our Weapon

Harry Brill
Thursday September 07, 2017 - 02:25:00 PM

Except for Amy Goodman's progressive radio and TV program, Democracy Now, the TV news programs have resisted linking the flooding in Houston to climate change. Despite the increase in frequency and intensity of climate related disasters, the fossil fuel industry continues to insist that climate change is a fiction. This is extraordinary since almost all scientists have concluded otherwise. 

In a recent interview on the Amy Goodman program with George Monbiot, who is an expert on climate issues and a Guardian columnist, he claims that unless our current system is replaced with a better one, it will destroy us. ExxonMobil, have been pouring millions of dollars into paying "professional liars" to deny that climate change is occurring. Yet the climate related disasters are happening worldwide. In the United States, Houston has experienced its third flood in the past three years. The hurricane in Houston has cost so far 63 lives, demolished about 40,000 homes, and destroyed in this automobile dependent city 1 million cars. 

The linguist George Lakoff in his scholarly books has made a convincing case that to effectively address political issues we need to pay careful attention to the role of language. For we do not only learn a language to express ourselves. Also, the words we learn impact on how we think and act. Words are weapons. The oil industry understands this, and so does big business generally. We need to make sure that we understand that too. 

Monbiot argues that we must replace the phrase "climate change" with a term that would better describe what is occurring. "Climate change", he explains, is a bland term to describe the causes of these crisis, which have enormous impact on our lives. "Climate change" could be a good thing, a bad thing, or a neutral thing. We sometimes like climate change when winter gives way to spring. Calling it a "climate crisis", for example, would be a better phrase because it comes closer to reflecting what we are worried about. 

Indeed, we need to develop a vocabulary to counter the extraordinary misrepresentations by our opponents. For example, they freely describe what they dislike as the work of terrorists. The Heartland Institute, which is funded by the fossil fuel industry, including Koch industries and ExxonMobil, actually published an ad comparing climate change believers to terrorists. Clearly, the term terrorist has been so overused by private enterprise and government as well that it has become meaningless. However, that portrayal can be dangerous not only to those they accuse. This accusation can discourage many Americans from acting in their own interest. 

Language certainly matters, which was well understood by the Native-Americans in North Dakota, who attempted to stop the construction of a pipeline. They asked the press to call them "water protectors" rather than "protesters". For protesters can have a negative connotation among some members of the public, such as implying that their demands are unreasonable. At best, it doesn't tell us very much. Characterizing the Native American strugglers as "water protectors" is positive and more explicit. It reflects their major concern that a leak in the pipe, which often happens in pipelines, could contaminate the water. "Water Protectors" gives the public a good clue about why the Native Americans are opposed to the pipe's construction. But since the press sided with the fossil fuel industry their request was for the most part ignored. 

Clearly, in our attempts to build a moral and just society, the language issue is immensely important. 

With regard to characterizing the fossil fuel corporations, calling their claims "deceptive" is accurate and revealing. About the rise in sea level, it is one thing to believe that the corporations didn't realize what was ahead. It is quite another to claim these companies were deceptive. There is plenty of evidence to suggest the latter. That is why two Bay Area counties, Marin and San Mateo, are suing 37 fossil fuel companies. The suit claims these companies knew for nearly a half century that unrestricted production and use of their fossil fuel produces gas pollution that warms the planet and changes our climate. Instead of acknowledging their responsibility, they launched a multimillion dollar lobbying campaign to discredit the scientific evidence about climate change. Along with these Bay Area counties, we also should do what we can, including direct action, to discredit these companies for "their deception" and "inhumane conduct". 

Generally speaking, carefully selecting a vocabulary that most appropriately addresses the problems created by our adversaries is essential to developing a winning strategy.