Fearing Climate Change: the Fact and the Phrase

Candice Gaukel Andrews March 24, 2015 14

Due to rapid climate change, many coastal places are at risk, but Florida is one of the most vulnerable. ©John H. Gaukel

Words are my business; I’m intrigued by them and the power they have. As an environmental writer, I am particularly interested in the terms we have to describe the natural world: is a particular landscape “inspiring,” or is it more of a “stirring” place?

While the daily challenges I face of which expression to use may seem insignificant to you, the power of word choice becomes more clear when we look at how our selections can alter our feelings about different species of wildlife or when a lack of certain words determines how our children learn about the wide world around them.

Earlier this month, Florida shined a spotlight on the power of words when it was reported that the state banned the use of the phrase “climate change” in official statements and publications.

Were the headlines and public attention the reported action garnered justified? Should we worry if “climate change” is removed from our lexicon regarding the environment?

Word wars

During WWII, “Victory Gardens” were encouraged. ©Morley, U.S. Government Printing Office

Governments, local and federal, have a long history of promoting certain word choices to further their agendas. In World War II, for example, the American public was urged to plant vegetable, fruit and herb gardens to reduce pressure on the food supply. These “Victory Gardens,” as they were termed, were also considered to be a morale booster since their very names made gardeners feel that they, too, were directly contributing to winning the war.

It could be said that Florida is on the front lines of climate change. The state stands much to lose if sea levels rise. So restricting discussing the issue—and it would be tough to tackle if you can’t even use the term “climate change”—seems to be a denial of reality.

Some say it could be even more sinister than that: the constraint could be seen as a political weapon for social control. The governor of Florida, Rick Scott (R), has often stated how he does not believe reports of climate change are substantiated. Florida Senator Marco Rubio (R) has said that he doesn’t believe human activity is causing these dramatic alterations to our climate. And former Florida governor and Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush called himself a global warming “skeptic” in 2009.

Obviously, these politicians know that language guides our thoughts.

Already in Florida, more than half the state’s 825 miles of sandy beaches are eroding. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Thought obstructions

It is important to note that officially the governor of Florida has said that there was never a written policy about banning the term “climate change.” Most of those employed by the state agree, however, that the workplace culture discouraged using terms that didn’t fall in line with the administration’s political biases.

In the end, we may never know for sure if there ever was a ban in Florida on the use of the words “climate change.” But the recent headlines over the possibility makes me wonder if we are all too wedded to our own political leanings to see the environment through a clear lens that filters out such ideologies. We desperately need that unclouded view, since only eight states have congressional delegations without members who deny climate change. This, despite the fact that up to 97 percent of relevant scientific studies show agreement on current rapid climate change and its human-caused component.

Do you think that the alleged ban on the term “climate change” in Florida’s government communications has the potential to keep the state’s residents from taking the threat seriously?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

14 Comments »

  1. Arthur Black March 30, 2015 at 9:37 pm - Reply

    I found the recently released movie “Merchants of Doubt” to be very useful for understanding how words can be used to delay and manipulate scientific reality. The movie looked at how the tactic of doubt was used to delay the public understanding of the risk of tobacco for 50 years. And how climate deniers are now using the same tactics. But unfortunately our planet does not have the luxury of another 50 years of denial.

  2. Brian Putman March 28, 2015 at 6:12 pm - Reply

    I feel that one of the greatest obstacles to the issue for many is understanding just how small a change can have severe impacts. Sea surface temperature doesn’t have to change much to have drastic impacts and takes much longer to change than the public, and especially politician’s memories can handle. Florida is also certainly at the forefront of the issue with both sea level rise being an ever present concern.

  3. John McKay March 28, 2015 at 4:05 am - Reply

    Who will buy property in a state with a sinking shoreline?

  4. Dianne Herrin March 27, 2015 at 2:31 am - Reply

    The state employees should have used the words “global warming” instead. And yes, language is critically important and very powerful. When government “leaders’ deny climate change, it becomes easy for others to do the same. We are wasting time that we don’t have.

  5. David Hammant March 26, 2015 at 8:43 am - Reply

    There is a problem. We appoint (usually inappropriate) people for short periods of political office and expect them to have the foresight and courage to deal with a long term problem.

    The short – termism of politics and business is not equipped to deal with the realities of changes over potentially hundreds of years. So most people in these positions do what comes naturally – ignore it and sweep it under the carpet. It does not, for them, exist.

  6. Angela P. Schapiro March 26, 2015 at 8:42 am - Reply

    The last time I was in Nantucket, a few years ago, they were saying that within 400 years the island will have completely disappeared! Looking at the coastline and all the houses that were teetering on the brink, I thought that 400 years was optimistic.

  7. Ramakrishna Venkatasamy March 26, 2015 at 8:41 am - Reply

    Short term thinking, short term gains, log term losses. Denial has become an ingrained culture in that minority after short term gains, disregarding the majority that stands to lose, not forgetting the planet that we depend on itself.

  8. Brian Magee March 25, 2015 at 6:32 pm - Reply

    I agree very strongly like you, Thomas, with what this article has been stating. That trying to change terminology of a issue does not stop its importance. The governor of Florida is making a big mistake in thinking that banishing climate change will stop people from seeing it happening, especially in his state. With scientists stating that within the next hundred years to come we will be seeing rising sea levels. There is also the addition of growing temperatures due to large carbon emissions. I strongly hope that with the scientists and politicians in the state of Florida who strongly believe in climate change there can be hope in making the people of Florida, especially republicans, come to realize how serious this issue is before it’s too late.

  9. Bruce D. Eilerts March 25, 2015 at 6:28 pm - Reply

    Well, that makes it all better. Denial seems to have become a true, unrecognized mental illness.

  10. Bill Shadel March 25, 2015 at 10:27 am - Reply

    It could be helpful. The term has, unfortunately, become so polarizing that it can get in the way of progress on the issue. In NJ, our Governor won’t acknowledge it, but sure as heck is concerned coastal resiliency and doing many of the same things one would do for CC-related issues such as accelerated sea-level rise.

  11. Thomas Sawyer March 25, 2015 at 10:26 am - Reply

    Interesting: if Florida does not fear or acknowledge climate change at any geographical location (including Florida), why would they fear the term, the idea, the notion, or even the concept of climate change? Fear of being wrong? Simply banning such a term will not by any means, discourage the American public from pursuing their own perspectives and opinions regarding the subject. One would instead hope however, that elected officials would encourage ideas surrounding critical thinking about this or any other environmental matter, and encourage people to actively participate in reducing the threats of climate change, whether they believe it or not. I wonder if there are any “Superfund” sites in Florida……….if so, perhaps they should ban this concept as well.

  12. Richard Budd March 24, 2015 at 2:21 pm - Reply

    If true then yes, preventing discussion of climate change in official documents will have an effect on public opinion; but is it true?

  13. John Daly March 24, 2015 at 12:33 pm - Reply

    Let’s just say, “Catastrophic Worldwide ‘Man-Made’ Evolution”.

    Do you think Florida and Mr. Cruz would go for that?

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