Time to Say Goodbye to ‘Climate Change’

May 7th, 2019 - by Andrew Kimbrell / The Daily Kos

No place left to go/ (Photo: National Geographic)

(February 25, 2019) — Imagine the scene: Around 1980, the top environmental groups in the US raise significant funds to hire Hill & Knowlton, the most renowned public relations firm at the time. The job: to come up with a name for the recently understood phenomena that could end life on Earth as we know it.

These environmentalists were alarmed by a recent National Academy of Science (NAS) Report that explained how carbon dioxide and other gases could threaten the biochemistry of the planet. They’re looking to the PR pros for a term that will cause immediate and massive public alarm, and usher in a complete transformation of the country’s energy grid and transportation system.

With a sizeable fee now in hand, the top guns at the PR firm promise they will come up with “the” term that will send the entire population in unison, and in a frenzy of concern, to Washington to demand action. They say they will need two months.

Exactly two months later the representatives of the activist groups, taut with anticipation, sit in the high ceiling Board Room. Before them is a super-size easel covered with a cloth. The head of the agency walks in with his minions. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he says, “this has not been easy but we think we have the magic words that will save the planet.” The cloth is whisked away and there are two words in large caps “CLIMATE CHANGE.”

There is a pause . . . stunned silence . . . then an immediate uproar among the environmental leaders: “Climate Change, that’s not at all scary!” “That’s terrible it’s just another way of saying a change in the weather.” “Yeah, like there is a cold front coming.” “Is this some kind of joke?” “You guys are just ripping us off.” They storm out of the Boardroom shaking their fists and warning the agency they will sue.

Well, environmentalists and everyone else should be as mad as those earlier imaginary leaders. Never has a threat to humanity been dubbed with a more innocuous, even pleasant-sounding moniker. We have had “the Plague,” “acid rain,” and have future fears about “Nuclear Holocaust” “Bioengineered Pandemics,” “Asteroid/Earth Collision” “Artificial Intelligence Takeover” . . . and then there is “Climate Change”?

So how did we actually arrive at the anemic term Climate Change? Well, it turns out it was a public relations coup, but not one on behalf of concerned environmentalists. Rather it was the work of a renowned Republican public opinion guru, Frank Luntz. During the early years of the George W. Bush Administration, he wanted to quell public alarm about global warming because it was hurting his party’s electoral chances.

Luntz was a polling expert, and he knew that the term “global warming” — the most commonly used term at that time — resonated powerfully with the public triggering personal fears of a looming catastrophe and images of polar ice melting and extreme weather disasters. By contrast, he noted that when poll questions mentioned Climate Change many Americans began to disengage.

With this insight in hand, Luntz went into action. In a secret memo, written in 2002, he warned Republicans – and President Bush in particular- that global warming was an issue that could mean eventual electoral defeat. He noted that it was critical for Republican candidates and media to minimize this threat in the public’s mind.

His solution was simple: “It’s time for us to start talking ‘climate change’ instead of global warming . . . .climate change is less frightening.” With that deft switch of words the deed was done. The Republicans, eager to downplay the threat, took note and have consistently used the term.

The strategy has worked. In 2002, around 15% of Republicans called for action on Climate Change, polling at the end of 2018 showed no change—still just 15%. To make matters worse, President Trump recently added his trademark layer of delusion, suggesting that scientists began to use the term Climate Change because they could not prove Global Warming!

Many Democrats, most notably Al Gore, resisted the name change being pushed by the Republicans and continued to use Global Warming for several more years. However climate scientists had for some time noted that Global Warming only described the increase in the Earth’s average temperatures, not the myriad other “climate changes” that would take place. Lacking any PR savvy, they also began to call the phenomena Climate Change.”

Accordingly, over the last decade, through intellectual torpor or just classic “groupthink,” many progressives, environmentalists, scientists and the media bought into the Climate Change appellation. This hasn’t stopped a large percentage of Democrats (71%) from calling for urgent action on climate. However, currently less than half of Independents (47%) say they support action to address the crisis.

The end result is that in 2019 almost everyone, including those most alarmed, are unwittingly using a nomenclature that was initially pushed by Luntz and his climate-denying clique to stifle public angst about this most serious of threats. That is tragic, of course, because every year that passes without significant action creates a greater likelihood of catastrophe. Passive sectors of the public must be reconnected to this issue, so appropriate terms are urgently needed — names that fit the imminent danger we face. 

What might those be? It is certainly alright to continue using Global Warming. But it’s true that it only describes the eventual overheating. To include all the possible weather anomalies and phenomena, I have begun to use “Climate Chaos.” (i.e. “Climate Chaos caused havoc in the South as floods and hurricanes battered several states.”) No one wants chaos, much less climate chaos! The term fits the increasingly chaotic scenes and devastation we are seeing, including the deadly, out of control wildfires that swept rapidly through the drought dry forests in California.

More moderate terms such as “Climate Destabilization” and “Climate Disruption” are also an improvement. Few of us want our bodies or minds destabilized or our lives disrupted. Perhaps the weakest term being used is “Extreme Weather Syndrome”, though at least it links the words “extreme” and “syndrome” — not something you want to hear from your doctor.

Understanding the real political motivation at the heart of the common usage of Climate Change should provide sufficient incentive for those in the media and all of us in environmental movement to never say it again, and instead begin using alternative terms like Climate Chaos that come closer to describing the devastation we are already seeing, and the future seriousness of this most pressing danger to humanity and the planet. Averting this crisis before it becomes terminal will depend in part on what we call it. It is difficult to imagine a more important example of the old advertising adage: “words matter.” 

Andrew Kimbrell is an environmental attorney and author. He is former Policy Director of the Greenhouse Crisis Foundation. He and his current organization The International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA) initiated and were participants in the litigation team in the Supreme Court case, Mass v. EPA, that in 2007 forced the EPA to regulate Greenhouse gases.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.

An Open Letter To The Environmental Community

Ralph Nader / Eurasia Review

(May 4, 2019) — To the Environmental Community:

In 2003, political strategist Frank Luntz wrote a confidential Republican Party memo on what he called “the environmental communications battle.”

In that memo, Luntz advised Republicans to change the words they used to meet their ends. “The scientific debate is closing but not yet closed,” he wrote. “There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science,” Luntz proposed using the phrase “climate change” instead of “global warming.” His reasoning: ” . . . while global warming has catastrophic communications attached to it, climate change sounds a more controllable and less emotional challenge.”

Like it or not, Frank Luntz had a point. When I was growing up in New England, “climate change” meant the changing of the seasons: spring, summer, autumn, and winter.

Today, in the midst of increasingly alarming scientific studies and giant storms, the necessary response has been diminished by this widely accepted softening of the words we use to describe the dangerous reality that stands before us. Language matters!

I recently reached out to two leading and widely respected ecologists, Paul Hawken and Bill McKibben, to get their input on the mainstream usage of the benign phrase “climate change.” McKibben now uses the far more potent phrase “climate chaos.” Hawken believes the proper term is “climate volatility.”

One thing is abundantly clear―it’s time to change the words to meet the peril! As Confucius said: “If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.”

Would you join us in replacing the use of the all-together benign phrase “climate change” with variations of more grave language? Consider the following alternatives: climate crisis, climate catastrophe, climate disruption, climate upheaval, or even global warming. Whatever choice of words, we should stop using “climate change.”

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.