Word Games

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 extremist
s, 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 protégé 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.”

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.


William S. Becker is the Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Plan (PCAP), a project of the University of Colorado, Wirth Chair, charged with producing
a 100 day action plan on climate change for the next President of the United States, and the author of THE 100 DAY ACTION PLAN TO SAVE THE PLANET, available in eBook format from St. Martins Griffin.

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