The Linguistics of Climate Change

by: Chris Warren

Years ago when I was a college English major, I spent a more time than I would have cared to studying the concept of etymological fallacy. For those who understandably do not want to sit thorough a whole semester of undergraduate linguistics, here is the abridged version: Etymological fallacy is what happens when the present day meaning of a word or term is incorrectly associated with the meaning it had in the past or in some cases never had. Less precisely, it’s a stubbornness, a failure to acknowledge that language is fluid and never settled and word definitions change -sometimes radically- over time.

What works for language cannot so easily apply to science because science has to operate within the limits of facts. Writers are encouraged to pick and choose words to suit the purpose; it’s part of the creative process. Language is, after all, mostly an art. There is an entire generation of climate scientists trying to be artists, and they are not succeeding at this conflicting dual role.

The word “pollution” was the standard noun at the beginning of the climate movement. For a long time, this worked for the activists. It is very generic, nebulous, and can be easily blamed on big, bad corporations. Pollution evolved into the currently favored term, “carbon footprint.” It may not seem like it matters, but it does. Blaming corporations is still a big part of the plan, but calling it a carbon footprint presents the issue in a way that makes it very difficult for the individual to push the blame off on industry. We all have feet, right? Anyone can relate to the metaphor; it requires little scientific acumen to understand, and is too personal to ignore. The strategy worked. Now it’s fashionable to reduce one’s carbon footprint. The term has become so mainstream it’s even used in advertising. By design or by accident, “carbon footprint” is a brilliant success. Well played, guys.

The other benefit is that the activists have magnanimously given us a path to salvation. Yes, brothers and sisters, we’ve all committed the sin of pollution but we can make it a zero-sum game by planting a tree or car pooling “to reduce our carbon footprint.” It’s a relatively painless way to absolve our guilt. This is how people like Al Gore and other Learjet liberals justify their carbon-puking lifestyles and multiple gigantic homes that inhale more electrons than many American neighborhoods. They confidently tell themselves, “I paid the World Wildlife Fund to plant a bunch of trees for me in South America so I’m good to go.”

At the corporate level, proposed sales of carbon tax credits has very little to do with keeping the environment clean; it’s about the government profiting from something they claim to want to eliminate (see also, tobacco tax). The concept is simple: Dumping toxic waste is bad, but if you give the government a pile of cash they will let you do it anyway. There is never any sincere talk about reducing pollution to begin with because that would shut off the cash flow. Cap and trade, carbon tax’s cousin, should be a more palatable solution because in theory all the money changes hands between private parties and the government doesn’t get a cut. It appears very libertarian and free-market capitalist-driven. The catch: The final version of these deals never has any resemblance to the original proposal. Are we expected to believe the government will leave alone anything that does not include them receiving a payoff? No matter which scheme is rolled out, the end result will be corporations get to keep pumping out the filth, the government makes a ton of money, and both will cheerfully brag about how they really, really care about the environment. Take a guess who receives absolutely zero benefit from any of this? That would be you, John Q.

The Roman Catholic Church used to allow the wealthy to purchase their way out of feeling guilty. Borrowing from history, the climate movement has created its own modern day secular version of Papal indulgences. Whether it’s schoolchildren planting trees in the park or big companies forking over millions of dollars for the right to poison the planet, buying absolution is a centuries-old concept.

We’ve long passed the point where scientists stepped over the line of being objective fact finders and turned into biased advocates for a cause, which includes the very unscientific task of selling the cause: Climate scientists are almost entirely government funded; they want us to believe that the results of their research is in no way connected to their desire to assure their livelihoods or fulfill a predetermined outcome. These are the same people who have the nerve to dismiss any privately-funded research (what little there is) that doesn’t toe the line as propaganda cranked out by paid shills. The oft-cited statistic that 97% of all climate scientists believe climate change is real, and more importantly, manmade, cannot shake the stench of self-interest. It’s like 97% of cattle ranchers claiming excessive consumption of red meat has absolutely nothing to do with heart disease.

Anyone paying casual attention to the media for the last few years may have noticed that the term global warming is almost never used anymore and has been replaced by “climate change.” The semantic slight of hand is not random: It’s hard to convince the public that we’re all going to fry when it’s snowing in Atlanta. What to do? Dump all reference to warm and find a term that has more wiggle room for interpretation. But wait…wasn’t global warming supposed to be “settled science?” Science that periodically needs to be redefined to accommodate changed or newly discovered facts is by default not “settled.” Is the planet boiling or not? By contrast, no one has ever revised the law of gravity because there’s no reason to. The scientific truth of gravity cannot be broken. It’s been the same since the beginning of time and no poll-tested talking points are necessary.

I agree the planet is getting warmer, and we as a concerned society need to find cleaner ways of living. Where I disagree with the climate activists is I believe the latter is not necessarily connected to the former, nor do I accept as “settled” that increasing temperatures are both long term and man made. Cleaning up the planet is its own virtue. Do we really need expensive scientific research as a rationale for doing the right thing? No, but that assumes the research does not have a political agenda behind it. Industry/conservatives need to pull their head out their ass and quit pretending that there’s nothing going on with the climate, because something clearly is going on. And environmentalists/liberals need to end the pretzel logic hypocrisy of selling the right to pollute to the highest bidder while telling everyday Americans what kind of light bulbs they may use.

The climate movement hurts itself with their efforts to change the meaning and language of what years ago they insisted was a done deal. Whatever merit their argument has gets lost in a miasma of political correctness and sloppy rhetoric that would not make the cut in a freshman composition course. The settled science of ten years ago doesn’t work now, so they just alter what it means and call it change. It’s the climatologists’ bastardized version of linguistic fallacy. My college English professors would always call us out on it; climate activists have the luxury of making up their own rules.