Defining Ideas

The Climate Of Word Change

Wednesday, March 8, 2017
Image credit: 
Mat McDermott

George Orwell pointed out many years ago that political rhetoric is “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” He further noted that this “is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists.”

There has been perhaps no better modern example of an Orwellian semantic trap than the shift in the climate debate at the political level from global warming to climate change. Scientists distinguish clearly between the two, referring to the former as a long-term trend in global temperatures that can be measured and the latter as more general changes such as precipitation, humidity, and droughts that are difficult to aggregate. This distinction, however, loses its relevance in political debates where semantics trumps science.

Supporting Orwell’s point that semantics does not follow political lines, the shift in rhetoric from warming to change did not result from an environmental conspiracy, as some have alleged, but came from a Republican strategist and pollster, Frank Luntz, who, in a 2002 memo to President Bush, proposed dropping global warming in favor of climate change. Fearing the scientific debate was “closing” against skeptics, Luntz told Bush, “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.” Referring to “global warming” as “climate change was Luntz’s way of having President Bush emphasize the scientific uncertainty in the climate debate. Hence, he created a semantic trap giving “an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Environmental politics is particularly riddled with semantic traps that have taken on an almost non-secular tone. Terms such as the “state of nature” or “balance of nature” suggest that the environment is equivalent to the Garden of Eden if only humans would leave it alone. As far back as 1865, George Perkins Marsh, one of America’s first environmentalists, wrote that “without man, lower animal and spontaneous vegetable life would have been constant in type, distribution, and proportion, and the physical geography of the earth would have remained undisturbed for indefinite periods.”

Science writer Emma Marris titled her book The Rambunctious Garden, explaining that “every ecosystem, from the deepest heart of the largest national park to the weeds growing behind the local big-box store, has been touched by humans. In short, there is not a state of nature or balance of nature.” She, along with other ecologists such as Daniel Botkin, emphasize that nature is “not constant in form, structure or proportion, but changes at every scale of time and space.” By basing environmental policy on the idea that there is a balance of nature, a semantic trap is created as the rhetoric glosses over the reality that nature is always changing as a result of physical conditions in the universe and of human influences.

The list of semantic traps in environmental debates is long. “Endangered species” are not just those on the verge of extinction, but include small populations in specific geographic locations, such as wolves in Isle Royale or in Yellowstone National Park. By that definition, many species in Central Park are extinct—though, of course, they’re not extinct from the planet. In the same way, “biodiversity” has become a trump card in policy debates used to justify resource management policies on the grounds that the goal is to optimize or maximize the diversity of species. The notion of biodiversity is so nebulous, however, that biologist R. A. Lautenschlager, in the prestigious journal Wildlife Society Bulletin, said the term “is so all-inclusive that it has become meaningless.”

“Sustainability” is another word that dominates environmental discussions. In this context, the word emanates from biological stock-flow models from which it is possible to define a sustained yield given parameters for reproduction and harvest rates. Hence, there can be a sustained yield of lumber or fish, even a maximum sustained yield.

Taking sustainable out of the biological stock-flow context, however, leaves the term with little meaning. Consider the meaning of sustainable agricultural or sustainable levels of carbon in the atmosphere. How much agricultural production can be sustained varies with the amount of land, labor, capital, fertilizer, and pesticides devoted to it. Regarding carbon, there may be a tradeoff between carbon levels and global temperatures, but there is no way to say what the optimal tradeoff is or to specify a sustainable level of carbon in the atmosphere. In an effort to add credibility to their actions, environmental groups, government agencies, and even corporations label everything from coffee cups to their buildings as “sustainable.” For this reason the Centre for Policy Studies’ 2009 guide to political and corporate newspeak called the term “a vacuous buzzword thrown as an algae-covered bone to the green lobby to drape an aura of public good around economic change. Hence the need to disguise and drape the new as old, to present risk as certainty, experiment as surety, and an unknowable future as ‘sustainable’.”

Semantic traps are not at all limited to environmental issues. As Orwell suggested, they are typical in political rhetoric where many of our habitually used terms have assumed different meanings. A classic case of this, according to Joseph A. Schumpeter, was the hijacking of the term liberal. In Latin, liberal meant “being free,” and following the Enlightenment, it was expanded to imply individual freedom and responsibility, free markets, and a rule of law supporting private property. Especially in the United States, however, it has metamorphosed into meaning almost the opposite, meaning something closer to socialism with an ever-growing, invasive central government. Today, being liberal means being “progressive,” suggesting that favoring individual liberty is regressive.

Countless other words have also been subjected to a blatant change of meaning. The market economy is increasingly portrayed as not much more than a failing system of crony capitalism where the one percent dominates the rest. Another is the transformation of the word “social” into a phrase that simply means good or bears some sort of anti-capitalistic sentiments, as in “social justice.”

In The Fatal Conceit, Friedrich A. von Hayek gave some other examples. He explained how we came to substitute society for government to make collective action seem softer and less self-interested. He lists over 100 terms before which we put the ambiguous word “social,” ranging from social accounting to social property to social waste, thereby transforming them into “weasel” phrases.

In the context of allegations of police brutality, urban crowds call for justice after juries find policemen charged with murder not guilty. Justice for the crowds means an end result of guilty, thus creating a semantic trap that circumvents justice as a process based on the rule of law rather than an end result.

One might infer from this litany of semantic traps that the best way to combat or avoid them is to use better semantics. Indeed, that is what Luntz suggested to President Bush, but in truth he was creating a semantic trap because measuring climate change is very difficult. The way to avoid semantic traps is to use words that have precise meanings that can be tested against data. Scientists might debate the best way to measure global temperature, but once the measurement technique is specified, we can gather data to say whether the globe is warming.

The point is that semantic traps subvert the rational discourse necessary to guide the ways in which people interact in a civil society. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, justice is “the system of laws in the country that judges and punishes people,” not a specific verdict that conforms to the wisdom of the crowd. Following the dictionary definition of justice leads to fairness as defined by equal treatment under the law. Thinking of justice as an end result, rather than as a process, is a corruption of language, and that corruption obscures the way in which we think about justice.

George Orwell put it succinctly in 1984 when he wrote, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Semantic traps embody such corruption.

Editor’s note This paper draws on the theme of a conference organized by the authors on “Semantic Traps: Politics with Loaded Terms,” in cooperation with the Lichtenstein Academy and the Property and Environment Research Center. For more information contact the authors at terryleeanderson [at] gmail [dot] com or krleube [at] stanford [dot] edu.