October 1, 2009

Changing the vernacular of global warming

FROM-Orlando Climate Change Examiner-Tony Hake

When is global warming not global warming or climate change not climate change? The unveiling of the United States Senate’s cap and trade legislation yesterday shows a concerted effort to appeal to the public through the use of terms that might be considered more appealing, even if not accurate.

With great fanfare yesterday, Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) unveiled the “Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act of 2009.” This is the Senate’s version of cap and trade legislation purportedly aimed at stemming the effects of manmade climate change. Earlier this summer, the House of Representatives passed its version which it termed “The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009.”

In looking at the titles of these two pieces of legislation, it is interesting to note that the word ‘climate’ is entirely missing from both. Further, the Senate’s version of the bill chooses to completely ban the phrase ‘cap and trade’ in favor of what is presumed to be a more effective term in ‘pollution reduction and investment.’ Cap and trade has oftentimes been referred to as ‘cap and tax’ due to the fact it does represent a significant financial burden on industry which in turn will likely pass costs on to consumers.

Apparently when it comes to steering public opinion a great deal of time is spent ensuring that names assigned to these things are of a type that have a less negative connotation. This same method has been employed in the past as when a shift was made from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change.’

The term global warming gained its greatest usage when Dr. James Hansen of NASA gave his famous testimony to Congress in 1988 warning of the dangers of increased global temperatures. He said, “Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and the observed warming.”

In recent years there has been a shift away from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’. This was done in part to widen the scope of the discussion about climate change to include other aspects such as melting in the Arctic, dangers to the environment and loss of wildlife habitat. On NASA’s website the agency states that it prefers combining the two into ‘global climate change.’

Recent polling data shows that ‘global warming’ is at the bottom of concerns for Americans and skeptics of anthropogenic global warming in recent years have also seized on data showing that global temperatures over the last 10 years are decreasing. A shift to the term ‘climate change’ in theory helps to draw attention away from that.

In May, ecoAmerica, an environmental non-profit marketing firm, released a list of changes in vernacular meant to shift public opinion. The organization said ‘global warming’ was “confusing and abstract for most Americans.”

Bob Perkowitz, chairman of ecoAmerica, told the New York Times, “When someone thinks of global warming, they think of a politicized, polarized argument. When you say ‘global warming,’ a certain group of Americans think that’s a code word for progressive liberals, gay marriage and other such issues.”

Even before legislation was officially introduced, Perkowitz acknowledged the problem with the term ‘cap and trade.’ He said, “’Cap and Trade,’ is already being rightfully branded as ‘Cap and Tax’ or ‘The light switch tax’ because that essentially is what it is.”

On a global scale, United Nations officials have suggested that perhaps a more fearful term will do more to draw attention to the dangers of manmade climate change. Rajendra Shende of the UN’s OzonAction branch attributed the success of the battle to save the ozone layer to the use of terminology that sounded direr.

Shende told a conference in Beijing that, "The media made a big contribution. The coining of the term 'ozone hole' was amazing. It made people feel there was a hole in the roof of their home." Acknowledging that the term was inaccurate, he said, "But it was not a hole at all. It was higher rate of depletion in the Antarctic sky."

In the battle of the court of public opinion, it is believed that the use of some key phrases may sway the debate in favor of one side or the other. What terms strike a chord with voters and taxpayers may ultimately determine the fate of ‘cap and trade’ or ‘cap and tax’ or ‘pollution reduction and investment’ or whatever it is called.


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