“Well written and an interesting perspective.” Clan Rossi --- “Your article is too good about Japanese business pushing nuclear power.” Consulting Group --- “Thank you for the article. It was quite useful for me to wrap up things quickly and effectively.” Taylor Johnson, Credit Union Lobby Management --- “Great information! I love your blog! You always post interesting things!” Jonathan N.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

On the Impact of Political Rhetoric: From “Global Warming” to “Climate Change”

Words matter in politics. The side that can frame a question by definitively naming it in the public mind enjoys a subtle though often decisive advantage in the debate and thus in any resulting public policy as well. For example, “pro-choice”privileges the pregnant woman, while “pro-life” defines the abortion debate around the fetus. Similarly, “global warming” implies a human impact, whereas“climate change” defines the issue around nature. Even though the shift from“global warming” to “climate change” is more in keeping with the evolving science and won’t be bumped off by a cold winter, political players have been the driving force—language hardly being immune to ideological pressure.
 
Regarding the weather shifting popular perception on the issue, research published in Public Opinion Quarterly in 2011 claims that a bad winter can indeed discredit the “global warming” label.[1] The Washington Policy Center claimed two years later that the heavy snowfall during the latest winter had led to “climate change” replacing “global warming.”[2] The cold refusing to relent in March 2013 seemed to undercut or repudiate the scientific “global warming” hypothesis even though science demands long-term data.
 
However, the societal impact of “the usual suspects,” political actors who routinely attempt to manipulate the public toward particular policies by using words to frame debate, dwarfs the perceptual impact of one season. In 2002, for example, Frank Luntz wrote a confidential memo to the Republican Party suggesting that because the Bush administration was vulnerable on the climate issue, the White House should abandon the phrase “global warming” in favor of “climate change.”[3] As if by magic, although “global warming” appeared frequently in President Bush’s speeches in 2001, “climate change” populated the president’s speeches on the topic in 2002.[4] In other words, the president’s political vulnerability on the issue was answered by changing the label to reframe the debate. Not missing a beat, critics charged that the motive was politicalin downplaying the possibility that carbon emissions were a contributing factor.[5]
 
Similarly, the Obama administration likely went with “climate change” because it is less controversial among detractors. In September 2011, the White House decided to replace the term “global warming” with “global climate disruption.”[6] The administration subsequently annulled its own decision. So much attention to the matter of a mere label indicates that just how important it is to the outcome. Research published in the academic journal Public Opinion Quarterly in 2011 reported at the time, “Republicans are far more skeptical of ‘global warming’ than of ‘climate change.’” Whereas the vast majority of Democrats were indifferent to the label being used.[7] With “global warming” carrying “a stronger connotation of human causation, which has long been questioned by conservatives,” Obama stood to gain some republican support simply by changing how he refers to the issue.[8]
 
Beyond the media’s own agenda and public perceptions of the weather, politicians who understand that words can be used to manipulate people have been the major force behind the label change. In their exchange of letters, Jefferson and Adams agreed that the citizenry of a republic must be virtuous and educated in order for a democracy to survive. The debate on whether the climate is changing and what “imprint” we as a species might be leaving on the planet does not give me much confidence in the future of American democracy, let alone the future of our species climatically.
 
1. Tom Jacobs, “Wording Change Softens Global Warming Skeptics,” Pacific Standard, March 2, 2011.
 
2. Washington Policy Center, “Climate Change: Where the Rhetoric Defines the Science,” March 8, 2011.
 
3. Oliver Burkeman, “Memo Exposes Bush’s New Green Strategy,” The Guardian, March 3, 2003.
 
4. Oliver Burkeman, “Memo Exposes Bush’s New Green Strategy,” The Guardian, March 3, 2003.
 
5. Washington Policy Center, “Climate Change: Where the Rhetoric Defines the Science,” March 8, 2011.
 
6. Erik Hayden, “Republicans Believe in ‘Climate Change,’ Not ‘Global Warming’,” The Atlantic Wire, March 3, 2011.
 
7. Tom Jacobs, “Wording Change Softens Global Warming Skeptics,” Pacific Standard, March 2, 2011.
 
8. Tom Jacobs, “Wording Change Softens Global Warming Skeptics,” Pacific Standard, March 2, 2011.