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Climate Linguistics

Edward A. Reid Jr.
Posted On:
Aug 1, 2017 at 8:08 AM
Climate Change

Linguistics: “the study of human speech including the units, nature, structure, and modification of language”

Climate discussions have had some interesting impacts on linguistics, though it would be inaccurate to refer to those impacts as contributions to linguistics. Climate discussions have modified the meanings of words, not to clarify elements of the discussion, but rather to obfuscate. Climate discussions have also modified the language by adding new phrases to describe perceived actions or attitudes.

I have previously discussed the various applications of the word “denier” and its variants in climate discussions. The term is typically used derisively and inaccurately to refer to someone who questions the consensus climate orthodoxy. In this time of “sound bite” and “bumper sticker” communications, the term is handier than taking the time and effort to explain skepticism as it relates to climate. Its obvious allusion to Holocaust “denial” is both derisive and dismissive. It elides the distinction between denial of a historical fact with skepticism regarding a hypothesis.

I have also previously discussed the differences between facts (data) and beliefs (estimates) in climate discussions; and, the difference between potential future scenarios and predictions in climate modelling. Again, it is common in climate discussions to use terms which imply unjustified certainty, rather than to make the effort to provide a clear understanding of the state of the science. It seems strange to argue that the audience does not, or would not, understand the distinctions when no effort has been made to explain the distinctions.

The environmental community has taken upon itself the responsibility and authority to define what are the appropriate behaviors to be followed by various groups regarding the environment and the climate, as well as the responsibility to identify and vilify those who are not demonstrating those appropriate behaviors.

Numerous companies have begun advertising their sensitivity to the environment, sustainability and climate; and, establishing very visible programs demonstrating their commitment to the environment, sustainability, and climate. However, if the environmental community judges the advertised efforts to be insufficient, they have applied the new term greenwashing to those efforts, to convey their judgement that the efforts are less than they appear to be, or less than they need to be. The environmental community then frequently begins greenshaming (another new term in the lexicon) to coerce the companies to adopt more “appropriate behaviors”.

This has also led numerous companies and individuals to begin practices which have been assigned the new term virtue signaling. Most virtue signaling is verbal, though some extends to the physical. One the most obvious and most humorous examples of physical virtue signaling is the installation of insignificantly low capacity wind turbines in highly visible commercial locations, such as automobile dealer’s lots. The same might be said of insignificantly low capacity, but high visibility solar collector installations. Some have even suggested that the purchase and use of very expensive or significantly range limited electric vehicles is a form of virtue signaling.

Recently, after the announcement of the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his intent that Bloomberg Philanthropies would donate $15 million to the UNFCCC to replace the US share of its operating expenses. This was most certainly an exercise in virtue signaling, as well as an effort to embarrass and greenshame the Trump Administration.

There appears to be an intellectual disconnect between the choice to use certain existing words inappropriately and inaccurately to convey contempt and the choice to create new terms for essentially the same purposes. Language has not obviously become more precise as a result, though it has become a bit more colorful.