Rhetoric as an Effective Political Tool: Journalists Need to Beware, Focus on Real Issues (Pt.2 of 2)

Pete Du Pont, chairman of the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis (see Note), rails in The Wall Street Journal against “the global-warming establishment” and “the Gore globalists.”

Fred Singer in a column originally published in the Washington Times writes that “global warming has become an article of faith for many, with its own theology and orthodoxy.”

They are effective political tools, these rhetorical constructions that align climate science with traditional enemies of every good American – authority, internationalism, religious tyranny.

Manipulating language is akin to breathing for politicians, editorialists and the rest of the chattering class. In the national conversation about the globe’s warming climate, words are often picked to polarize. After all, climate science is complicated. Understanding it is hard. So framing people and ideas in familiar window dressing simplifies the argument. It’s even easier when many Americans are still unsure how to spell CO2.

Divisive rhetoric thrives amid an uninformed electorate, and Internet studies by the firm Hitwise suggest that Americans still need schooling when it comes to the climate issue. “It’s clear that Internet users continue in their quest to understand what global warming is,” Hitwise general manager Bill Tancer wrote online in Time magazine on October 17.

Meanwhile, a marketer for Chevron, which has launched an advertising campaign to portray the oil company as part of the solution to global warming, told The Wall Street Journal recently she was shocked at how ill-informed people in focus groups were about energy issues.

Filling an Information Void – Political Rhetoric?

What’s filling the vacuum? Political rhetoric is – and journalists need to be able to recognize the language, deconstruct it, and drill down to what people are really saying.

With dramatic changes in the Arctic, Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth,” the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment and other developments, there is widespread recognition and acceptance that the globe’s climate is warming and that humans are important drivers of that warming. Naysayers on those two points lie largely on the fringes.

The political (and therefore the rhetorical) fight is now over how to describe the potential environmental impacts, and what might be done to avoid or lessen them.

One of the latest volleys was cast by John Marburger, President Bush’s top science adviser. In a news conference October 18, Marburger said there is no solid evidence that limiting the rise in temperature to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels would head off dangerous climate impacts. The increase corresponds roughly to a CO2 equivalent concentration of 450 parts per million, compared with the current 385 ppm).

“There is no scientific criterion for establishing numbers like that,” The Washington Post quoted him as saying.

But scientists clearly discuss the potential impacts associated with incremental rises in CO2 in IPCC assessments (.pdf) said Rick Piltz, who runs the government watchdog and advocacy project ClimateScienceWatch.

‘… a predatory relationship with uncertainty language …’

“What he did was muddy the waters about what the IPCC says about impacts,” Piltz said in a telephone interview in October. “Now, that sends a signal to everyone in the federal government who’s involved with this stuff.”

Piltz says reporters need to look carefully at how some politicians, bureaucrats, and interest groups pursue what to him is a “predatory relationship with uncertainty language. The science community looks at its levels of uncertainty or their levels of confidence in a fairly honest way, and then the predators jump in and say, ‘Well, it’s all very uncertain’ – as though that means no one knows anything.”

Scientists, meanwhile, are generally unaccustomed to offering the general public probabilities for what might happen for a given rise in global temperatures.

“It’s a judgment call,” Piltz said. “It’s not a quantified thing exactly. It’s expert professional judgments, but that’s what we need from the science community.

“But that opens it up to the worst kind of linguistic and other predatory behavior, doesn’t it? – if you want to screw with it.”

Reporters writing about potential regional impacts of a warming climate need to know what the IPCC says regarding impacts, Piltz advises.

“All of those impact discussions are likely to be politicized by people with an interest, so you need to get your arms around these impacts issues,” he said.

Whither ‘Denier’ and ‘Denialist’?

Whether it’s a group that aims to undermine what scientists say about a potential impact, or an environmental group overstating the danger, journalists need to stay focused on the science.

Perhaps no other incident exemplifies how divisive the climate discussion has become than the debate over the global warming labels “denier” or “denialist.”

Some scientists and advocates who speak about skeptics of the prevailing scientific consensus have alternatively called them “skeptics,” “professional skeptics,” “deniers,” “contrarians,” “outliers,” and “denialists.”

Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a critic of researchers warning of catastrophic impacts from continued warming, has been more than a little offended at being called a “denialist.”

“Let’s be blunt,” he wrote last fall in his blog, Prometheus. “The phrase ‘climate change denier’ is meant to be evocative of the phrase ‘holocaust denier.’ As such the phrase conjures up a symbolic allusion fully intended to equate questioning of climate change with questioning of the Holocaust.”

Scientist Richard Somerville, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, has called Pielke’s statements an “ugly accusation.”

“I have used the term denialist in print,” Somerville wrote in an email this summer. “It’s a perfectly good English word in wide usage and need not connote Holocaust at all. As a Jew, as somebody who lost relatives to the Nazi gas chambers, as a human being, that charge both infuriates me and deeply saddens me.”

How discussions of the globe’s warming climate – on both sides – can go from talk about science and policy to talk about Nazis and the Holocaust is actually quite amazing.

But political rhetoric, especially the polarizing kind, can take us there.

It’s up to journalists to keep their focus on the issues at hand, and not be distracted by political rhetoric that has little to do with the real environmental risks our planet faces.

Also see:

Let’s Call it Climate Change. Strike That. Let’s Call it Global Warming. Strike THAT. Let’s Call It … by Bruce Lieberman.

NOTE: *The organization says its goal “is to develop and promote private alternatives to government regulation and control, solving problems by relying on the strength of the competitive, entrepreneurial private sector.” ( Back to article )

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman is a freelance writer covering science and environmental topics. He has more than 20 years experience in the news business. (E-mail: bruce@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @brucelieberman1)
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