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Combat climate change: ‘War on coal’ is driven by deceptive language

(Rick McKee / Cagle Cartoons)

University of Florida linguist M.J. Hardman tells us in his 2002 book, “Language and War,” that, “Language is inseparable from humanity and follows us in all our works. Language is the instrument with which we form thought and feeling, mood, aspiration, will and (action), the instrument by whose means we influence and are influenced.”

It is not surprising then that language always has been a crucially important weapon of war. Delivered with convincing rhetorical flare, language has driven ordinary citizens to heroic acts of self-sacrifice in defense of their countries while pushing others to unspeakable acts of barbarism.

And now language tricks are being used to justify the unjustifiable in the Obama administration’s war on coal, America’s least-expensive and most-abundant energy source. Over and over we are told that, “Climate change is real,” that, “We owe it to future generations to stop climate change,” and that, “97 percent of scientists agree.”

Even non-experts are starting to recognize these assertions are meaningless or simply unproven. Climate change, at times far more severe than anything seen in humanity’s short history, has been “real” for billions of years. No one knows whether human activity has become a major factor influencing it today or that we could have a measurable impact on future climates. And despite the popular notion that a meaningful consensus exists among experts about this question, such an agreement never has been demonstrated.

Although the impact of these language tricks gradually is diminishing among educated people, other equally misleading phraseology is coming to the fore. One in particular has become so entrenched that even those who oppose fashionable thinking on climate change use it without thinking.

We are told we must reduce “carbon emissions” or, worse, “carbon pollution,” a phrase used eight times by President Barack Obama when promoting his Clean Power Plan in his brief address May 31. When formally announcing the plan two days later, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy referenced “carbon pollution” eight times in her opening seven minutes.

But carbon is a solid, naturally occurring, non-toxic element found in all living things. Carbon forms thousands of compounds, much more than any other element. Everything from medicines to trees to oil to our own bodies and those of all other creatures are made of carbon compounds. Pure carbon occurs in nature mainly in only two forms: graphite and diamonds, neither of which is floating around in the atmosphere let alone being discharged from the smokestacks of coal-fired generating stations. There is one form of pure carbon important to control and that is soot, the emissions of which no longer constitute a problem in the United States or Canada.

What Obama and McCarthy really were talking about was one specific compound of carbon, namely carbon dioxide, or CO2. Ignoring the oxygen atoms and calling CO2 “carbon” makes about as much sense as ignoring the oxygen in water vapor (H2O), the major greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, and calling it “hydrogen.”

This is not merely an academic point but is part of the way language has been distorted to bolster concerns about human-caused climate change. Calling CO2 “carbon” encourages people to think of the gas as “pollution” or “something dirty” like graphite or soot. Calling CO2 by its proper name would help people remember that, regardless of its influence on climate (a point of intense debate in the climate science community) it is really an invisible gas essential to plant photosynthesis — and so all life.

Tom Harris is executive director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition.