ecostory 7/2007
The deceptive rethoric of opinion leaders (BBC)
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    As climate change has moved out of the domain of science and become a topic for political, social and economic discourse, the vocabulary which surrounds it is changing. Richard Black attended two of last year's climate conferences. He's been considering the language used to debate global warming (BBC World, "From our own Correspondent", 28.01.2007, transcript Helmut Lubbers).
Given the contempt in which the great mass of journalists hold politicians, probably matched only by the contempt in which the great mass of the public hold journalists, it takes something special from a politician nowadays to shock a news conference. In Sydney last January US Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman managed it, during the inaugural ministerial meeting of the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. It's a long name for a small group of countries whose declared aim is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the single medium of clean technology. Now I hope you caught that deceptively simple phrase "reduce greenhouse gas emissions". If you did stick it somewhere safe for a couple of minutes because we're coming back to it.

Now, the meeting itself, it was short and sweet and included at least as many people from power companies as from governments. So why were the business barons there we asked. How would they enable the Asia Pacific Partnership to cut emissions.

Mr Bodman's answer was that corporations would produce greenhouse gas emissions because they cared. That's it. No really, it is. I went back and checked my recording.

This is the exact quote: "I believe that the people who run the private sector, who run these companies, they too have children, they too have grandchildren, they too live and breed in the world and they would like things dealt with effectively."

Call me cynical if you will but my first thought was: See, you mean corporations like ENRON or Arthur Anderson or WorldCom? And I wasn't alone. Mr Bodman had momentarily silenced an entire press corps.

At the other end of the year - at the other end of the world it seemed, were the pasturalists of Kenya's northern Turkana province. This was an added extra at a gathering which traditionally tries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions - that deceptively simple phrase again - the annual round of United Nations climate negotiations, this time in Nairobi.

I was out and about with the British Environment Secretary David Miliband in the Turkana bush. In a clearing shaded by giant trees and dotted with termite mounds almost as big a thousand or so people turned out in a variety of tribal costumes. Chants were powerfully sung. Dances were performed with blazing eyes and thumping feet. A large imposing chief with the face of Samuel L Jackson and the voice of a giant told Mr Miliband what his people thought about the changing climate.

And these people did care. These people certainly have children and grandchildren. They certainly live and breed in the world. And they would certainly like things dealt with effectively. Especially the drought which has been drying their water courses and killing their livestock for nearly three years. O yes, they care all right. Because their extensive oral history tells them how the weather was in times gone by. And now they perceive a different pattern, bizarre and dangerous.

Neither meeting produced anything which you could sell to a Turkana chief or to a climate scientist as a meaningful measure against climate change.

I wondered long into many nights why it always ends up like this. Why it is so difficult to curb the global growth in greenhous gas emissions which now runs above two percent per year. Others look to energy forecasts and demographic change and trade blocks for their answers. I've been concentrating on semantics. And it has brought me to a conclusion which is so simple that I can't believe I missed it years ago.

The crux of the matter it seems to me lies in the different ways that scientists and politicians use language. Science is nothing without precision. You mislabel a larinx as a pharinx, cal a nematode a trematode and your career is done. Political language on the other hand is a triumph of misrepresentation. A failure becomes a success when some little crumb of your plan has worked. Winning a battle allows claims of victory, even as the war slips away.

So you can describe climate change as the biggest threat confronting humanity even when you are demonstrably doing more about hospital finances, say, about prisons or some ill-defined threat from abroad. When a scientist talks about reducing greenhouse gas emissions - I told you we'd end up back at this phrase - he or she means just that, actually reducing them. But what it's coming to mean in the political lexicon is something very different. Sydney made that abundantly clear. The publicity from Mr Bodman and his benevolent business allies spoke of reducing emissions, small print acknowledges that if the Asia Pacific Partnership does what it wants to, emissions will still rise but a bit less quickly than they would have done otherwise. Having them grow less fast becomes equivalent to reducing them.

It's a linguistic trick of huge importance to the drought-ridden citizens of Turkana and to everyone else who is likely to be at the sharp end of some climate related impact in the coming years. We should all observe its emergence, document its every use and fear it like the plague.
    And with that global warning from Richard Black that's all from this week's "From our own Correspondent". (BBC World - 26/28 January 2007)

We were lucky to pick this up because we listened to the BBC at an unusual time. Which proves that it can pay to change habits. We do agree with Richard Black's analysis and would like to add some other factors that aggravate the situation.

A short-list of reasons why opinion-leaders fail to do something effectively and instead frequently aggravate the negative environmental trends:
  1. Words and expressions are redefined to suit personal purposes. Dangers are down-played and presented as challenges and even opportunities. The negative effects are mostly presented as threatening those poor countries abroad, denying that we will also suffer the consequences. This is lying by misrepresentation and omission of details.
  2. Public policy is dominated by the discipline of economists who function like a religious community, guided by beliefs and axioms and canons of proper economic conduct. Worst are the belief in market forces and the belief that economic growth can and must continue on a finite planet.
  3. Opinion-leaders have a huge deficit in knowledge of the factual environmental situation and the effectiveness of proposals to remediate the problems.
  4. It is generally and wrongly believed that money and technology will be able to fix things.
  5. Hope and optimism replace realistic assessment and working with the methods we really do have and which we can use.
  6. Population growth is taboo, although overpopulation is the main cause of environmental depletion and destruction, together with consumption per capita.
  7. Formal education generally leads to the reduction of critical thinking. Exams and careers reward successful adaptation to prevailing ideologies.
  8. One of life's basic tendencies is to find safety and stay there as long as possible. Reconsidering acquired thought patterns takes energy and is perceived as "dangerous". Therefore any new idea is initially countered with distrust and rejection.
  9. The environmental situation is so dangerous and the outlook is so dark that it takes enormous courage to not shy away and repress the knowledge.
  10. Opinion-leaders are so used to being listened to and obeyed that they have virtually lost the faculty of listening to others. Their power position gives them the feeling that they must be right, why else would they have reached their positions, it seems?

  • Deceptive "solutions" to climate change - Question time at the Climate and Diplomacy Conference at the HEI of Geneva 19.1.2007
  • Waiting for the lights to go out
  • Ted Trainer's chapter 5 "The limits to growth"
  • sustainability
  • time-growth scenarios
  • stop growth letters
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