‘Language’ matters in global warming debate


University of Florida linguist M. J. Hardman tells us 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 act(ion), the instrument by whose means we influence and are influenced.”

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

And now, language tricks are being used to justify the unjustifiable in the increasingly intensive war of words over global warming.

“Climate change is real,” “We must stop climate change,” “All scientists agree.”

These are phrases used by environmental alarmists, politicians and industrialists to scare the public into supporting multibillion-dollar schemes that enrich the few at the cost of the many.

Happily, such assertions are beginning to lose their impact as the public comes to realize they are nonsensical.

However, one language mistake has become so entrenched that even those who oppose politically-correct thinking on climate change still use it unthinkingly.

We are told we must ‘reduce carbon’ or ‘carbon emissions.’ To do this, we need to engage in a tax on carbon, carbon trading, carbon capture and storage and even build up carbon credits to offset our carbon liabilities.

Last week in the House of Commons everyone from the prime minister to the ministers of natural resources, foreign affairs, and international trade, not to mention ordinary MPs from all parties, referred to the dreaded carbon tax that the NDP supports, or does not support, depending on who you believe. The phrase was used 35 times in the Commons debate on Sept. 20 mostly by government members.

Parliamentarians need to go back to their Grade 9 science textbooks before opening their mouths again on the topic. 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.

But pure carbon occurs in nature mainly in only two forms: graphite and diamonds. So, are Canada’s politicians talking about taxing graphite pencils? Or diamond jewelry?

Perhaps they are speaking about soot emissions reduction since so-called ‘amorphous carbon’ (that is, carbon without structure) is the main ingredient in soot and that is certainly a pollutant important to control.

What is really being addressed by Canada’s politicians is one specific compound of carbon, namely carbon dioxide (CO2).

But CO2 is only one of thousands of compounds containing carbon. It really should be carbon dioxide tax, CO2 emissions, CO2 capture and storage (something that has yet to be demonstrated on a large scale and poses significant risks), CO2 emissions trading, etc.

It is not merely an academic point. Ignoring the oxygen atoms and calling CO2 ‘carbon’ makes about as much sense as ignoring the oxygen in water (H2O) and calling it ‘hydrogen.’

Imagine getting your next water bill on an invoice labeled ‘hydrogen tax.’ That might be an effective PR tool for anti-hydro power campaigners but most of the public would regard such a communications trick as ridiculous.

The ‘CO2-is-carbon’ mistake is no less farcical. Throwing a pencil into the air could be considered more of a ‘carbon emission’ than is the CO2 from coal stations.

This error is not harmless. It is part of the way language has been distorted to bolster concerns about human-caused climate change. Calling carbon dioxide ‘carbon’ encourages people to think of the gas as ‘pollution’ or something dirty, like graphite or soot. That is undoubtedly why Al Gore calls it carbon pollution.

Calling CO2 by its proper name would help people remember that, regardless of whether its rise is causing climate problems (a point of strong debate in the climate science community), it is an invisible gas essential to plant photosynthesis and to all life.

Politically correct but deceptive phrases such as carbon tax are dangerous because they influence millions of people and, ultimately, government policy.

Tom Harris is executive director of the International Climate Science Coalition.

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