Article/Comment: Watch Your Language

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I read a very interesting essay on the BBC News website entitled “Chaotic world of climate truth”. It’s written by Mike Hulme, Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and in it he criticises the hyperbole which casts a pall on the discussion of global warming.

This is not a partisan piece, in the sense that Mr Hulme is not one of a seeming endless army of paid-for voices in the climate change debate. By virtue of his office and his profession, he makes his argument clear from the outset:

Climate change is a reality, and science confirms that human activities are heavily implicated in this change.

But over the last few years a new environmental phenomenon has been constructed in this country – the phenomenon of “catastrophic” climate change.

It seems that mere “climate change” was not going to be bad enough, and so now it must be “catastrophic” to be worthy of attention.

The increasing use of this pejorative term – and its bedfellow qualifiers “chaotic”, “irreversible”, “rapid” – has altered the public discourse around climate change.

This blog entry isn’t about climate change (notice there are no stock images of ensuing storm clouds and other nature metaphors for imminent disaster). I’m not apathetic to the topic but, reading his essay, Mr. Hulme’s description of how hyperbole cheapens legitimate debate rang very true and has implications outside of the context of this particular subject.

We’re living in an increasingly ideological age. I cannot remember a time (I’m 36, so I gather there are precedents beyond “my years”) when words such as intolerance, fundamentalist, and radical were used so extensively (the trope intolerant fundamentalist radical, for example, is no longer the sole jurisdiction of religious persecution but rather has extended itself to include such diverse groups as environmentalists and, my personal favourite, secular progressives). I’ve written here about the decline of discussion and true debate in N. American society; it’s as if we feel that no one will listen to us unless we raise our voices to the sky and colour our points with invective. Nothing is important anymore: it’s imperative. Nothing is troubling anymore: it’s a crisis.

In exaggerating the situation with alarmist language (which is often disingenuously intended to get attention rather than be realistic/logical) we fall into a trap. Like the boy who cried wolf, if our standard for discussion is hyperbole, then who will truly believe us when there truly is something to be alarmed about?

I see this behaviour not only in the usual suspects (blogs, user groups, forums), but also emanating from supposedly respectable institutions (governments, scientific research institutes, charities). It’s in the newspapers, it’s on television, it’s in our RSS feeds. I suppose it’s the scale of it, and the feeling (or fear) that this is the “new normal” of discourse which concerns me.

The language of catastrophe is not the language of science.

Those words start Mr. Hulme’s summary. In the context of how I feel I would say that “the language of catastrophe is not the language of an evolved society”, but rather one that is becoming more and more tribal and classist.