Politics and the Floridian Language

Can refusing to talk about climate change make it go away?

A cyclist and vehicles negotiate heavily flooded streets as rain falls in Miami Beach, Florida, on September 23, 2014. ( Lynne Sladky/AP)

Language, George Orwell noted, is a powerful tool—one with the ability to obfuscate and confuse, to disguise plain actions with fogs of syllables and participles and suffixes. In the hands of an unscrupulous politician, it can do much in the service of nefarious goals. "The worst thing one can do with words," Orwell cautioned in "Politics and the English Language," "is surrender to them."

The government of Florida appears to be engaged in a remarkable field test of that principle. Can a staunch enough refusal to acknowledge certain words erase facts? If so, the Sunshine State will find a way. According to a report from the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, officials at the state Department of Environmental Protection "have been ordered not to use the term 'climate change' or 'global warming' in any official communications, emails, or reports, according to former DEP employees, consultants, volunteers and records obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting."

The state denied any such policy, but a large number of former staffers assured FCIR it was real and circulated verbally. Documents since the policy was allegedly introduced, in 2011, use phrases like "climate drivers" and "climate-driven changes." Since the policy is in dispute, there's no direct explanation for it, but the cause would seem to be Governor Rick Scott's insistence that climate change is not real.

The concept that simply refusing to talk about climate change as such can stop it is a fascinating demonstration of magical belief—made all the more poignant by the fact that Florida is on the front lines of rising global temperatures and shifting weather patterns. The federal government's National Climate Assessment, released last year, forecast a 5-degree temperature increase in Florida by 2100; predicted a $40 billion loss in tourism revenue by the 2050s; and predicted increased flooding, among other effects.

And outside of the DEP, many Florida politicians have given up on denying that. “Sea level rise is our reality in Miami Beach,” Mayor Philip Levine told The New York Times last year. “We are past the point of debating the existence of climate change and are now focusing on adapting to current and future threats.” Other elected Republicans are making moves to deal with issues caused by higher tides.

One of the great ironies is that the term "climate change" itself came into wide usage through the efforts of Republican politicians. Its genesis comes much closer to the sort of pernicious twisting of language Orwell decried. In 2002, with the GOP concerned that it was on the defensive on global warming—to use the term then in common circulation—the party turned to Frank Luntz, the famed message consultant. Luntz produced a memo with several suggestions. For one thing, he suggested playing up the few scientists (now an even smaller group) who dissented the widespread consensus that the climate was being transformed, a tactic "climate skeptics" have employed to great success since. Luntz also recommended that President George W. Bush and others quit using "global warming" and begin referring to "climate change," which seems less frightening (and, it might be added, sounds much more like a natural process). It has taken years, but "climate change" seems to have finally caught up to "global warming," at least in the United States:

Trying to will something away by refusing to say its name isn't totally without precedent, even if you don't count the Harry Potter universe. A Republican Tennessee state legislator has been trying for years to pass a law that would prevent schools from discussing homosexuality. That effort has come to naught, compared with Florida's apparent success in stifling "climate change." But one wonders about how durable such a policy can possibly be—especially assuming the effects of climate change continue to manifest themselves.