Winning on the Language and the Substance of Climate Change

Some of us already know how important language is, but it never hurts to be reminded, especially with examples that show that we’re winning the war on climate change. The language we use has a direct relationship to what we can create. This includes not only written and verbal communication, but also the language we’re using in our own heads to think about an issue. “The little voice in our head” is not always the best guide, but it is the main tool we have to work with, the meta-megacomputer that is the human brain. And it’s this voice that increasingly acknowledges the reality of climate change, biodiversity loss, and the bankruptcy of our conventional policy perspectives, and gives us access to thinking about what to do about it.

While a number of my colleagues fear that we are already too late, and our species is not going to make it, an equal number are clear that life on Earth has faced and surmounted much greater crises in the past, and that the future is ours to choose. We may choose to despair, but to do so is to discard the possibility that there is something worth saving, and something worth fighting for. That possibility exists if we say so (snd only if we say so).

Actually, all we have is language. It’s through language that we invented science, and it’s through language that we then discovered that we’re already running the world, and need to change course very rapidly. Some people, including David Grinspoon, believe that “spewing misanthropy is just as dangerous as emitting carbon dioxide,” because it leads people to doubt our ability to address the current crisis. (See “Spreading messages of doom about the planet can keep people from making positive changes.“) David Korten recently published a piece on “Three Questions to Lead Us Away From Self-Extinction,” in Yes Magazine, in response to theologian Matthew Fox’s statement that “Humans might be the first species to knowingly choose self-extinction.”

As the folks at the Shelton Group put it, as the subtitle of their 2017 EcoPulse report, “Words have power. Are you choosing the ones that unify? Or the ones that divide?”

What’s equally striking is how the denialists are losing.  In “Climate Change Denialists Never Had It So Good. So Why the Angst?,” Marianne Lavelle reports on this year’s Heartland Institute’s “America First Energy Conference” conference in New Orleans, that, far from being reassured by the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back climate legislation,  attendees “found plenty of reasons for dread.”

With carbon tax proposals floating, climate lawsuits advancing, big corporations embracing the need for action and states and cities getting into the act, many of those gathered grappled with the reality that a fossil future was not secure—despite a largely pliant White House and Congress.

One particularly telling incident involves Heartland co-founder Joseph Bast provoking laughter by “recounting carmaker GM’s response to the Trump administration proposal unveiled last week to freeze fuel economy standards.”

Quoting the vision statement of GM CEO Mary Barra—that the company is working toward a future of “zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion”—Bast said: “That is impossible, and it’s absolutely ludicrous. Zero of each of those things mean zero cars. It means zero respect for people’s personal choices of transportation. It would mean a devastating impact on the economy.”

Of course, the last laugh may be on him, as self-driving electric cars may mean exactly that — zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion — and if we’re smart about it, without “devastating the economy.” (Actually that’s what’s happening now, as a result of the effects of climate change. The economic impacts of a changing climate may not be as acutely felt in the U.S., which ironically counts disaster recovery as increasing GDP, but it’s obvious in many other parts of the world.)

But what we are able to do to slow or reverse climate change only exists in language — the language of Drawdown, of clean energy, and of emissions reduction. That’s what we work on every day — articulating the possibilities of a sustainable future, and working to make them a reality, through an ongoing conversation with others.

Are we winning? That may be for history to judge, but what we do know is that if we get through this crisis, what lies on the other side is cleaner, greener, and more sustainable world, because in the long run that is the only kind of world that can last.

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