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Florida Bans the Term "Climate Change"; or, Orwell Visits Miami

03/17/2015 03:58 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2015
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Florida has banned the phrase "climate change," at least as far as the staff of the state's environmental agency are concerned. Also "global warming." And "sustainability" is verboten, too, according to an investigative report in the Miami Herald.

This policy seems to have started in 2011, when Florida Governor Rick Scott -- who has repeatedly insisted that he is unconvinced that climate change is caused by human activity -- appointed Herschel Vinyard Jr. as director of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Thereafter, DEP employees were warned "to beware of the words global warming, climate change and sea-level rise" -- "these words were to be prohibited for use from official DEP policy-making with our clients."

The department denies that there is any such policy in place, but the Herald reported that "former DEP employees from offices around the state say the order was well known and distributed verbally statewide."

Does it seem silly to think that employees at the Florida DEP worried about being turned in for seditious thinking to Governor Scott, who hovers over them scrutinizing their faces for hints of thoughtcrime? One former DEP employee told the Herald that "using the terms in reports would would bring unwanted attention to their projects."

Such restrictions on the free flow of scientific discussion are neither new nor confined to Florida:

* In 2007, two employees of the Fish and Wildlife Service attending an international conference on Arctic research were ordered "not to speak on or answer questions about 'climate change, polar bears and sea ice.'"

* NASA climate researcher James Hansen endured years of politically-based censorship, and was instructed to submit his lectures, papers, and interview requests for approval from his supervisors.

* Legislators in North Carolina have attempted to shield the state from sea-level rise by forbidding state employees from considering sea-level rise in projections.

* Even normally congenial Canada faced a scandal when the government of Stephen Harper began a policy of censoring government scientists, requiring them to "alter information for non-scientific reasons," and to obtain prior permission even to tweet on Twitter. (When the government fears what can be said in 140 characters, it's time to fear the government, eh?)

Restricting scientists from discussing climate change, to say nothing of restricting them from even using the term "climate change," is symptomatic of a denial of reality so deep that it evokes magical thinking. If you don't use the magic words, this thinking goes, then the bad thing won't come true. Instead of facing the reality of climate change, instead of taking practical steps such as the immediate construction of higher levees around Miami, Florida politicians hide their heads in sand -- at least for as long as there is beach sand left in Florida.

In keeping with this brand of denialism, Governor Rick Scott has responded to the Miami Herald article by denying that the use of "climate change" was banned at the DEP and by refusing to be specific about the DEP's position on global warming. "Asked three more times about the issue, he repeated essentially the same answer." Just keep repeating those magic words over and over, until it becomes real ...

But does it really matter if Florida dictates the terms scientists can and can't use? Can't scientists just use other words to convey information about the climate?

A naive view of language sees it as a means to convey information. A realpolitik view understands that language is a weapon, a political weapon of social control -- those who dictate the rhetoric influence how people think. Language can be as coercive as the gun on a cop's belt. And so it matters a great deal whether scientists are able to use accurate terms such as "climate change," or whether they are forced to use euphemisms. Language guides and restricts thoughts.

Perhaps no one understood this so well as George Orwell. In his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," Orwell concluded, "Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable," and that in corrupting language for this purpose, that mutilated language in turn corrupts thought.

In 1984, Orwell took this further. His character Syme explained Newspeak, the language that he helped the Party to create, this way:

You don't grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary get smaller every year?... Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it...How could you have a slogan like 'freedom is slavery' when the concept of freedom has been abolished?

How can we talk about climate change when we can't use accurate and precise language to describe it? Freedom may be slavery, and in Florida ignorance may pass for political strength, but accepting anything less than full and open scientific discourse would be doubleplusungood.