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Talking about climate change in Orwellian doublespeak doesn't make it go away

Talking about climate change in Orwellian doublespeak doesn't make it go away
President Donald Trump speaks and lays out a national security strategy that de-emphasizes climate change, in Washington on Dec. 18. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

If President Trump were a reader of books, we'd recommend a nearly 70-year-old novel to him, because it illustrates nicely both the absurdity and the danger of perverting language for political ends. The book is George Orwell's "1984," which gave us the concept of "Newspeak," a language invented by government, and of ministries that do the exact opposite of what their names imply, i.e., a Ministry of Peace that is in charge of waging permanent war, and a Ministry of Truth churning out lies.

The Trump administration hasn't hit full Orwellian mode, but it seems to be trying awfully hard. The new National Security Strategy unveiled Monday drops all references to climate change as a threat to national security, despite the clear risks posed by rising seas, altered storm and drought patterns, and the political instability and mass human migration such changes are expected to cause. "Climate policies will continue to shape the global energy system," the report says — but then it goes on to frame the issue in terms of the U.S.'s role in "countering an anti-growth energy agenda that is detrimental to U.S. economic and energy security interests."

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So the fight against climate change is the risk to national security, not climate change itself.

The government is playing games with words in an effort to obscure.


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That shouldn't be a surprise coming from an administration that sees burning more fossil fuels as the path to global energy dominance, which is like betting on the oldest, lamest horse in the race. By contrast, President Obama described climate change unequivocally as "an urgent and growing threat to our national security" in his 2015 national security strategy report. Someone needs to advise Trump that refusing to recognize a problem doesn't make it go away.

Bizarrely, the president last week signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, which clearly spells out the risk of climate change (for instance, coastal naval stations are already having to adapt). So Trump's name is now affixed to a budget document that calls out climate change for the national security threat it poses, while his National Security Strategy report actually makes a case for continued reliance on fossil fuels.

Around the same time Trump was signing the defense bill, scientists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a report that concludes "the Arctic shows no sign of returning to reliably frozen region of recent past decades," and noted escalation in both air and sea temperatures. So while Trump and his political acolytes are playing word games, the real-life effects of climate change are being observed and felt at other levels of government.

We should be heartened, we suppose, that the Trump language enforcers so far have let the Defense Department and NOAA mention climate change. Last week, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were warned off using seven words and phrases in preparing budget documents (you'll be excused for immediately thinking about comedian George Carlin's profanity-filled routine, "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television"). The offending bits of English: Vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based and science-based.

It's not entirely clear whether the Trump administration tagged words reflecting policies it doesn't like, or whether nervous bureaucrats did so to avoid drawing attention to programs, ideas and policies that might rub social conservatives in Congress the wrong way. Either way, the government is playing games with words in an effort to obscure.

Similarly, the Environmental Protection Agency has stripped references to climate change from many of its websites, including renaming the "Climate and Energy Resources for State, Local and Tribal Governments" page to "Energy Resources for State, Local and Tribal Governments." The Department of Agriculture also removed "substantial portions" of climate-change references from its Climate Hubs page, according to the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, a nonprofit government-monitoring group. Bizarrely, one page refers to the effect on rural roads from shorter and warmer winters, without mentioning exactly why January is so much balmier these days. Maybe our spotlight-addicted president will declare that he has made winters warmer, but that the "lying media" refuses to give him credit for it.

The reality is that it is the burning of fossil fuels by humans, spewing carbon and other greenhouse gases into the air, that has increased the temperature of the Earth's atmosphere and oceans. And unless we take quick and radical steps to curtail emissions and to remove some of the carbon (through reforestation and other techniques), the world as we know it will change, with species die-offs, coastline changes, more intense major storms and altered drought and rain patterns. And it will happen whether Trump uses the words "climate change" or not.

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