Two of 21st Century's Most Toxic Words
Why climate change has become political
By: Lauren Dietrich
Two simple words.
Yet when uttered, these words can explode, ignite, create bitter divisions. Alienate. Infuriate. Castigate.
State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks can’t use these two words on the floor of the Nebraska State Legislature.
“It doesn’t do me any good in the Legislature to help promote this most important idea, if I demand those words to be used,” said Pansing Brooks, who is from Lincoln.
So how did these two simple words – Climate Change – become so toxic, so controversial? So weaponized? So capable of pitting friend against friend? Father against son? Senator against senator? How did one person’s climate change become another person’s extreme weather?
And what do the differences say about the relationship between language and culture and the ability of one to influence the other? In other words, how did these two words become so politicized so quickly?
The answer is simple, according to Chelsea Witt, Ph.D., a University of Nebraska-Lincoln psychology professor. It’s because “climate change” is being used as a political weapon. It’s because if people think their political party doesn’t believe in climate change, then neither should they.
“I see a lot of social identity theory playing into it,” Witt said. “It’s sort of like, almost without thinking, you’re supposed to accept your group’s side.”
Although about 97 percent of climate scientists believe the Earth is warming due to human activity, facts are not always what people use to reach their conclusions, to reinforce their belief systems.
That’s because some people simply don’t believe in science, Witt said. Since science often seems to be changing and adapting, the evolving theories can often end up confusing people.
“Sometimes people are very wary of what science says,” Witt said. “Because they hear, well, you know, ‘If you eat chocolate, then you’re more likely to have cancer or if you eat chocolate you’re less likely to have cancer.’ And science says all of those things, right?”
Nebraska State Sen. Dan Hughes is among the science skeptics.
“The predictions that I have witnessed from the climatologists have been from A to Z and back again. So I tend to discount from that perspective,” said Hughes, who is from Venango and chairs the Natural Resources Committee.
Polarizing opinions, of course, don’t materialize from thin air.
Viewpoints on controversial issues are heavily influenced by the way someone was raised, said psychologist Witt. For example, if children are raised in households that favor gun rights, it is likely they will, too.
The same goes for climate change. People think they need to side with their group, Witt said, whether that’s their political party or their family.
And that often just adds fuel to the fire.
Why? Because no one wants to be exiled by their own group for not believing in the same things.
And this, according to experts, can become a dangerous mentality because it often leads to a closed mind.
Your upbringing and the social circles you inhabit largely shape who you believe to be a trustworthy source, said Ursala Kreitmair, Ph.D., a University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor.
“That will mean you will believe certain statements and you will discard others,” Kreitmair said. “And that will fundamentally change what you actually considered to be true about a topic.”
In the end, your worldviews are the product of the community you’re a part of, said Andy Hoffman, a University of Michigan political science professor.
“So if you identify as conservative, you’re going to adopt a conservative mindset,” Hoffman said. “If you live in a conservative community, you’re going to get worldviews that reflect that community.”
Tyler Williams has seen this happen over and over.
The UNL cropping systems educator understands the differing opinions on climate change. Just look at the news, he notes.
Thirty years ago, everyone got their news from the same place, he said. But now people can choose to watch stations that are echo-chambers, stations that simply reinforce their pre-existing opinions.
So it makes sense that the first thing Williams asks people when he gives climate change presentations is, “Do you watch Fox News and CNN?” No one, he said, ever answers both.
It’s become obvious to Williams why people are split: Each station gives entirely different messages, entirely different viewpoints.
“If all you ever watched was Fox News, I can totally see why you think (climate change) is a sham, right? Because that’s all you see,” Williams said. “And if you only watch CNN, I can totally understand how people might think, ‘Oh my god, how in the world are we not doing anything about this?’”
Neither station, he noted, says anything incorrect, but neither station provides the whole story either. Instead, they both cherry-pick pieces from the bigger picture to support their viewpoint, Williams said.
And this makes the job of some Nebraska senators that much more difficult.
“There are conservatives that think when we say ‘climate change,’ we mean that we are blaming businesses, blaming individuals and blaming farmers for climate change,” Sen. Pansing Brooks said.
State Sen. John McCollister, of Omaha, understands this narrative. Government action is necessary for any significant changes to be made for climate change. And climate action, he said, will cause people to change their lifestyle. Some will see that as a personal infringement.
Politicians also have a constituency they represent. So if state senators want to be well-liked, if they want to get re-elected, they can’t afford to swing too far from what their constituents want.
“If you know that you have a number of constituents who are not on board with climate change,” extension educator Williams said, “you don’t want to propose a bill or support a bill that deals with climate change.”
And that makes it difficult to get state senators to agree to allocate both money and time to fix something their constituents don’t see as broken.
“If you don’t see climate change as an existential threat, the solutions you’ll offer are pretty, pretty limited,” Sen. McCollister said. “Whereas if you do see climate change as an existential threat, you’re more likely to embrace some of the more difficult solutions.”
Consequently, Pansing Brooks has had to tread carefully when using “climate change” on the legislative floor. She has had to change her language, she said, to avoid upsetting some senators who are offended by the words.
Such words can create barriers, Pansing Brooks said. But changing the wording from climate change to ones that people can agree with and understand – like flood mitigation and drought preparedness – can make a world of a difference.
Because language helps constitute reality, according to Loukia Sarroub, Ph.D., a University of Nebraska-Lincoln linguistics professor.
People like Pansing Brooks understand that the words “climate change” reflect a political perspective, Sarroub said. She knows that if she wants to do something important for the state, she must understand there are some phrases people don’t see eye-to-eye on.
In the end, experts agree, people tend to pick and choose the language that fits their political views.
“When I say that culture is constituted by language or language is constituted by culture, what I’m trying to say is if you listen really carefully, you can have a sense of people’s political perspectives through the language that they use,” Sarroub said.
Therefore, it is no coincidence that people use different words to describe climate change. So one person’s “climate change” becomes another person’s “extreme weather” or “global warming.”
“Extreme weather, I think, is probably a more accurate definition today because we are seeing a more intense weather event than we have experienced in the past,” said state Sen. Hughes. “But, you know, I think this is just something that is happening to our climate. This too will pass.”
Meanwhile, Sen. McCollister said he refuses to change his wording regardless of who he is speaking to. When McCollister talks about climate change, he uses the words “climate change.”
“I use the words that I use,” he said. “I don’t change the narrative just based on who I’m talking to.”
Like his colleague Pansing Brooks, McCollister has faced obstacles when trying to talk about climate change to certain Nebraskan senators.
The conservative side, he said, thinks climate change is a conspiracy created by liberals.
Although it’s unlikely a political consensus will emerge, it’s not impossible for some compromise to occur on both sides.
“Whether or not they’re caused by man, we can at least be talking about what do we do to stop the next floods from happening in Nebraska,” Pansing Brooks said.
But for this to happen, both sides need to communicate, need to avoid a screaming match, need to let differing opinions be thoughtfully heard.
“If somebody that doesn’t believe in climate change is demanding that I not believe it or that I agree with their opinion,” she said, “I can’t get there with them.”
Instead, Pansing Brooks recommends talking about things they can agree with, like extreme weather or continuous floods.
Neither side, she said, can hold out for perfection.
“The thing I keep saying is perfection is the enemy of good.”
For her, that means both sides must listen carefully to the other and make compromises for the common good.
“We have to meet people part way and then walk together,” Pansing Brooks said. “Because if we just stand in our corners and stomp our feet, nothing is going to get done.”