Mark Twain once said that “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ‘Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
And while Twain was no doubt referring to the craft of writing, I find his words chillingly apt when applied today to the politics of climate science.
This is because US Department of Agriculture staff have been told to avoid using the term “climate change.” Furthermore, personnel have been advised to be prudent when referring to greenhouse gases, this in the wake of constantly recurring news that their work on air quality regarding these gases could be discontinued at any moment.
All this has thrown some USDA employees into a quandary. “I would like to know correct terms I should use instead of ‘climate change,’” wrote one in an email to his superiors. Another wondered whether employees would be allowed to refer to work from outside the agency that uses the phrase “climate change,” and yet another stated that “we would prefer to keep the language as is” while stressing the need to maintain the “scientific integrity of the work.”
To make things worse, Sam Clovis, nominee for the post of USDA Chief Scientist - although lacking in formal science credentials - has publicly called climate research “junk science.”
Terminology has also shifted across other sectors of the federal government. Mentions of the dangers of climate change have been removed from the White House and Department of Interior websites, while the Environmental Protection Agency has scrapped its entire online climate section pending a review that will be “updating language to reflect the approach of new leadership.”
I find it especially ironic that in the midst of one of the greatest natural disasters this country has ever seen, we hardly know how to begin a conversation about possible causes. Call it the Harvey Effect or call it climate change, but as Mark Twain knew, naming a thing and using the right word is a big deal – in fact, in this case as big as the entire planet.
And until politicians can begin to correctly predict eclipses, I think I’ll continue to cast my lot with those who are trained and committed to speak objectively in unvarnished words that don’t waffle and spin about this rapidly warming planet of ours.