The US Department of Agriculture has forbidden the use of the words ‘climate change’. This say-no-evil policy is doomed to fail
In a bold new strategy unveiled on Monday in the Guardian, the US Department of Agriculture – guardians of the planet’s richest farmlands – has decided to combat the threat of global warming by forbidding the use of the words.
Under guidance from the agency’s director of soil health, Bianca Moebius-Clune, a list of phrases to be avoided includes “climate change” and “climate change adaptation”, to be replaced by “weather extremes” and “resilience to weather extremes”.
Also blacklisted is the scary locution “reduce greenhouse gases” – and here, the agency’s linguists have done an even better job of camouflage: the new and approved term is “increase nutrient use efficiency”.
The effectiveness of this approach – based on the well-known principle that what you can’t say won’t hurt you – has previously been tested at the state level, making use of the “policy laboratories” provided by America’s federalist system.
In 2012, for instance, the North Carolina general assembly voted to prevent communities from planning for sea level rise. Early analysis suggests this legislation has been ineffective: Hurricane Matthew, in 2016, for instance drove storm surge from the Atlantic ocean to historic levels along the Cape Fear river. Total damage from the storm was estimated at $4.8bn.
Further south, the Florida government forbade its employees to use the term climate change in 2014 – one government official, answering questions before the legislature, repeatedly used the phrase “the issue you mentioned earlier” in a successful effort to avoid using the taboo words.
It is true that the next year “unprecedented” coral bleaching blamed on rising temperatures destroyed vast swaths of the state’s reefs: from Key Biscayne to Fort Lauderdale, a survey found that “about two-thirds were dead or reduced to less than half of their live tissue”. Still, it’s possible that they simply need to increase their nutrient use efficiency.
At the federal level, the new policy has yet to show clear-cut success either. As the say-no-evil policy has rolled out in the early months of the Trump presidency, it coincided with the onset of a truly dramatic “flash drought” across much of the nation’s wheat belt.
As the Farm Journal website pointed out earlier last week: “Crops in the Dakotas and Montana are baking on an anvil of severe drought and extreme heat, as bone-dry conditions force growers and ranchers to make difficult decisions regarding cattle, corn and wheat.”
In typically negative journalistic fashion, the Farm Journal reported that “abandoned acres, fields with zero emergence, stunted crops, anemic yields, wheat rolled into hay, and early herd culls comprise a tapestry of disaster for many producers”.
Which is why it’s good news for the new strategy that the USDA has filled its vacant position of chief scientist with someone who knows the power of words.
In fact, Sam Clovis, the new chief scientist, is not actually a scientist of the kind that does science, or has degrees in science, but instead formerly served in the demanding task of rightwing radio host (where he pointed out that followers of former president Obama were “Maoists”). He has actually used the words “climate change” in the past, but only to dismiss it as “junk science”.
Under his guidance the new policy should soon yield results, which is timely since recent research (carried out, it must be said, by scientist scientists at MIT) showed that “climate change could deplete some US water basins and dramatically reduce crop yields in some areas by 2050”.
But probably not if we don’t talk about it.
*Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the climate campaign 350.org and author, most recently, of Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist