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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is in charge of the Forest Service as well as several agricultural and food-related research agencies, recently told its staffers to avoid using the term “climate change.” The business-as-usual term “weather extremes” was recommended instead.

While dropping the word “climate” may seem like a defeat for those of us who remain convinced that human influences are harming the global environment, this federal directive made in the spirit of changing the narrative might be good advice. Could it be that the term itself has failed us?

Suppose, for a moment, you are in a restaurant, and someone yells, “Help, she’s having a heart attack!” Being a good person, you would no doubt spring into action, call 9-1-1, look for aspirin or a defibrillator, and so on.

Suppose that same person had instead yelled, “Help, she’s having a myocardial infarction!” You would probably react the same way … but wouldn’t you perhaps pause for just a second? Unless you’re a medical professional, wouldn’t you first have to engage in some type of internal translation? I would. The ailing woman might get better care at a hospital with such detailed wording, but the immediate danger she faces in the restaurant hides behind the wrong language.

Here’s the problem: Although most Americans today say that climate change is a real and serious issue, most probably don’t understand what the term “climate” means. The difference between climate and weather, the moving target of climate averages, and the intangibility of climate experience all make “climate” a problematic word to rally around. I know the Northwest has a rainy climate, and because I experience getting wet frequently, I know in my bones that this is true. The same goes for Palm Springs: You have a warm climate. But, alas, the word “climate” can become jargon.

Yes, the climate is changing, but it is an acute global environmental crisis—global warming—that is touching the realities of daily life for millions of people around the world.

Houston just turned into a gigantic lake. Hurricane Irma, the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, is on the march across the Caribbean, one of three hurricanes in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico as of this writing. Furnace Creek, Calif., the hottest place on Earth, posted its hottest July on record. Unprecedented peat fires burn in Greenland. Extreme weather events across the globe abound, and they are tied not just to generalized climate change, but directly to heat. The term “global warming” comes with baggage stuffed full of 30 years of politics, but for now it is the best we have.

Both global warming and climate change been used to describe what’s happening to the planet since the 1970s. Conventionally, global warming refers specifically to the rise of average global temperatures, and climate change refers more broadly, to shifts in prevailing environmental conditions, including the odd spot that is getting colder.

As the 1990s and 2000s saw popular culture build concern for global warming, the issue got entangled in bitter politics. Because “global warming” was accused of sounding alarmist, some researchers hoped that the term “climate change” would sound more scientific.

But climate change has been the wrong phrase for the job, because it is too scientific. It has failed to provoke urgency and been easy to pooh-pooh. (It’s probably not a coincidence that a Republican political strategist recommended using the term “climate change,” because he said “it is less frightening than ‘global warming.’”)

“Change” is a neutral term that does not convey that humanity is the culprit behind what’s happening. After all, it is entirely correct that the climate is always changing—a frequent retort from climate-change deniers. Furthermore, many shifts caused by global warming are not climatic—think sea-level rise, ocean acidification and melting glaciers. This further confuses the terminology.

Al Gore has recently taken to talking instead about the “climate crisis.” While I find this a laudable step, there is still a challenge with the word climate—we just can’t touch the climate. “Global weirding” and “global environmental change” both offer alternatives, but both have failed to catch on.

If I look south outside my window, I can see a small patch of dirty blue ice on a mountain in Denali National Park. Just eight years ago, when I first came here, this patch was significantly larger and snow-white all summer long. Now there is a tan bathtub ring around what used to be a glacier. This change is personal, precise and experiential.

Words matter. Words invoke, connote and direct attention as we move through the world. Discouraging use of the term “climate change” might just turn out to be a good thing. As long as we continue to talk about the subject: Let’s stick with global warming.

Alex Lee is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is an assistant professor of philosophy at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage.

Published in Community Voices

Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s controversial secretary of Agriculture, was a profane man known for his hair-trigger temper and his rough handling of subordinates. So when the chief of the Forest Service stood him up for a meeting, Butz unloaded in response: “There are four branches of government,” he reportedly snarled, “the executive, legislative, judicial and the Gawd-damn U.S. Forest Service.”

Although current Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack might have worded it differently, he probably appreciates the sentiment now: He recently discovered how ornery the powerful Forest Service can be.

At issue was one of Vilsack’s pet projects—an attempt to reshape the image of the entire $132 billion Agriculture Department, which oversees everything from plant and animal inspections, food safety and ending hunger to the health and productivity of national forests. Dubbed “One Brand,” this graphic facelift has engaged Agriculture Department officials overseeing the agency’s 20 departments for the past three years. One Brand’s goal has been to strip each organization of its historic symbols and insignias, replacing them with a generic logo symbolizing the mother ship—the Agriculture Department. All that would remain visually would be the individual agencies’ initials set in much smaller type centered beneath the Agriculture Department’s dominant initials.

It was appropriate that this homogenizing directive was embedded in an innocuous-sounding document called the Visual Standards Guide. It detailed the items that One Brand would cover and announced the establishment of an oversight office within the Agriculture Department—the delightfully named Brand, Events, Exhibits, and Editorial Review Division, acronym BEEERD. Its reach would be broad and deep, extending from the appearance of social-media platforms such as Facebook sites, Twitter feeds and websites, to all signage, vehicles, uniforms, letterheads and envelopes, decals and PowerPoint presentations, right down to the “Hello, My Name Is …” adhesive name tags.

The directive, however, unleashed a firestorm of protest. But the outrage did not come from within the affected agencies, for few staffers knew anything about the impending airbrushing. Instead, it was Forest Service retirees who learned—to their considerable dismay—that longtime agency logos were being phased out and replaced with “a standardized signature model to be adopted by all USDA agencies.” That meant that the Forest Service’s distinctive pine-tree shield ––worn by men and women for well more than a century––would cease to exist.

Infuriated but organized through the National Association of Forest Service Retirees, the critics bombarded the agriculture secretary’s office with phone calls, emails and letters, sending copies to the beleaguered head of BEEERD as well. Protesters also reached out to their congressional delegations, called local talk radio shows, and contacted newspapers and other media.

Their opposition took on the air of a revival meeting. They talked about the emblematic power of the logo to bind them to one another and to the land they helped steward. The evocative shield and the uniform to which it was pinned testified to their devoted public service, they said. Shedding these symbols, and the emotional attachments they held, seemed like a deliberate attack on their collective history. These defenders proved a potent collective, and so overwhelming was their opposition that it forced the Agriculture Department’s hand.

In a one-sentence release on April 4, the department granted the Forest Service an exemption to its One Brand directive. You could hear the hosannas from agency retirees and staffers a mile off.

Every other department in agriculture, however, has had to submit to the exorcizing of their respective insignias, causing blows to their staff’s morale. In British Columbia, Canada, public-land managers in the provincial forest service, learning of their American counterparts’ successful pushback, regretted that they had not had generated as forceful of a reaction when their home department obliterated their own century-old pine-tree emblem in favor of yet another bland, generic symbol.

What this Forest Service protest reveals is a deep uneasiness with the growing, corporate-style flattening of difference and identity within governmental bureaucracies. To their credit, Forest Service defenders showed an alert wariness toward lockstep representation and uniform thought.

Rebranding consultants, like the ones the Agriculture Department hired to guide its efforts, probably promoted this strategy as a positive way to harness a company’s disparate personnel. But the Department of Agriculture is not a business, and its subagencies’ varied missions and different objectives cannot be, and should not have been, unilaterally reined in.

As the dustup with the Forest Service suggests, a proud institutional history is a sustaining source of workplace identity and individual satisfaction. That’s a core value even Earl Butz might have respected.

Char Miller is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He directs the Environmental Analysis program at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and is the author of the just-released On the Edge: Water, Immigration and Politics in the Southwest.

Published in Community Voices