Millions of dollars have been channeled into framing climate change messages by intentional misuse of language so as to mislead the masses. The Guardian reports, conservative billionaires have doled out nearly $120m between 2002 and 2010 to re-define climate messages and frame them in a manner that would cast doubt about the climate science.
This strategy seems to have been effective, at least to some degree, because humans think in terms of unconscious structures called frames, which are connected to the emotional center of our brain, according to cognitive science. The fossil fuel industry seems to be using this fact to manipulate human cognition by misusing language.
“Like any other tool, language can be abused, used not to build but to destroy, not to communicate but to confuse, not to clarify but to obscure, not to lead but to mislead.”
Profound words from a retired American linguist Dr. William Lutz, who received the George Orwell award for his Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Speaking. Dr. Lutz spent most of his life meticulously scrutinizing words and compositions, and actively campaigned against misleading and irresponsible use of language in public discourses.
But unfortunately misleading language is precisely what the fossil fuel industry continues to thrive on; surely “Ethical Oil” sounds more appealing than tar-sands oil. It’s called “doublespeak” and is becoming all too common in the western society.
Using doublespeak, the Alberta tarsands stakeholders launched a powerful campaign and created the euphemism “Ethical Oil”. The campaign was designed to distract the public from environmental and health concerns and shift their attention to national security and societal issues, while undermining credible environmentalists, who denounced tarsands mining.
The campaign “conflict oil” vs. “ethical oil,” which epitomizes doublespeak, shaped the debate between oil produced in conflict zones (like the middle east and Venezuela) vs. in a democratic country like Canada, and focused mainly on the differences between the kind of societies that stand to profit from the oil sales. This slideshow in The Globe and Mail’s Ethical Oil Campaign highlights the use of doublespeak.
Dr. Lutz would argue, the inflated language in these slides is “deliberately designed to mislead the public, and hide the truth”, as typically practiced in the world of doublespeak.
The health and ecological nightmare of tar sands mining is entirely shrouded by the “ethical oil” banner, as the sophisticated language cunningly veils the plight of the giant lakes that became contaminated with 720 million cubic liters of poisonous waste in 2009; it masks the high levels of carcinogenic toxins such as mercury and arsenic that was detected downstream in the Athabasca River; and worst of all it conceals the plight of the Fort Chipewyan communities living downstream from tar sands mines that have seen elevated rates of cancer, and not to mention the 500 birds found dead in one of the lakes in Aurora in 2008.
Doublespeak is based on the nuances between what is said and left unsaid, according to Dr. Lutz. Essentially it obscures language and communication.
In 2012, doublespeak was prominent in Enbridge’s messaging of the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline to transport tar-sands oil from Alberta to China. In this instance a 1000 kilometer precarious stretch of the Douglas Channel was obscured in a PR video, which portrayed the channel as a much safer route for tankers through BC waters. But the British Columbians caught on to the deceptive tactics and took to the streets, vehemently rejecting the proposal.
Meantime, even as the stakeholders were touting Canada’s human rights records, they conveniently ignored the First Nation’s Treaty 8, which was signed by Queen Victoria and various First Nations in 1899, is federally protected, and forbids the expansion of the tarsands mine. So in late 2012, a small indigenous community on the edge of Lake Athabasca in Alberta’s remote north, filed a landmark constitutional challenge against Shell Canada’s expansion of its Jackpine tar-sands mine. Clearly the doublespeak tactic is backfiring, as people are becoming more aware and alert.
In recent years the international voices against the tar-sands oil exploitation have become louder than ever before. In the United States, the pressure on President Obama has been mounting since his re-election, with climate campaigners including high profile Senators converging recently on the White House grounds to denounce the Keystone XL Pipeline (that would transport Canadian tar-sands oil into American refineries). Preeminent climate scientist and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute Dr. James Hansen describes the development as a “game-over proposition for climate change”.
The tar-sands mining is also drawing unprecedented attention in Europe, with the European Union set to label the so called ‘ethical oil’ as highly polluting, as it produces 22 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil on average, due to the extra energy required to blast the bitumen from the bedrock and refine it. In response, Canada threatened a trade war over the EU oil-sands ban in 2011.
So, given the overwhelming rejection of tar-sands mining it’s clear that there’s nothing ethical about the “ethical oil”. In fact, it would be safe to say the “ethical oil” euphemism exemplifies the unethical use of language in trying to mask a problem that could have unimaginable ramifications on our children and grandchildren.
The need to remain vigilant has never been greater, as the fossil fuel industry clings on to its doublespeak and desperately tries to defend its public image. Doublespeak is insidious, claims Dr. Lutz; it can infect and destroy the function of language and eventually rip apart the fabric of our society. If left unchecked, we could become so attuned with doublespeak that
we may even start believing “politicians and industries don’t lie but only ‘misspeak”; that illegal acts are merely ‘inappropriate actions’; that fraud and criminal conspiracy are just “miscertification.” Worse yet, doublespeak can become so pervasive that it could become the coin of political realm, with speakers and listeners convinced that they really understand and readily accept it.
Language is our society’s bedrock, fundamental to cooperation and harmony, as Fritjof Capra asserts in his book The web of Life:
An abstract world of language and thoughts can be used to bring forth our world together. The uniqueness of being human lies in our ability to continually weave the linguistic network in which we are embedded. To be human is to exist in language.
So instead of wasting time and money to misuse language and mislead the public, the fossil fuel industry needs to redirect these valuable resources into honestly addressing climate change and provide accurate information. It needs to eliminate doublespeak from its vocabulary and instead look for ways to work with all stakeholders in order to collectively implement the existing solutions to address climate change.