There are numerous instances of censorship that have recently occurred in the policy arena in which politicians have banned or censored use of language associated with references to humans impact on climate change. For example, the Trump administration ordered elimination of references to climate change in its various agencies (Volcovici, 2017):
- The Energy Department eliminated the use of the word, “climate,” in that Department, for example, renaming The Office of International Climate and Clean Energy to be The Office of Energy Efficiency and Clean Energy (Wolff, 2017), and language about “clean and alternative” energy was removed from the program’s website (Mooney & Rein, 2017). The Environmental Protection Agency (2017) revised its climate change site to create a new site. For the Environmental Topics page, “climate change” that was listed on the previous site, is no longer listed. EPA spokesperson, J. P. Freire, noted that “language associated with the Clean Power Plan, written by the last administration, is out of date. Similarly, content related to climate and regulation is also being reviewed” (Environmental Protection Agency, 2017) (see Sasha Lekach’s further analysis of changes of the EPA’s web.)
- The EPA division of the Climate Ready Water Utilities designed to assist local water utilities to cope with the effects of climate change on water (here’s the original website) dropped “Climate Ready” to create a new site with a new name, Creating Resilient Water Utilities (Gustin, 2017).
- Employees of The US Department of Agriculture” are told to “avoid” use of the words, “climate change,” and to use “weather extremes. In lieu to a focus on human-driven climate change associated with the words, “reduce greenhouse gases,” they are told to use “build soil organic matter, increase nutrient use efficiency” (Milman, 2017).
- The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Great Lakes website replaced the language “Earth’s climate is changing. Human activities that increase heat-trapping (‘greenhouse’) gases are the main cause” to the following that frames human causation as “being debated and researched” (Bergquist, 2016).
- Governor Rick Scott of Florida required employees of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) “‘to beware of the words global warming, climate change and sea-level rise’”—“‘these words were to be prohibited for use from official DEP policy-making with our clients’” (Newton, 2015).
To protect retention of information and data essential for understanding climate change effects, groups such as the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) have tracked changes to 25,000 pages across multiple government agencies (Milman & Morris, 2017). One EDGI member noted that “we have also observed shifts in economy-and business-oriented language, where the descriptions of the office focuses have increased their mentions of helping to grow infrastructure, create jobs, and stimulate the economy.”
Why the Need to Censor Language about Climate Change?
These actions raise the question–why are politicians so concerned about language use associated with “climate” or “climate change” that they remove or ban use of this language. English language arts teachers are all too familiar with attempts to censor books based on the assumption that reading these books will lead to certain changes in actions or attitudes/beliefs—that by reading about sexuality or drug use, students will then change their attitudes and engage in sex or drug use.
The problem with this assumption is that it presupposes that students are easily susceptible or blank slates as opposed a transactional theory of literary response (Rosenblatt, 1995)—that readers bring their own beliefs and attitudes to construct the meaning of texts. It is therefore difficult to posit, as censorship advocates argue, that there is a cause-effect relationship between reading a text and engaging in certain actions or beliefs.
Similarly, politicians who remove references to “climate” or “climate change” assume that exposure to those words or related information may result in audiences engaging in actions associated with the need to address climate change, actions that they do not support given their funding by the fossil fuel industry to their campaigns. They also assume that by not referring to the topic of climate change that audiences will be less likely to engage in addressing climate change perceived to be something that is considered a high priority in people’s lives.
These politicians’ acts of censorship shortchange the public’s increasing knowledge and concern regarding climate change effects resulting in the need for political and economic actions. Assuming that removing information about climate change will mean that the public will be less concerned about climate change presupposes that people are simply blank slates, when, in fact they do want and desire more information about climate change. They are also assuming that we operate in a “post-truth” world in which empirical facts about the human effects of climate change can be ignored or framed as “debatable.
Activities: Studying Censorship of Language Use Related to Climate Change
To examine censorship of use of language about climate change, students could:
- Compare censoring of language use regarding climate change to instances in their own lives to being forbidden to use certain words or language in particular settings. This can lead to questions as to why politicians or policymakers would want to censor use of language based on not only their climate denial stances but also on fears associated with perceptions of the fossil fuel industry’s actions on climate change.
- Identify instances of teachers engaged in more indirect censorship by not addressing climate change related to the need to “avoid controversy, self-censor their classrooms, limiting their students’ education, for instance, by restricting the focus of instruction to print material,” which is a violation of students First Amendment “right to know.” (National Council of Teachers of English, 2004)
- Read excerpts from George Orwell’s 1984 as a portrayal of a “post-truth” world in which a character explains the reasons for the creation of Newspeak language in which there is no word for “science”:
- “You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary get smaller every year?… Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it…How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished?” (quoted in Newton, 2015).
- Track examples of employees within these government agencies resisting the policy shifts using their own Twitter feeds, as well as members of the Sunlight Foundation and Climate Home (Berwyn, 2017). For example, a “feed from @RogueNOAA says: ‘Research on our climate, oceans, and marine resources should be subject to peer [not political] review’” (Berwyn, 2017).
- Review their own town, city, county, and/or state websites for their coverage of climate change to identify instances of censorship related to references to climate change. For example, the previously mentioned Florida Department of Environmental Protection, one of the states most vulnerable to future sea rise, makes no mention of climate change on that department’s front page. If they find little or no reference to climate change, students can then contact their elected officials asking for explanations for such omissions of that topic and whether they plan to add relevant information on climate change.
- Engage in a censorship roleplay in which a politician has requested that certain words or topics related to climate change be deleted from a website to a group who will vote on whether to allow for the deletion. Different students assume pro-con roles of the politician, scientists, local citizens, business people, teachers, students, farmers, etc., and each testifies to the group on whether to approve the deletion leading to a final vote, which is followed by a reflection on the arguments formulated in the role play.
Bergquist, L. (2016, December 28). DNR purges climate change from web page. Milwaukee Journantinel. Retrieved from http://tinyw.in/23ee
Berwyn, B. (2017). Fighting Trump’s climate censorship using social media [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://tinyw.in/EBrA
Environmental Protection Agency. (2017). EPA kicks off website updates [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://tinyw.in/7Ddt
Gustin, G. (2017). EPA removes mentions of “climate change” in Water Utilities Program http://tinyw.in/QOzc
Milman, O. (2017, August 7). US federal department is censoring use of term ‘climate change’, emails reveal. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://tinyw.in/SmMx
Milman, O., & Morris, S. (2017, May 31). Trump is deleting climate change, one site at a time. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://tinyw.in/Bjky
Mooney, C., & Rein, L. (2017, May 26). Don’t call it ‘climate change’: How the government is rebranding in the age of Trump. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://tinyw.in/6CVC
National Council of Teachers of English Standing Committee Against Censorship. (2004). Guidelines for Dealing with Censorship of Nonprint and Multimedia Materials. Urbana, Il: Author. Retreived from http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/censorshipofnonprint
Nerlich, B., Koteyko, N., & Brown, B. (2010). Theory and language of climate change communication. Wiley Interdisciplinary Research: Climate Change, 1, 97–110.
Newton, S. (2015, May 17). Florida bans the term “climate change”; or, Orwell Visits Miami. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://tinyw.in/P1kB
Rosenblatt, L. (1995). Literature as exploration. New York: Modern Language Association. Volcovici, V. (2017). Trump administration tells EPA to cut climate page from website: Sources [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://tinyw.in/Qyvj
Wolff, E. (2017). Energy Department climate office bans use of phrase “climate change” [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://energy.gov/science-innovation/climate-change