A few years ago, we did some work with a Florida public institution that was raising millions of dollars to create a center that would be home to researchers and policy analysts studying the effects of the state’s population boom and climate change on Florida’s coastal communities.
And in Florida, a narrow peninsula surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico and home to vast swamps and hundreds of miles of river system, almost everyone lives in a coastal ecosystem. Knowing what’s happening to the plants, animals and people coexisting within those sensitive coastal systems is essential for governmental leaders trying to keep those systems healthy.
The center brought together marine biologists, hydrologists, zoologists, chemists and anthropologists, along with emergency planners and others hoping to develop policies to guide not only Florida decision makers looking to protect those ecosystems, but to help build a model to benefit other states and nations struggling with similar challenges.
Our job as professional writers and editors was to help donors understand the urgency of this work. One big communications challenge: make a case for funding research into addressing the effects of climate change without using the term. So we wrote a 65-page report assessing the many challenges posed by sea-level rise and extreme weather, which scientists agree are caused by climate change, but that never used the term.
Because in Florida official government documents were not supposed to use those terms, which are fighting words for a lot of people in our national political argument between environmentalists and business interests. Republican Gov. Rick Scott didn’t like the terms because he was more than skeptical about climate change, its cause and impacts.
Science, from the days when Galileo argued against Earth being the center of the universe through the debate over the theory of evolution, has always been political, as has been the vocabulary surrounding the debate.
Science, of course, is not the only discipline wherein language and vocabulary often signal political philosophy. You can find political language in economics, art and social services where the terminology we use often signals how we feel and what we believe.
Bottom line: Pay attention to word choices when writing or speaking. Using neutral terminology can help soften opposition to your ideas and help win converts to your cause.
— BOB UNGER