Due to rapid climate change, many coastal places are at risk, but Florida is one of the most vulnerable. ©John H. Gaukel

Words are my business; I’m intrigued by them and the power they have. As an environmental writer, I am particularly interested in the terms we have to describe the natural world: is a particular landscape “inspiring,” or is it more of a “stirring” place?

While the daily challenges I face of which expression to use may seem insignificant to you, the power of word choice becomes clearer when we look at how our selections can alter our feelings about different species of wildlife or when a lack of certain words determines how our children learn about the wide world around them.

Earlier this month, Florida shined a spotlight on the power of words when it was reported that the state banned the use of the phrase “climate change” in official statements and publications.

One research study on several European languages that had frequently used expressions containing the words for “bear,” “lynx” and “wolf” found that of the three animals, “wolf” was associated with the most numerous, complex and negative range of expressions. ©Brad Josephs

Were the headlines and public attention the reported action garnered justified? Should we worry if “climate change” is removed from our lexicon regarding the environment?

Word wars

Governments, local and federal, have a long history of promoting certain word choices to further their agendas. In World War II, for example, the American public was urged to plant vegetable, fruit and herb gardens to reduce pressure on the food supply. These “Victory Gardens,” as they were termed, were also considered to be a morale booster since their very names made gardeners feel that they, too, were directly contributing to winning the war.

It could be said that Florida is on the front lines of climate change. The state stands much to lose if sea levels rise. So, restricting discussing the issue—and it would be tough to tackle if you can’t even use the term “climate change”—seems to be a denial of reality.

During WWII, “Victory Gardens” were encouraged. ©Morley, U.S. Government Printing Office

Some say it could be even more sinister than that: the constraint could be seen as a political weapon for social control. The governor of Florida, Rick Scott (R), has often stated how he does not believe reports of climate change are substantiated. Florida Senator Marco Rubio (R) has said that he doesn’t believe human activity is causing these dramatic alterations to our climate. And former Florida governor and Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush called himself a global warming “skeptic” in 2009.

Obviously, these politicians know that language guides our thoughts.

Thought obstructions

It is important to note that officially the governor of Florida has said that there was never a written policy about banning the term “climate change.” Most of those employed by the state agree, however, that the workplace culture discouraged using terms that didn’t fall in line with the administration’s political biases.

Already in Florida, more than half the state’s 825 miles of sandy beaches are eroding. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

In the end, we may never know for sure if there ever was a ban in Florida on the use of the words “climate change.” But the recent headlines over the possibility makes me wonder if we are all too wedded to our own political leanings to see the environment through a clear lens that filters out such ideologies. We desperately need that unclouded view, since only eight states have congressional delegations without members who deny climate change. This, despite the fact that up to 97 percent of relevant scientific studies show agreement on current rapid climate change and its human-caused component.

Do you think that the alleged ban on the term “climate change” in Florida’s government communications has the potential to keep the state’s residents from taking the threat seriously?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,