Government no longer “spends money.” It “invests in the future.”
If, despite that distinction, you still worry about multitrillion-dollar deficits, you understand one of the most important techniques in the art of debate — when you’re losing, change the terms. Successful politicians master that art to push policies that might be unpopular if understood. If “torture” sounds bad, call it “enhanced interrogation.” Don’t like “amnesty for illegal aliens?” Try “a path to citizenship for the undocumented.” If “estate tax” sounds OK to people who have no “estate,” call it the “death tax,” because everyone dies. A simple change in terms often changes the outcome of debates, legislative votes, and elections.
It is a common technique in the world of conservation. That’s how national forest timber management became “below-cost timber sales” and “logging old growth,” which all but ended active forest management, leading to today’s dead and burning forests. That’s also how vast tracts of public lands became “the last great places,” which must be protected from the public. Both sides use the technique, but that doesn’t make it any more honest. In the 18th century, Edmund Burke called a colleague “economical with the actuality,” because it sounded more gentlemanly than “liar.”
In our era, the debate over global warming provides examples on both sides. When average global temperatures stopped rising, “global warming” became “climate change.” That includes either warming or cooling, so it’s always accurate. But it also increased public skepticism, making it impossible for Congress to muster enough votes to pass President Obama’s pet cap-and-trade program.
Rather than give up, advocates changed the terms. In the Trump era, with America energy-independent for the first time in generations, voters do not generally favor proposals to ban oil and gas production, a perpetual goal of the environmental industry. That’s why activists shifted away from arguing that the use of natural resources to create prosperity is evil. Rather than ascribe impure motives to all consumers, it is more effective to blame giant oil companies, not their shareholders or customers. So, corporations are accused of destroying the planet because they make carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
We all do, and we will not stop exhaling. Thus, CO2 is now called a “greenhouse gas” — because “emitting” any “gas” sounds like something that something to be stopped. But changing the terms is proving more difficult with this issue, for several reasons. First, there is a limit to how much Americans can pay for gas, heat, and electricity. When it hits their pocketbooks people become more skeptical, and many are simply unconvinced of a direct link between their own use of energy and catastrophic climate change. Second, revelations about fraudulent manipulation of scientific data has somewhat damaged the credibility of the theory. Third, massive expansion of fossil fuel use in China, India, and elsewhere has left Americans feeling like dupes for self-imposing restrictions that are not helping the environment.
This does not mean social engineers who want to ban most energy usage will give up. It means they must change the terms. Politicians in Colorado, and several other states, do not propose banning existing energy; they promote “green energy,” and say we should be completely “green” by some specified date. But what exactly is “green energy?” At the risk of stating the obvious, it means energy that comes from sources other than oil, gas, coal, methane, biomass, biofuels, nuclear, shale, tar sands, hydropower, or any source that requires pipelines, power lines, or other infrastructure (never mind that wind and solar power also require that). In a nutshell, it means we should stop using so much energy. It means the same thing it has always meant, just with different words.
“Green energy” is being repeated across the political landscape, because repetition is the key to changing the terms. Berkeley professor George Lakoff advises liberals, “Repetition of such articulations is the key to redefining these words…”
The Republican “Word Doctor” Frank Luntz similarly explained, “There’s a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time your audience is hearing it for the first time.”
Green energy is a perfectly legitimate debate, so long as everyone knows what it is about. Just remember, the story you are about to see is true; only the names have been changed to protect the political agenda.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of “Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.” He is a Western Slope native.