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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 February 2007, 12:04 GMT
The semantics of climate change
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News

Is it so difficult to curb the growth of greenhouse gases because scientists and politicians are speaking a different language?

Climate Change Kills graffiti
Graffiti on the pavement outside the Asia-Pacific climate meeting
Given the contempt in which the great mass of journalists hold politicians - probably matched only by the contempt in which the great mass of the public hold journalists - it takes something special from a politician nowadays to shock a news conference.

In Sydney last January, US Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman managed it during the inaugural ministerial meeting of the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. It is a long name for a small group of countries whose declared aim is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the single medium of clean technology.

Science is nothing without precision... political language, on the other hand, is a triumph of misrepresentation

Now, I hope you caught that deceptively simple phrase 'reduce greenhouse gas emissions'. If you did, stick it somewhere safe for a couple of minutes, because we are coming back to it.

Business barons

Now, the meeting itself. It was short and sweet and included at least as many people from power companies as from governments. So why were the business barons there, we asked, and how would they enable the Asia-Pacific Partnership to cut emissions? Mr Bodman's answer was that corporations would reduce greenhouse gas emissions because they cared.

That is it. No really, it is. I went back and checked my recording. This is the exact quote: "I believe that the people who run the private sector, who run these companies: they too have children, they too have grandchildren, they too live and breathe in the world. And they would like things dealt with effectively."

Call me cynical if you will, but my first thought was, so you mean, what, corporations like Enron? Or Arthur Andersen? Or WorldCom? And I was not alone. Mr Bodman had momentarily silenced an entire press corps.

Tribal worries

Turkana in Kenya
At the other end of the year - at the other end of the world, it seemed - were the pastoralists of Kenya's northern Turkana province.

This was an added extra at the gathering which traditionally tries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions - that deceptively simple phrase again - the annual round of United Nations climate negotiations, this time in Nairobi.

I was out and about with the British Environment Secretary David Miliband in the Turkana bush.

In a clearing shaded by giant trees and dotted with termite mounds almost as big, around 1,000 people turned out in a variety of tribal costumes. Chants were powerfully sung; dances were performed with blazing eyes and thumping feet.

A mother and child from the Elmorro Tribe in Lake Turkana
A mother and child from the Elmorro Tribe in Lake Turkana, Kenya
A large imposing chief, with the face of Samuel L Jackson and the voice of a giant, told Mr Miliband what his people thought about the changing climate.

And these people did care. These people certainly have children and grandchildren; they certainly live and breathe in the world. And they would certainly like things dealt with effectively; especially the drought which has been drying their watercourses and killing their livestock for nearly three years.

They care because their extensive oral history tells them how the weather was in times gone by. And now they perceive a different pattern, one that is bizarre and dangerous.

Neither meeting produced anything which you could sell to a Turkana chief or to a climate scientist as a meaningful measure against climate change.

I have wondered long into many nights why it always ends up like this; why it is so difficult to curb the global growth in greenhouse gas emissions which now runs above 2% per year.

Others look to energy forecasts and demographic change and trade blocs for their answers.

Art of language

I have been concentrating on semantics. And it has brought me to a conclusion which is so simple I cannot believe I missed it years ago.

The crux of the matter, it seems to me, lies in the different ways that scientists and politicians use language.

Science is nothing without precision. You mislabel a larynx as a pharynx, call a nematode a trematode, and your career is done.

It is a linguistic trick of huge importance. We should all observe its emergence, document its every use, and fear it like the plague
Political language, on the other hand, is a triumph of misrepresentation. A failure becomes a success when some little crumb of your plan has worked; winning a battle allows claims of victory even as the war slips away.

So you can describe climate change as 'the biggest threat confronting humanity' even when you are demonstrably doing more about hospital finances, say, about prisons, or some ill-defined threat from abroad.

When a scientist talks about 'reducing greenhouse gas emissions' - I told you we would end up back at this phrase - he or she means just that; actually reducing them. But what it is coming to mean in the political lexicon is something very different; The meeting in Sydney made that abundantly clear.

'Reducing emissions'

The publicity from Mr Bodman and his benevolent business allies spoke of reducing emissions; the small-print acknowledges that if the Asia Pacific Partnership does what it wants to, emissions will still rise, but a bit less quickly than they would have done otherwise. Having them grow less fast becomes equivalent to reducing them.

It is a linguistic trick of huge importance to the drought-ridden citizens of Turkana, and to everyone else who is likely to be at the sharp end of some climate-related impact in the coming years. We should all observe its emergence, document its every use, and fear it like the plague.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 3 February, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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