When we swapped out the term “global warming” for “climate change,” it was in an effort to be more precise with what exactly was happening with the planet. The same can’t be said for the USDA’s new directive to scrap mention of climate change in favor of “weather extremes.”
This new tendency, uncovered by The Guardian via a series of staff emails at the National Resources Conservation Service, is a clear departure from (correctly) placing blame on humans and the agriculture industry for changes in the world’s climate.
It all began in January, when Jimmy Bramblett, deputy chief for programs at the NRCS, wrote in an email to senior employees, “It has become clear one of the previous administration’s priority is not consistent with that of the incoming administration. Namely, that priority is climate change. Please visit with your staff and make them aware of this shift in perspective within the executive branch.”
Just a few weeks after, in mid-February, Bianca Moebius-Clune, director of soil health, listed several terms to be avoided in an email: not only was “climate change” to be replaced by “weather extremes,” but “climate change adaption” was to be swapped out for “resilience to weather extremes” and “reduce greenhouse gases” changed to “build soil organic matter, increase nutrient use efficiency.”
Not everyone was happy about the change. One NRCS employee wrote in a July 5 email that they would “prefer to keep the language as is” to maintain the “scientific integrity of the work,” and the NRDC, reporting on these changes, noted that the new euphemisms forced scientists to “lose any reference to a changing climate, greenhouse gases, and carbon pollution (and heat, it appears) and substitute them with fuzzy language that doesn’t convey the urgency of a global environmental, health, and social threat, nor agriculture’s role in it.”
Senators were also reasonably upset about the change, including Michigan Senator Debbie Stabelow, ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
“Censoring the agency’s scientists and natural resource professionals as they try to communicate these risks and help producers adapt to a changing climate does a great disservice to the men and women who grow the food, fuel, and fiber that drive our economy, not to mention the agency’s civil servants themselves,” Stabenow wrote to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. “This censorship makes the United States less competitive, less food secure, and puts our rural families and their communities at risk.”
Reports of these changes with regard to language concerning climate change drew immediate repudiation from the USDA. Spokesman Tim Murtaugh denied the existence of such a directive, and for now, the NRCS website confirms this, retaining several mentions of climate change.
But this is only the latest way in which governmental talk of climate change has been dumbed down. Mentions of the dangers of climate change have been removed from government websites including those of the White House, the Department of the Interior, and the EPA. The government also announced in June that it would be withdrawing from the Paris agreement, due to the fact that the climate accord, which has been ratified by 159 parties around the world, is a “bad deal” for the United States.
Whatever we call it, climate change is a reality, as a recently leaked federal report drafted by scientists from 13 federal agencies confirms. The report, run by the New York Times earlier this month, places human activity at the center of these environmental issues, noting that the average temperatures in the United States have risen rapidly and drastically over the past 40 years to such an extent that even if changes are made now, the damage is irreversible.
“It directly contradicts claims by President Trump and members of his cabinet who say that the human contribution to climate change is uncertain, and that the ability to predict the effects is limited,” reports the Times.
“It’s a fraught situation,” says Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geoscience and international affairs at Princeton University who was not involved in the study. “This is the first case in which an analysis of climate change of this scope has come up in the Trump administration, and scientists will be watching very carefully to see how they handle it.”
Of course, to handle it, we need to be able to talk about it. This is the impetus behind the suit of several government agencies, including the EPA, by the Center for Biological Diversity, in order to force them to release information on the “censoring” of climate change verbiage. According to Center open government attorney Meg Townsend, these modifications are tantamount to “active censorship of science” and “appalling and dangerous for America and the greater global community.”