The Political Language of Energy Obfuscation

Washington, D.C., February 28, 2104 – In 1946, George Orwell wrote a brilliant essay about how language and politics intersect, which has relevance today. In this essay, “Politics and the English Language,” published in Horizon, Orwell makes the essential point: bad thinking begets bad writing and bad writing begets bad thinking. He says succinctly, “But if bad thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

In today’s discourse, there are many examples to prove Orwell’s point. Here are three I regard as egregiously misleading.

* “Carbon pollution.” President Obama has spoken of “carbon emissions that contaminate the water we drink and pollute the air that we breathe.” That is entirely bogus. “Carbon emissions” has become shorthand for emissions of carbon dioxide, which arguably warm the planet through the greenhouse effect. But carbon dioxide is far from any reasonable definition of pollutant, or, as my dictionary says, a “man-made waste.” CO2 is not toxic, unlike its cousin CO, or carbon monoxide, long recognized in federal law as one of the “criteria pollutants.” Nor is CO2 entirely or even in a major way a product of mankind. Plants need CO2 to live, as photosynthesis (folks, that’s solar power) involves plants taking in CO2 and giving back oxygen (which might just as well be defined as pollution). We humans and other animals breathe in oxygen and return CO2 to the atmosphere. Nor do the prominent images of power plants with plumes arising from their stacks validate the notion that CO2 is pollution. CO2 is an invisible gas, and most of what those images show is steam. By the way, water vapor, AKA steam, is the most important greenhouse gas.

* “Climate change.” This term first got cooked up by the electric power industry, which found the correct term “global warming” unpalatable. Then the environmental movement adopted it, as they realized that “climate change” is a meaningless term that allows them to call any weather event – floods, drought, heat waves, cold snaps, snow storms, hurricanes, tornadoes – part of their narrative of man-made “climate change.” But, of course, the climate changes and always has, and the real issue is whether the climate is warming, a topic about which many experts can disagree, as the global climate has not warmed for the past decade-and-a-half. Of course, the climate may have changed. So what?

* “Loan guarantee.” This is a particular term of obfuscatory art used in Washington by both Republicans and Democrats to hide direct subsidies to favored industries. In the case of energy, that applies – under the terms of what may be the most egregiously flawed law in recent history, the Energy Policy Act passed with bipartisan support in 2005 – to renewables and nuclear power. The law speaks of loan guarantees, implying that somehow the private sector will make the loans, knowing that the federal government will back them up with its full faith and credit. That’s not how it works. The money flowing to Solyndra and then down a financial drain, and now to the Southern Company comes from the Federal Financing Bank, part of the Treasury Department. The loan payments – if they materialize, as they likely will from Southern – go back to the Treasury. The taxpayers assume all the risk, but also get all the reward if the loans mature. Wall Street and Main Street are simply not involved. These are direct loans, disguised as “loan guarantees.”

“In our time,” wrote Orwell, “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”