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Will words fail us at the Copenhagen conference?

Linguist George Lakoff maintains that humans lack good ways to verbalize complex issues like climate change; the Monitor's language columnist tries to imagine things otherwise.

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The National Public Radio program "Living on Earth" recently noted that the climate-change bills currently on Capitol Hill don't actually use the phrase "climate change" in their titles. The House has passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act. The Senate is considering the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act.

George Lakoff is a noted linguist and a longtime political strategist. He has counseled Democrats on "reframing" issues, helping them find new words to use to help them win support for their policies.

"Living on Earth" invited him on and asked him, "Professor Lakoff, please explain why Democrats think they can pass a climate-change bill when the words 'climate change' are barely mentioned?"

Lakoff responded by citing a recent Pew Center poll. It found that the number of Americans who say there is solid evidence of global warming fell between April 2008 and October 2009. "As a result, the administration has decided not to worry about that," Lakoff said, "not to take that on and have the debate over whether [global warming is] real, but to just assume it's real and go on."

Host Steve Curwood pressed him: "What is it about the human condition that makes it so hard to talk about a slow-moving, yet, as science tells us, ultimately deadly, phenomenon known as climate disruption?"

The problem may be one of language, Lakoff responded. "Linguists have studied languages all over the world, and every language has a way to express causation, but that causation is always direct.... I pick up this cup of coffee; that's direct causation. Climate change isn't like that.... [It] is systemic causation."

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