Language Intelligence – Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga: A Review

Many of you will know Romm mostly if not exclusively for his “Climate Progress” blog, and his round-the-clock, take-no-prisoners debunking of the disinformation efforts of climate change inactivists and clean energy opponents. So I suspect you, like I, will be pleasantly surprised as you are introduced to a completely different Joe Romm that you never knew existed. Joe demonstrates a remarkable intellectual breadth and depth that goes well beyond his obvious expertise in the area of climate and energy policy. His message in ‘Language Intelligence’ has a generality that extends to all areas of public discourse, whether it be politics, education, or entertainment. But make no mistake. His lessons have great relevance in the domain of climate change communication, and particular salience for those interested in communicating climate change—the science, the impacts, the risks—to a broader public audience. As a rule we don’t, for example, use metaphor–a particularly powerful tool for communicating complicated concepts in a simple and accessible way–nearly enough. Though, as Romm notes, we are getting better. One example of an effective metaphor that he provides (and indeed, which I sometimes use myself) is the notion of “weather on steroids” as a way of communicating the statistical nature of the subtle–but very real–influence that climate change is having on certain types of extreme weather events. Just as many of the home runs hit by a baseball player on steroids were almost certainly due to the taking of steroids–even if you can’t prove that any one home run resulted from it–so too is it likely that the record-breaking heat we are seeing in the U.S. this summer of 2012 is very likely due, in substantial part, to the impact of human-caused climate change and global warming.

Climate change critics have indeed understood the importance of language and rhetoric for some time. In the infamous leaked “Luntz Memo” of 2002, Republican pollster Frank Luntz advised his clients–fossil fuel interests–how they could more effectively use clever word choice and rhetoric–indeed, the figures of speech themselves–to reframe the public discourse over climate change, to help convince the public that there was no scientific consensus, that climate change was not a threat, and that any actions to mitigate climate change would themselves be dangerous. Already, the forces of climate change inaction were sharpening their rhetorical weapons in preparation for retrenchment in the war against the science of climate change–the “climate wars”.

I can appreciate this at a very personal level. I was somewhat involuntarily thrust into the center of the public debate over climate change at this very time, when the “Hockey Stick” temperature reconstruction I co-authored, depicting the unprecedented nature of modern warming in at least the past millennium, developed into an icon in the debate over human-caused climate change [particularly when it was featured in the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) of the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC in 2001]. I soon found myself at the center of concerted attacks by those who believed, somewhat cynically (and quite illogically from a scientific viewpoint) that they could discredit the entire case for the reality and threat of human-caused climate change, if they could simply discredit my work and, indeed, me specifically (this is to be distinguished from the good-faith scientific debate and give-and-take, that is to be expected–and indeed is necessary, for the progress of science). Indeed, I wrote a book about my experiences–and what I think I’ve learned from them–earlier this year (The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars).

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