Reframing and the Global Warming Debate

I blogged about these ads produced by the industry-funded “Competitive Enterprise Institute” attacking Al Gore’s documentary on global warming because they’re too over the top not to be funny.

However, the tagline to each spot reveals they’re playing defense against a subtle shift in the way people talk about global warming. Each ad ends with the lines, “Carbon Dioxide: They call it pollution. We call it life.” I noticed Al Gore refers to carbon dioxide as “pollution” in An Inconvenient Truth. Of course he’s technically correct: Merriam-Webster defines pollute as “to contaminate (an environment) especially with man-made waste” and the CO2 is definitely man-made and definitely getting into the environment. However it doesn’t quite fit with my notion of pollution — a substance that’s generally not already present in large amounts. I’m not sure how long people have used pollution to talk about CO2, but Google’s only indexed about 160,000 examples of the phrase “global warming pollution” (mostly by environmentalists) , as opposed to 85+ million uses of the phrase “global warming.”

Equating carbon dioxide with “pollution” is a powerful way to take the rhetorical upper ground. I think most Americans believe it’s necessary for the government to limit “pollution,” and within this consensus our politics surround toxins are not whether they should be restricted, but instead how. (Through voluntary restrictions, emission credits, fixed limits, etc.)

This is why the industry spinmeisters are forced to sound ridiculous. If they concede the point, they’ve lost the war.

Author: Rob Goodspeed