The Unnameable


The tradition of unsayable words or things is a long one. In Judaism, you cannot utter the name of God. In Harry Potter, you cannot utter the name Voldemort. In my household, you cannot utter the fact that my dog is not a human.

Nationally, the number of things that can’t be said appears to be growing, judging by the popularity in the last couple of decades of the tiresome locutions spawned by the f-word and the n-word. (They are so plentiful that they need a moniker; I propose “the first-letter-word phrase” but am open to suggestion.)

We can add to that list—at least as far as the 2012 presidential campaign is concerned—the phrase climate change. As The New York Times recently reported, “Even after a year of record-smashing temperatures, drought and Arctic ice melt, none of the moderators of the four general-election debates asked about climate change, nor did [any] of the candidates broach the topic.”

The Times article, by the way, was published before the coming of Hurricane Sandy, which as I write is pounding against my office window.

Of course, climate change itself is kind of a euphemism, famously advocated by the political adviser Frank Luntz, in a 2002 memo to Republicans, because it is “less frightening than ‘global warming.’ While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.”

Well, now even climate change must be perceived as too catastrophic and challenging to be allowed to emerge from a candidate’s lips. Mitt Romney, in his acceptance speech, did not mention the words global, warming, climate, or even change. The one time he alluded to this issue it was to mock it with a surefire laugh line: “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise … is to help you and your family.”

In one of the campaign’s only acknowledgments that any of this stuff could conceivably be problematic, Romney’s chief domestic policy adviser, Oren Cass, managed to make an argument that taking action to curb global warming would actually promote global warming: “What it is going to do is hurt our economy very seriously, and it’s going to drive a lot of industrial activity from the United States to countries that are, frankly, much less efficient in their use of energy.” Well played, sort of.

President Obama isn’t doing much better in the uttering department. True, and to his credit, in his convention speech this summer, he did say: “And, yes, my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet—because climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children’s future. And in this election, you can do something about it.”

But it’s not clear exactly what that something is. He is certainly not talking about any regulation or any cap-and-trade law—another unutterable term. The Times reports, “After a bill died in the Senate in 2010, Mr. Obama abandoned his support for cap and trade … and he has given little hint of what regulatory policies he intends to pursue if he wins a second term. Aides said that he would not propose a carbon tax or other energy tax, but that he would consider supporting one as part of a larger budget and spending deal.”

According to Scott Tong, a correspondent for American Public Media’s Marketplace, Obama not only abandoned cap and trade, he made an “active decision” to abandon the phrase climate change.

In political terms, both candidates’ reticence is understandable. Climate change is perceived, probably correctly, as a no-win. In a Gallup poll taken this summer, respondents were asked to rate the importance of a dozen issues. Only 21 percent deemed “Dealing with environmental concerns, such as global warming” as “extremely important,” a tie for last place. (The issue it tied with, “Raising taxes on wealthy Americans,” could be considered a ringer in that the number of Republicans who chose it probably did not exceed single digits.)

When the issue absolutely has to come up, both candidates have euphemisms for the euphemism. Obama and his surrogates trumpet green jobs and clean energy; who could object?

As for Romney, in the first debate, he said, “I like coal. I’m going to make sure we continue to burn clean coal.” Well played, again: even better than a euphemism is an oxymoron! As an engineer and entrepreneur observed in Forbes magazine, “Not only is there no clean coal now, there is no practical technology on the horizon that will produce electricity by burning coal in a manner that is cost competitive and eliminates emissions.”

I have a comment for all this, but it’s unprintable.

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