George Lakoff: How we talk about climate change, politics & morals


George Lakoff speaking to CCL through Zoom on the October international call.

George Lakoff: How we talk about climate change, politics & morals

By Flannery Winchester

Each month, Citizens’ Climate Lobby hosts an international call featuring a guest speaker to educate listeners on topics related to climate change and our Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal. 

The guest speaker for October 2016 was George Lakoff, a linguistics expert and author of “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” “The Political Mind,” and many more books examining the power of language. Mr. Lakoff is recently retired from the University of California at Berkeley, where he was Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics.

His recent work explores the distinction between direct causation and systemic causation, which is particularly relevant as our country grapples with the discussion of Hurricane Matthew. Lakoff noted that most news coverage of the storm wasn’t mentioning climate change, but many are wondering: Why is the storm this strong, or on this particular path? Is it caused by climate change? “The notion of cause is not just about direct causation, but systemic causation,” Lakoff began.

Direct vs. systemic causation

“Direct causation is very simple: you pick up a glass of water, you drink it, and then the glass doesn’t have water in it anymore. Direct causation. It happens here; it happens now.” It’s simple to understand, and it’s also simple to express through language. “Every language in the whole world can express direct causation in its grammar.”

But linguistics can’t quite cope with the concept of systemic causation. Why? Because it’s much more complex, which means it’s that much harder to express in one tidy little sentence.

Because of this linguistic difference, people sometimes fall into the trap of explaining — or denying — climate change only in terms of direct causation. Lakoff said, “Take the case of Republican senators who would go out and make snowballs in Washington in winter and then say, ‘What do you mean about global warming? It’s snowing here! More snow than we’ve ever seen!’ ” Well, they’re right that it has snowed. But they’re wrong to say that one piece of weather directly refutes the trends of climate change. Why? Systemic causation.

Lakoff walked us through four different types of systemic causation:

  1. A chain of causes. In our example with the snowballs, Lakoff pointed out that the explanation for the snow is a chain of causes. “Over the Pacific Ocean, you have lots of evaporation. What is evaporation? Water molecules that are charged with a lot of energy and go into the air. Then they’re blown by trade winds. They go north, east, over the pole. In the winter, when it’s dark and cold there, the water molecules turn to snow, it comes down over the East coast.”
  2. Interacting causes. This is a type of systemic causation where two chains of causes come together. This is what happened with Hurricane Sandy, Lakoff said. “You had a hurricane forming off the coast of Africa, interacting with the winds blowing below the pole, and you had two things coming together causing a huge hurricane that hit New York.”
  3. Feedback loops. Lakoff’s example here was the polar ice cap. “The polar ice cap is supposed to reflect heat and light from the sun. As the earth warms, the polar ice cap starts to melt. The more it melts, the less heat and light get reflected, the more the earth gets heated, the more the ice melts.” Feedback loops, both positive and negative, are another example of systemic causation.
  4. Probabilistic causation. Simply by looking at past data, we can say that there’s a certain number of hurricanes that will blow from the Gulf of Mexico up to Louisiana, or other types of storms in other areas where the data shows a pattern. Probability dictates that there will be a certain number of those occurrences, and that is its own type of systemic causation.

“What you wind up getting is combinations of all of these,” Lakoff said. That’s why it can be challenging to talk about Hurricane Matthew or similar storms and their relationship to climate change. It’s nothing so simple or direct as “This storm was caused by climate change.” Instead, an intricate web of factors — systems — are influencing and exacerbating these events. That’s a subtle linguistic shift, but sometimes words make all the difference.

America as a family 

Another way linguistics plays out in our national dialogue is through a pervasive metaphor of the family. We talk about our nation’s founding fathers, America’s homeland security, and a whole host of “family values.” So if we’re all buying into this metaphor of America as a family, why do we have such a noticeable ideological split between conservatives and progressives?

“If you have two different understandings of the nation, maybe you have two different understandings of family,” Lakoff said. He worked backward from this idea and discovered two opposite views of the family: “The ‘strict father’ family for conservatives, and the ‘nurturant parent’ family for progressives.”

In the concept of a nurturant parent family, the parent’s job is to empathize with the kids and understand their needs, which requires two-way communication. They explain to the kids why they can’t do things like run into the street or put their hands on the stove. The nurturant parent makes sure the kids — and they themselves — are fulfilled in life through good health, education, and positive experiences. The nurturant parent also wants kids to feel that way about other people.

“Apply that to politics,” Lakoff said. “It goes back to the beginning of this country. Citizens care about other citizens and work through the government to provide public resources for everybody,” such as roads and bridges, public education, utilities and so on. You can see how this side of the metaphor ties into some common progressive perspectives.

In the concept of a strict father family, father knows best and is the authority. Their job is to tell the kids and the spouse what to do, what’s right and what’s not, and if they don’t do it, they are punished to the extent that that they will stick to what the father says in the future. The goal is for the kids to go out into the world and become prosperous, Lakoff said — and if they are not prosperous, it’s their fault for not following what was right.

This authority figure approach helps explain Donald Trump’s popularity: for those who subscribe to a strict father concept of our country, Trump and his supporters fit rather well into that image. As Lakoff writes in his piece “Understanding Trump,” “Their job is to impose their view of strict father morality in all areas of life. If they have the Congress, and the Presidency and the Supreme Court, they could achieve this.”

In closing, Lakoff reminded us, “All politics is moral.” Everybody believes they’re doing what’s right. That’s all the more reason to pay close attention to all these linguistic subtleties, these guiding metaphors, and understand what each of us is really saying.

Hear Lakoff’s full remarks, including his thoughts on worldviews and how morality informs our politics, on our October 2016 podcast. You can also listen AND watch the Zoom presentation. Follow him on Twitter at @georgelakoff.

Flannery Winchester
Flannery Winchester has put her words to work for magazines, for marketing agencies, and now for our earth as CCL's Communications Director. She is grateful to spend every day working to preserve this beautiful planet.