2011 Resolution – Call It “Pollution”

If you’re like me and are already:

  • tired of reading articles like this about what’s going to be hot in 2011 (here’s hoping “the planet” doesn’t make the list)
  • busy breaking those New Year’s resolutions you made

I hope we can all resolve (and actually do it) to make one thing hot in 2011 – calling that icky stuff pouring out of our economy “pollution” instead of “emissions”.

Like “greenhouse gas pollution” instead of “greenhouse gas emissions”, “carbon pollution” instead of “carbon emissions”, etc.

Without making this a big post about messaging and why it matters, I think it’s pretty easy to get that “emissions” sounds neutral or at worst just a little bad, like politely talking about someone’s fart, and “pollution”, well, tells it like it is.

Unfortunately, as the charts below show (make them yourself at Google Fight. Other variations, such as “GHG pollution”, look similarly lopsided.), most people haven’t gotten the message. IGHIH isn’t even doing as well as it could (see for yourself).

Climate terms that use "emissions" are way more common than terms using "pollution", and that's a problem for communicating how serious climate change is. Images courtesty googlefight.com

Climate terms that use "emissions" are way more common than terms using "pollution", and that's a problem for communicating how serious climate change is. Images courtesy googlefight.com

Not that we’re alone: Grist Magazinehere, here; Environmental Protection Agency* – here & here; White House – here & here. “Pollution” loses in every one. And if you don’t trust Google Fight’s count, just use those website’s own search engines and page through the results — you’ll get a similar imbalance. If people who care about stopping climate change can’t even call it pollution, why would anyone else, and why would we be surprised if people aren’t that worried?

Of course, these are just all results, not arranged by date. We can’t tell if people are using “pollution” more now than a few years ago. There a few encouraging signs this might be true. Harry Reid finally got it (but way too late) in last year’s climate legislation push. The EPA talked about pollution over and over in its release about new GHG regulations starting this year (but chose to talk about “emitters” instead of “polluters”). Wikipedia authorsnot so much.

It’s not about objectivity

Some people might argue that emissions is a neutral term, and that it’s more appropriate for the government, scientists, and the media to talk about impartial emissions instead of “suggestive” term like pollution. But try searching for “water pollution” or “air pollution” from Reuters, the Associated Press, Google Scholar, or the EPA’s website, and you’ll see no one has any trouble talking about lots of other harmful kinds of “emissions” as pollution. And, fact, climate change is killing people. Sounds like pollution to me. Some of these places have long ago started talking about climate-related emissions as pollution, but the skew is still there.

So let’s resolve, in 2011 (and forever):

I will use “pollution” when I talk/write/think about climate change, not “emissions”.

Danger – words without actions

Calling things what they are is important, but let’s not forget that we also need to actually do stuff to make change.

* Disclaimer – I work for the federal government right now. This is a personal post, not the gov’s.

10 Responses to “2011 Resolution – Call It “Pollution””

  1. 1 djrabbit Jan 3rd, 2011 at 1:12 am

    Actually, it’s not just good messaging. It’s the law. Just ask the Supreme Court and the federal government (EPA), both of which now agree that emitting fossilized carbon into the biosphere is “air pollution” as defined under the Clean Air Act.

    That’s what the EPA’s GHG endangerment finding was all about. Fossil-based GHG emissions are now officially “pollution”.

    The caveat is that not all GHGs are pollution, for example it’s not “pollution” for you to exhale. But in the most-common context, that of industrial, commercial, or residential emissions, “GHG pollution” is the best descriptor.

  2. 2 Kym Jan 3rd, 2011 at 11:34 am

    This is one resolution I can keep!

  3. 3 S.E. Hendriksen Jan 3rd, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    All the GHG pollution will before or later becomming ‘Pollution sink’ and disappear in the oceans

  4. 4 James P. Kelly Jan 3rd, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    I agree %1000! The difference between “emissions” and “pollution” is the difference between an unfortunate ‘fact of modern life’ and a ‘self-destructive and toxic choice’ that human continue to make for short-term convenience regardless of the disastrous consequences we refuse to face. Westen et.al., of Emery University published an excellent study that explores the psychological games we play with truth: http://bit.ly/cCRoSO Westen D, Blagov PS, Harenski K, Kilts C, Hamann S., Neural bases of motivated reasoning Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 11/06;18(11):1947-58.

  5. 5 Adolf Goreing Jan 3rd, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    I´m not sure the plants agree with you. It´s like preventing them of having their food. Ask yourself why real Greenhouses have a CO2 level three times the level of the atmosphere. Is it to melt the glaciers otherwise found there? (this message was sponsored by Exxon, NOT)

    Seriously, there are more and more scientific evidence pointing to other directions than CO2. It is already possible to explain many of the most critical climate criteria without always using CO2 as a climate driver.

    Take a look at these late scientific references. They are written by people outside “the AGW rescure team” (i.e Hansen,Jonea,Santer, Mann, Annan, Schmidt et al.) and are both putting CO2 in the periphery. It is not a dominant factor at all.



  6. 6 Lea Lupkin Jan 3rd, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    Hear, hear! That’s my new resolution.

  7. 7 Ben West Jan 4th, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    While I’m all in favour of re-framing where it helps us to communicate our values more effectively, it would be a real mistake for us to assume (or to suggest) that CO2 emissions are a straightforward pollution problem like any other.

    CO2 is patently different. It’s invisible, odourless and non-toxic. Unlike the kind of noxious substances an ordinary person would consider ‘pollution’, it’s not inherently bad. Our problems are not caused by CO2 itself, but rather by the quantity of CO2. If a diabetic dies from too much sugar, that doesn’t make sugar a poison.

    Similarly, the term ‘pollution’ suggests a foreign substance sullying an otherwise pure and unspoilt environment. The effects of a chemical spill, for example, are very clealy seen within a specific geographical area, with the source of the pollution close-by.

    CO2 is different- it’s distributed across our atmosphere, and the relationship between excessive CO2 emissions and its consequences is often far from obvious and separated by thousands of miles.

    You can’t gloss over those differences- even your dumbest opponent knows that CO2 doesn’t look or behave like pollution. That’s where all this ‘CO2 is plant food’ bull comes from- our attempts to patronise.

    The author is definitely right in that we need to take another look at the conceptual underpinnings of what we’re trying to do, as well as the language we use to describe those concepts. But re-branding CO2 as pollution seems to to me to be a blind alley.

    I’m more inclined to go with Nordhaus and Shellenger’s analysis. In their excellent book ‘Break through: from the death of environmentalism to the politics of possibility’, they spend an entire chapter explaining why we need to get away from, not closer to, the pollution paradigm:


    What’s needed is not a pollution paradigm that hinges on ideas of human restraint, of carbon counting and greenhouse gas reduction, because the truth is, it ain’t ever going to sell outside of the middle class, let alone in China.

    Instead, we need a story that speaks of human optimism and opportunity unleashed- one that calls for us to tap into humanity’s endless resources of innovation, imagination and enterprise in order to abandon the failed solutions of the past and embrace the opportunities of the clean energy economy.

  8. 8 KDCS Jan 7th, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    I agree – “GHG pollution” it is! We need to make comments on blogs / news sites all over when they use “emissions” to (inadvertently) soften the blow.

  1. 1 Scary New Year’s Resolutions for Our Air Agency in Southern California – Natural Resources Defense Council (blog) Trackback on Jan 5th, 2011 at 12:13 pm
  2. 2 Britain's Power Trackback on Feb 3rd, 2011 at 5:49 pm
Comments are currently closed.

About Kyle

Kyle Gracey is a Research Scientist and the Science Coordinator with Global Footprint Network. He is the past Chair and a Board Director of SustainUS: U.S. Youth for Sustainable Development, and delegate to more than 20 United Nations negotiations on climate, social development, and sustainable development. He is a Specialist with the California Army National Guard, where he trains for disaster response. He was recently an Energy and Climate Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute. He also recently worked in the Speechwriting office for U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden. He was a consultant with the Gade Environmental Group in Chicago. He graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with B.S. degrees in Ecological Economics and Biochemistry/Biophysics, where he is their only Truman Scholarship recipient, and from the University of Chicago with an M.S. in the Physical Sciences Division and Harris Public Policy School, where he was a Harris Fellow. He also investigated international development and environment issues at The American University in Washington, DC and in Brazil, Israel, Iceland, and the United Arab Emirates. Kyle has worked in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Transportation as an Environmental Policy Analyst analyzing biofuels, hydrogen, congestion, and air quality, and managing research grants, and as an International Economist Graduate Intern in the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Western Hemisphere Affairs, and was an Education Docent at the National Aquarium. He also serves on the Board of Directors for the youth science & technology policy organization Student Pugwash USA, where he was recently named its Vice President, and on the Treaties Task Force Chair for the Society for Conservation Biology. He is a Life Member of the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega. He has over 150 media interviews, presentations, and public writings. Other awards include the BoardSource Emerging Nonprofit Leader award and U.S. government Presidential Management Fellowship.

Community Picks