Clear Skies, Healthy Forests: Why Language Matters

If you don’t trust the environmentalists, you may want to listen to the doctors. Mount Sinai Medical School has just released a study that, in its scientific way, indicts the Bush administration’s mercury policy as not only harming children but (conservatives take note) damages the economy. The report calculates that the U.S. loses $8.7 billion annually in productivity, of which $1.3 billion is directly attributable to mercury emissions from U.S. power plants.

People's need to hear what they want to hear spurs urban legends and allows false logic labeling of destructive public policies.© George Pratt

“Failing to clean up mercury pollution sentences our children to a life of lost opportunities,” says Dr. Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who analyzed the report. “President Bush says he wants to leave no child behind, but his administration’s policy on mercury leaves hundreds of thousands of our children behind.”

The Mt. Sinai study was based not on wild conjecture but on mercury exposure data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It reports that from 300,000 to 600,000 American children are born every year with mercury levels associated with IQ loss. According to the report, “The resulting loss of intelligence causes diminished economic productivity that persists over the entire lifetime of these children. This lost productivity is the major cost of methylmercury toxicity

Now it’s important to know that the Bush plan that will allow coal plants to emit more pollution and mercury emissions than the Clean Air Act would have required is called the “Clear Skies Initiative.” (The clearcutting bill is known as “Healthy Forests.”)

According to the NRDC, the Bush plan did not arrive out of some Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) white paper, but sprung directly from the minds of coal industry lobbyists. We know this, in part, because a coal industry lobbyist described the plan’s genesis with some of his colleagues, and the session was taped without his knowledge. NRDC reports, “The utility industry lobbyist first warned his coal industry audience that EPA had been planning to use the agency’s existing Clean Air Act authority to require significant and prompt reductions in air pollution from coal-burning power plants. He then assured them that he and his friends in the White House had a plan that would be much more to industry’s liking. The lobbyist promised that the weaker, slower cleanup requirements in the new legislation would be something ‘that we can all live with and that someone else can’t undo.’”

Further, says NRDC, “The White House bill would delay and dilute cuts in power plants’ sulfur, nitrogen and mercury pollution that are required by the Clean Air Act. The plan also would weaken the Clean Air Act’s public health safeguards protecting local air quality, curbing pollution from upwind states and restoring visibility in our national parks. The President’s proposed bill would not curb power plant carbon dioxide emissions, which is a major cause of global warming and is not regulated. Rather, the lobbyist promised, the administration would develop a voluntary program for carbon pollution from utilities rather than regulation because, he said, ‘the President needs a fig leaf.’”

Electric power plants, The Nation reports in the March 14, 2005 issue, spew soot and cause 554,000 asthma attacks and 38,200 heart attacks annually. If the EPA exercised its full authority, the magazine added, “the vast majority of these deaths could be avoided.”

OK, let’s go back to the report being called “Clear Skies.” If a truth-in-labeling act referred to legislation, it would actually be called the “Mercury Polluters’ Relief Act.” But I could throw statistics about mercury levels at Bush voters all day and not make a dent in their thinking. In preparation for next issue’s cover story, I’ve been reading George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant! It’s a great book that should be, as Brandeis University professor Robert B. Reich puts it, “Essential reading in this neo-Orwellian age of Bush-speak.” Lakoff tells us that the right has learned to craft information to fit the “frames,” or set of assumptions, that people carry around. Indeed, it helps fashion the frames in the first place.

The whole idea of “compassionate conservatism” is, Lakoff writes, an Orwellian construct masking the true intent of the policies. The key craftsman of this strategy is “the right’s language man, Frank Luntz,” who notes that conservatives can gain the upper hand—even when science is against them—by using language strategically. “People who support environmentalist positions like certain words,” Lakoff writes in Elephant. “They like the words healthy, clean and safe because these words fit frames that describe what the environment means to them. Therefore, Luntz says, use the words healthy, clean and safe whenever possible, even when talking about coal plants or nuclear power plants. It is this kind of Orwellian weakness that causes a piece of legislation that actually increases pollution to be called the Clear Skies Act.”

If this kind of blatant labeling seems transparent and too dumb to work, consider that a significant number of Americans still believe, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and documentation including the widely reported 9/11 Commission report, that there’s a connection between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. “It is not that they are stupid,” reports Lakoff. “They have a frame and they only accept facts that fit that frame.”

Framing is also the key to understanding what are known as “urban legends,” untrue stories that get passed through the culture through the oral tradition. How do these crazy stories about cars with 200-mile-per-gallon carburetors or Elvis faking his own death gain so many true believers? They fit into common frames and reinforce people’s core beliefs.

Consider this tale, reproduced here from, an urban legend website:

“Geologists working somewhere in remote Siberia had drilled a hole some 14.4 kilometers deep (about nine miles) when the drill bit suddenly began to rotate wildly. A Mr. Azzacov (identified as the project’s manager) was quoted as saying they decided that the center of the earth was hollow. Supposedly, the geologists measured temperatures of over 2,000 degrees in the deep hole. They lowered super-sensitive microphones to the bottom of the well, and to their astonishment they heard the sounds of thousands, perhaps millions, of suffering souls screaming.”

According to site co-host Barbara Mikkelson, “This story is quite popular among Christian groups as it ‘proves’ Hell (and therefore Heaven) exist.” But, alas, she concludes, “If there is a Hell under Siberia, scientists have yet to discover it.” Try telling that to true believers, however. The story fits their frame, and it won’t easily be pried loose. We received an e-mail about the Siberian hell hole not long ago.

Lakoff concludes that the environmental movement has to understand framing and use the tactics itself if it wants to communicate with the American people about clean skies and healthy forests. He makes a compel

ling case. Perhaps we should be heartened that the introduction to his book was written by Howard Dean, who now heads the Democratic Party. “Lakoff has written down, in language liberals can understand, what Ralph Reed, Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz intuitively realized a long time ago,” writes Dean. “Language matters.”


For the Mt. Sinai mercury study, go to

For the NRDC press release about the “Clear Skies Initiative” being crafted by polluters, go to

For a rich trove of urban legends, go to

To learn more about George Lakoff’s ideas, visit the Rockridge Institute at