1) What is the difference between a climate skeptic and a climate denier?
2) Which term do you use as shorthand in your reporting/writing on climate change?
Among the 18 people who took part, John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal offered what I considered to be among the most thoughtful comments, arguing for descriptive terms in place of labels. He made his argument on journalistic grounds. Read on in this post for his specific comments, and why I feel they are compelling — yet still problematic.
Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media led off the discussion. Here’s the gist of it:
Anything even inadvertently hinting of the Holocaust — as in “denialist” — clearly is off-limits. So it’s easy to rule out certain terms. Where does that leave us? What can we rule in? I lean somewhat toward “contrarians” as being preferable to skeptics or deniers.
What about “skeptics”? He didn’t like it: “Call them ‘skeptics’ and we equate them to something the best scientists and best journalists are and need to be… skeptics. So they co-opt the term.”
After reading that swipe at people who express doubt of one sort or another of climate change science, I knew it was only a matter of time that the fireworks would go off. But first, Gavin Schmidt of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, and one of RealClimate’s bloggers, had this to say:
contrarians is ok, ‘skeptics’ is buying into the nonsense, but how about ‘inactivists’ vs ‘activists’?
At this point, my colleague here at the University of Colorado, Roger Pielke, Jr., just about “blew a seam” — his own words: “Let’s call them “yellow bellied sap suckers”!, he wrote.
Pielke argued that the mere act of categorization was intended to separate “us” from “them.” It is not that much different from deciding on which derogatory terms to use for African Americans, he claimed.
And then came Roger’s kicker: “What an utterly insane conversation this is!”
I’m sure my wife sometimes feels that way about some of the things I say. But in this case, I think Roger’s characterization of the conversation was a just a tad, well, exaggerated.
For responsible and knowledgeable journalists, the issue has nothing to do with demarcating “us” from “them.” I certainly have no interest in that. And I don’t believe Keith Kloor, Andrew Revkin, John Fleck, or any number of other journalists I know who cover this issue do either. As journalists, it is our bloody job to agonize over words. And the mere act of discussing usage does not make us insane.
The fact is, whether we like it or not, we must use shorthand in our stories. Otherwise they would be overly long and clunky. Imagine if journalists had to write a phrase akin to this every time they wanted to refer to people with liberal political views:
“ . . . those who believe that societal problems can be solved through government spending as well as regulation of the economy and other facets of life.”
We label things all the time in public discourse: “libertarian,” “conservative,” “liberal,” “neo-conservative,” “environmentalist,” “conservationist,” etc. In journalism particularly, where time and space are often restricted, and where there is a premium on brevity and smooth writing, writing a descriptive, fully contextualized phrase to characterize a person’s views on any given subject often is not an option.
Ah, but on the issue of climate change, finding a label that is acceptably precise — should it be “climate skeptic” or “climate denier” or something else? — is much easier said than done. As John Fleck wrote:
I think as a journalist, in order to be useful to my readers, I have to use none of the terms. The fact that we have to have this discussion at all means the terms have no crisp meaning, but rather mean different things to different people.
If a word has the potential to mislead your readers, don’t use it. Use a descriptive phrase instead.
Excellent advice! And I find his reference to “crisp meaning” particularly compelling. The terms “skeptic” and “denier” are something of a Rorschach test — and that’s not acceptable in journalism.
How do we find a way out of this fix?
The issue isn’t whether we use a label but whether we have a clearly thought out and defensible rationale for using a particular word, and whether we provide the proper nuance and context when we do use it. Most important, if labels short circuit thoughtfulness and civil discussion, then perhaps we need new ones, or a descriptive phrase.
Do the labels “climate change skeptic” or “climate change denier” short circuit thoughtfulness and civil discussion?
I’ve never liked the echo I hear when “denier” is used to describe someone who does not believe that humans are altering (or even have the potential to alter) the global climate through emissions of greenhouse gases.
That said, my dictionary defines “deny” as refusing to admit the truth or existence of something. And there is, well, no denying that there are some people who simply refuse to admit the basic physical truth about the effects of greenhouse gases on the climate system.
Among them are public figures who clearly poisoning the well of civil discourse. One example is Chistopher Monckton, who has traded in labels like “Hitler Youth” to refer to young activists demonstrating in favor of a climate treaty. Monckton’s clownish behavior calls out for the use of a label. But if “climate change denier” is off limits because of its connotations, what label, if any, should I use?
Of course there are many people who have more nuanced views than the likes of Monckton, and whose goal most definitely is not to poison civil discourse. Some are skeptical that the signal of human-induced climate change has risen from the noise of natural variability. Others doubt whether our impact is or will ever be very significant. Still others believe climate change is happening, we’re largely to blame, and that it might eventually pose significant risks, but that right now we have other, much more pressing societal ills that need to be addressed.
In this case, does the label “skeptic” suffice to characterize this set of differing views?
Not really. Yet I frequently use the term “skeptic” because of the compelling need for shorthand in journalism.
I’m stuck. Any suggestions?