Questioning the Wisdom of Denier Discourse

Labels as a Barrier to Action on Climate Change


Brokering a future deal on climate change will require advocates to rethink their language.

September 25, 2012 | Matthew Nisbet

It's difficult to imagine today, but only four years ago, we were debating the wisdom of calling those who oppose action on climate change "deniers." In a 2008 interview with PRI The World, I suggested that the term "denier" was counter-productive. Resorting to extreme language and name calling in the climate debate not only inflames tensions among opponents, but for a wider spectator public struggling to come to terms with climate change as a societal priority, resorting to "denier" rhetoric misses the opportunity to more persuasively connect the issue to commonly shared values, or to fashion compromise around policy approaches.

As we look past the election to what might be possible on climate and energy policy during the next Administration, we would be well served to reflect carefully on the labels and rhetoric we all-too-easily come to adopt in reference to opponents and allies alike.

Alienating the Middle

My recommendations on PRI were intensely debated by bloggers. Several constructive observations were also made by commenters. As John Besley, a professor at Michigan State University and expert on public dialogue, wrote: 

I wonder if those of you (which seems to be many you) who insist on terms like “denier” are clear on who you are talking to when you use the term. The person you are calling names certainly doesn’t care; indeed, you’re just as likely to give them material with which to paint science as absolutist and uncaring. The real audience we need to think about is those people who are observing the debate from the sideline who may use a range of heuristics or schema (and not necessarily full arguments) to decide whom they support. If your side gets pegged as ideologues, I would expect your odds of support dimninsh substantially... Ignore the bait. Think about your audience. Craft a message that appeals to the broad middle. Or, of course, you could just yell at each other.

Heated rhetoric over "deniers" not only likely alienates broader publics, but it also likely turns off many moderate and centrist influentials. Writing last year at the Financial Times, columnist Simon Kuper aptly described the presumed -- but false -- belief about the relationship between climate science and policy:

Sceptics and believers quarrel about the science because they both start from a mistaken premise: that science will determine what we do about climate change. The idea is that once we agree what the science says, policy will automatically follow. That’s why the Nobel committee gave Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change a peace prize.

But as Kuper notes, decisions rarely follow directly from science, especially on complex challenges like climate change. Instead policy preferences and decisions are an outcome of perceived political interests, values, and a calculation of costs and benefits. In this process, science informs decisions and is used as a resource to argue for and defend positions, but ultimately politics turns on values, interests, and trade-offs. Someone could fully accept the science of climate change, for example, but be skeptical of the efficacy and political viability of cap and trade proposals or a carbon tax.

It's also important to note that perceptions of climate science are policy dependent, as Yale University's Dan Kahan has shown in his experimental work on risk perceptions. For conservatives, there is every incentive to argue against climate science when it is linked by opponents to policy approaches that favor regulation and are biased against industries and technologies that conservatives care about. Switch the policy approach --  focus instead, say, on innovation across technologies including carbon capture and nuclear -- and the incentive to argue against climate science will decrease.  

The messenger also matters. To the extent that climate science has been closely aligned with left-leaning advocacy groups and Al Gore -- spokespeople conservatives view as from the opposing political tribe if not also arrogant -- it makes it all that much easier for them to discount the validity of the science.

In the end, as Kuper writes in his column, titled "Squabbling while the world burns," it seems for climate advocates that insisting that everyone agree on climate science is easier than investing in the difficult, self-reflective, and creative work necessary to figure out policy approaches that align political interests around a common goal and that force compromise. As he writes:

Beating the sceptics around the head with the science just gives them attention. It also allows them to roar in triumph whenever the believers get any bit of science wrong, as when the IPCC exaggerated the melting of Himalayan glaciers. The squabble also creates a one-dimensional argument about climate change: do you believe it’s real or not? I’ve found to my cost that many people can only read articles about climate change as statements of either belief or scepticism. This obscures better questions, such as what exactly we should do about climate change.

Strategic labels are also used to demagogue, intimidate, and discipline those who might dissent on specific policy approaches but hold firm in their belief in climate science.  Last year, when New York Times columnist Joe Nocera wrote that he believed the economic benefits of the XL pipeline outweighed the environmental risks, he was attacked by Joe Romm of Climate Progress as being a member of the "climate ignorati."  At the Huffington Post, Robert Redford called out Nocera, asserting that it was time to "focus on the facts." 

When Nocera wrote a lengthy and reasoned reply, Romm accused him in a follow up post of being disingenuous about his belief that climate change was a serious threat, lacking the "street cred" to write about the issue. In this case, not only had the "correct" view of the policy implications of climate science become a litmus test, but now Nocera was being told that he lacked the proper commitment to the issue. 

In all, these kinds of attacks on potential allies only adds further barriers to the hard work ahead in bringing societal leaders and influentials together around a common approach to climate change. When you are alienating respected business columnists at the New York Times, as a climate advocate you are only making your goals that much more difficult to achieve.

On Deniers, Believers, Skeptics, Warmists, and Confusionists

In an article last month at the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, John Wihbey remarked: "Some things never change. Like the endless search for the perfect term to describe those seeing things differently on climate change issues."

For insight, Wihbey turned to University of Colorado's Max Boykoff who, along with UK researcher Saffron O'Neill, had previously published a letter at the Proceedings of the National Academies questioning the strategy of applying strong labels to views in the climate change debate. They were responding to a PNAS study that had analyzed publication trends among scientists, the authors dividing their sample into "convinced of evidence" and "unconvinced of evidence" camps while using labels such as “denier,” “skeptic,” and “contrarian.  

As Boykoff and O'Neill wrote, “The use of the terms skeptic, denier, or contrarian is necessarily subject-, issue-, context-, and intervention-dependent…. Continued indiscriminate use of the terms will further polarize views on climate change, reduce media coverage to tit-for-tat finger-pointing, and do little to advance the unsteady relationship among climate science, society, and policy.” Boykoff also suggested that the use of "denier" --  or its parallel among some conservative of "warmist" -- might also have other unintended consequences.  

As Wihbey elaborates, based on his interview with Boykoff:

For Boykoff, the work of communicating is all about bridging spaces and broadening the “spectrum of possibility for appropriate action.” And he adds this note of worry about how vitriolic language can end up ironically legitimizing positions that are only slightly less marginal: “If one wanted to rally their bases, invoking terms like ‘warmist’ or ‘denier’ can be more useful than ‘contrarian’ or ‘realist.’ These ‘epithets’ can also produce the ‘radical flank effect,’ as has been discussed mainly in sociology, where more extreme/strong language can make the use of ‘contrarian’ seem more reasonable.”

The authors of the PNAS study and groups like the National Center for Science Education defend their use of the label "denier" as descriptive rather than pejorative, and as based on its "well established" use in the literature. But rather than reflecting consensus terminology among scholars studying the social and political dimensions of climate change, the scholarly use of the "denier" terminology derives from an ideologically-aligned scholar-media-advocacy interaction.

It's difficult to trace the precise origin, but having followed the literature closely for more than a decade, it appears as if at some point advocates and journalists coined the use of "denier," scholars of similar outlook and related networks adopted and applied the term, and journalists and advocates justified their subsequent use of "denier" by its "well-established" use in the literature. In this case, social science research becomes adopted, diffused, and applied for political purposes, where language and framing from the academy is used to stereotype, problematize, and stigmatize a social group or segment of the public.

In our own work on public opinion about climate change, we have intentionally avoided the use of the term "denier," instead characterizing interpretative communities as either "doubtful" or "dismissive." The research is designed to facilitate mutual understanding, and so the labels are chosen as not to alienate different users of the research. We intend the research to help find communication solutions and policy approaches that promote collaboration. All of this would be undermined by the use of the "denier" label.

Squabbling While the World Burns

I have no doubt that in writing this column, I will be called by some in the blogosphere a "confusionist" and "contrarian" for raising concern over the "denier" label. Just as I have been labeled a "warmist" by Climate Depot and other conservative bloggers. Such is the nature of climate change discourse today, that it is impossible to be even a quasi-public figure or intellectual on the topic without immediately being boxed into a label or a side.

Yet as we look beyond the election, to what might be possible under a new Administration and Congress, we will need to leave behind these damaging labels in order to think, plan, and collaborate on creative, self-reflective, and effective strategies for actually getting something done. Otherwise, as the Financial Times aptly warned, we will continue to be "squabbling while the world burns."


About Matthew Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. You can read about his research and various studies at the Climate Shift Project and at Google Scholar, or find out more about his courses, including those on Environmental Politics, Communication, and Advocacy; and Health, Debates, Communication, and Culture. Follow him on Twitter @MCNisbet and Google +.

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