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Media enable denier spin 3: PLEASE stop calling them “skeptics”

By Joe Romm  

"Media enable denier spin 3: PLEASE stop calling them “skeptics”"

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What name can we possibly use for the people who are working feverishly to convince the public to ignore the broad scientific understanding of global warming and to delay taking serious action — action needed to avert a very grim fate for our children and their children and so on?

I suspect future generations will call them “climate destroyers” or worse — since if we actually (continue to) listen to them, that pretty much ensures carbon dioxide concentrations will hit catastrophic levels, 700 to 1000, this century, as explained in Part II. But what should we call these people in the meantime, while we still have time to ignore them and save the climate?

In this post I will explain why “skeptics” is certainly the wrong term, discuss why the current favorite among advocates (including me) — “deniers” — doesn’t work (except maybe in headlines), and offer my new alternative. [Tomorrow I'll give you the reaction of a genuine skeptic to the new alternative.] For now let’s call them “delayers,” since that this their primary, unifying goal — delaying action. As the NYT‘s Revkin explained about the recent skeptic denier delayer conference in New York, “The one thing all the attendees seem to share is a deep dislike for mandatory restrictions on greenhouse gases.” What unites these people is their desire to delay or stop action to cut GHGs, not any one particular view on the climate.

THEY AREN’T SKEPTICAL — THEIR MINDS ARE MADE UP

The traditional or mainstream media still call them “skeptics,” as in this NYT headline. As long as they do so they trivialize the problem and render the word “skeptic” devoid of meaning.

All scientists are skeptics. Hence the motto of the Royal Society of London, one of the world’s oldest scientific academies (founded in 1660), Nullius in verba: “Take nobody’s word.” Indeed, as Wikipedia explains in its entry on “Skepticism“:

A scientific (or empirical) skeptic is one who questions the reliability of certain kinds of claims by subjecting them to a systematic investigation. The scientific method details the specific process by which this investigation of reality is conducted. Considering the rigor of the scientific method, science itself may simply be thought of as an organized form of skepticism. This does not mean that the scientific skeptic is necessarily a scientist who conducts live experiments (though this may be the case), but that the skeptic generally accepts claims that are in his/her view likely to be true based on testable hypotheses and critical thinking.

Skeptics can be convinced by the facts, but not the delayers. Skeptics (and real scientists) do not continue repeating arguments that have been discredited. Delayers do. Skeptics believe in science, in well-tested theories backed up by real-world observations, but delayers do not.

My personal experience is that no amount of scientific evidence can convince the well-known “skeptics.” I have debated Lomborg and he is very well versed in the science — he just chooses not to believe most of it. Indeed, if the overwhelming evidence of the last four years doesn’t convince someone, then they simply aren’t open to scientific reasoning, the basis of true skepticism.

The media — and everyone else — should stop using the term. It makes a mockery of the English language, it is an insult to real scientific skeptics, and it feeds the overall disinformation effort that makes humanity’s self-destruction more likely.

THEY AREN’T ANYTHING LIKE HOLOCAUST DENIERS

I — and many if not most other advocates for action — have used the term “deniers” or “denialists” for these people. But the more I think about it, and the more comments I read from delayers, the more I realize that the term doesn’t work, especially as a broad brush.

First, many delayers are clever enough that they don’t issue outright denials that 1) the climate is changing and 2) that humans play no role. They typically argue that humans play only a limited role and warming this century will be modest at best, and perhaps even have some positive benefits. That view is in direct contradiction with our current scientific understanding, but it falls short of the kind of outright denial that was common in the 1990s (there are some classic deniers still around, like Bill Gray, but they are fairly marginalized).

Second, I see comments from a lot of delayers who intensely dislike being linked to “Holocaust deniers.” They feel there is no way to use the term “denier” without people immediately thinking of that other group of disinformers. If the term were accurate, this objection wouldn’t count for much, but in fact the delayers are nothing like Holocaust deniers.

Third, “Holocaust deniers” are denying an established fact from the past. If the media or politicians or the public took them at all seriously, I suppose it might increase the chances of a future Holocaust. But, in fact, they are very marginalized, and are inevitably attacked and criticized widely whenever they try to spread their disinformation, so they have no significant impact on society. The delayers, however, are very different and far more dangerous. They are trying to persuade people not to take action on a problem that has not yet become catastrophic, but which will certainly do so if we listen to them and delay acting much longer.

Delayer” is a far more accurate term.

Fourth, by calling them “deniers” we are making the focus of our response the climate science; we are fighting on their turf, so they still win. In fact, the science has long since passed the realm in which the delayers try to debate it. The key question for humanity today is not whether human-caused global warming does or does not exist — it is not even whether human-caused global warming is a serious problem. It is already past a serious problem. The only serious question facing the human race now is whether we will act strongly enough and quickly enough to avert a catastrophe that is both beyond historical comparison and probably irreversible for centuries if not millennia. Again, that is why I think “delayer” is better (though it can be improved, see below).

Finally, I see two different kinds of skeptics/deniers. One is the small “professional” class, the people who speak at conferences and whose job is to spread disinformation. I have called them disinformers. I may still occasionally use that term, since it is descriptive and better than denier. The second is the much larger group of people who question global warming because they are conservatives and libertarians who get their news from Fox or Limbaugh or conservative blogs and think tanks. So they are primarily exposed to the well-crafted disinformation, and believe it because it sounds plausible, and it come from people they trust. Plus these people have a reflexive distrust of environmentalists and progressives and “experts,” and they intensely dislike the government-led solutions needed to stop global warming. So they are predisposed to believe and repeat the disinformer talking points. I have given them the benign term “doubters” in the past, but the climate situation is simply too dire for niceties at this point. Even “misinformers” is too weak.

So what to call them? What is an accurate label that moves the debate to the ground it should be fought on? I believe the discussion/debate we need surrounds the most important climate question, the one you should ask anyone as quickly as possible before wasting a lot of time on pointless arguments:

If you were running national and global climate policy, what level of global CO2 concentrations would be your goal and how would you achieve it?

If you can’t get an answer, put them down for 1000 ppm — and that brings me to their proper name.

THEY WANT DELAY, AND DELAY IS FATAL

What unites the delayers is the “deep dislike for mandatory restrictions on greenhouse gases.” From George Will to Bjorn Lomborg to Michael Crichton to James Inhofe, they believe strong action either isn’t needed or won’t work or would cause more harm than good or some combination of the three. Their beliefs were well articulated by science-fiction writer Michael Crichton in a 2006 New Republic interview:

If you just look at the science, I, at least, am underwhelmed. This may or may not be a problem, but it is far from the most serious problem. If you want to do something, [limiting emissions] is not what to do. We don’t at this moment have good technology to do this, if, in fact, it’s necessary to do it.”

This is very similar to the Luntz/Bush/Lomborg playbook of “Technology, technology, technology, blah, blah, blah.” Frank Luntz, one of the best strategists and word gurus of either party, actually wrote a detailed manifesto for conservatives on how to win the climate debate based on polling and focus groups. He concluded:

We need to emphasize how voluntary innovation and experimentation are preferable to bureaucratic or international intervention and regulation.

“Technology” and “voluntary” = Delay, delay, delay.

“Delayer,” though, while much more accurate than skeptic or denier, isn’t strong enough and still doesn’t drive the debate to its necessary endpoint.

And delay is, of course, sometimes good. Not in this case, however. As noted in Part 2, our current understanding, as expressed in the IPCC “consensus,” which almost certainly understates how dire things are, is that if global emissions merely average 11 billion tons of carbon a year (11 GtC/yr) this century, we are going to 1000 ppm atmospheric concentrations. And that is the end of life as we know on it this planet.

Yet, we’ll be at 11 GtC/yr around 2020 at our current pace. And just keeping emissions flat for several decades after that in the face of rising population and rising economic growth, especially in rapidly-developing countriess, would still require those onerous GHG regulations that delayers hate.

So delayers are really “1000 ppm’ers.” If not worse, since many don’t just want delay — they want permanent inaction. That doesn’t, however, get pronounced “trippingly on the tongue.” So I’m leaning to “delayer-1000.”

Yes, I realize that doesn’t trip off the tongue too well either, it needs definition whenever used, and the media won’t ever use it. On the last point, I would just say to advocates the media won’t use ‘denier’ either. I’d say to the media you probably shouldn’t be using any undefined labels — and that goes most importantly for “skeptic,” whose definition does not describe those you are labeling with it.

On the other hand, delayer-1000 is accurate, very descriptive, modern (like the Terminator-101), and gets to the heart of the matter. If if someone doesn’t like it, then they have to explain what target they do support and what action they would take to achieve it. And that moves the debate to the ground it belongs on.

Tomorrow I will reprint a back-and-forth with a delayer-1000, which I think underscores all of the points made here.

UPDATE: I knew I would forget something. I think “delayer” works as a stand-alone, and I’d recommend that to most people. But I will still probably use “delayer-1000.” Yes, it is “jargony” but over the next decade many if not most Americans will learn all about 280 ppm, 350 ppm, 450 ppm, and 1000 ppm. That’s because CO2 ppm will become the single most important number in the lives of every human being on this planet and their children and so on. One reason I proposed the more unwieldy “delayer-1000″ is that we need to accelerate the learning process as much as possible. I am aware of the virtual impossibility of changing widely-used jargon — almost everybody in the EV community hates “plug-in hybrid” but we just couldn’t get all the key players on board to use another term. So this post is, realistically, mostly a media critique to try to get them to stop using “skeptic” and an explanation I can link to for the terminology I’m going to use.

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25 Responses to Media enable denier spin 3: PLEASE stop calling them “skeptics”

  1. Mike Treder says:

    I agree with you about the inaptness of both ‘skeptic’ and ‘denier’. But ‘delayer-1000′ seems much too unwieldy and jargony.

    I’d prefer ‘climate fatalists’, as their approach is to eschew tough solutions and to let things develop as they will, thus fatalist, and the results of that approach will almost certainly prove fatal to numerous species and possibly to modern human civilization as well.

  2. JMG says:

    If, as you say (and I agree with you) that CO2 concentration in the atmosphere (or, even better, CO2e – CO2 equivalent, accounting for methane, NOx, etc.) is the most important number then we need to start a campaign to have every newspaper include this number on the weather page every day, and to have all the broadcast media include it with every weather broadcast. Someone must be making an authoritative measurement daily, which can be distributed by the National Weather Service. I realize it doesn’t change that rapidly, but having that number hitting people in the face every day is important.

    Speaking of which, why isn’t it in the frame on this website in big numbers?

  3. Joe says:

    I’ve thought about it. Let me think more about it. The number changes very slowly.

  4. JMG says:

    Or we could just call them unreconstructed cold war troglodytes. See

    “The American Denial of Global Warming”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2T4UF_Rmlio

    Naomi Oreskes, Ph.D.

  5. Will Koroluk says:

    Wasn’t delay the main weapon used for years by the tobacco industry? Long after the science was in the industry continued to insist that links to cancer were either non-existent or tenuous. In the meantime, every week of delay meant another week of profits. I think I also recall that Fred Singer, who for a few years was the guru of the climate-change delayers, played a similar role for a while in the tobacco wars.
    I agree with Mike Treder’s view that ‘delayer-1000′ is too unwieldy. What’s needed is something that is short enough to fit on one line of a one-column headline, and that’s immediately understood by readers. As much as I like ‘unreconstructed cold war troglodytes,’ it would be awfully tough to fit into a headline unless, it was shortened to something like ‘trogs.’ I can see the headline now: ‘Trogs protest new exhaust rules’

  6. Ronald says:

    Giving them a special name would be giving some of them what they want, recognition. It may be better to just be concerned with trying to motivate those who agree with the cause and are not active enough to more action.

    People are to sophisticated to care about a name. Those against doing something about global warming would just wear the name as an honor. Let them name themselves, of which apparently they haven’t done.

  7. Paul K says:

    Good riddance to “denier”. It is a term meant to inflame rather than persuade. Delayer-1000 reminds me of my old computer with the dial up connection. How about anti-usufructarian?
    You are correctly looking for language that will move the focus of the discussion from the science to solutions. I have said before that it is not necessary to agree on AGW to agree on future actions, that there are compelling economic, national security and environmental reasons to replace carbon energy even in the however unlikely event AGW is false. Of course, even if the current warming is caused by something other than CO2, that warming could well continue or worsen. A wise policy maker would include mitigation strategies in an overall plan. Since the key is to persuade on the solution, not the science. I encourage all to drop the pejoratives and seek common ground. The recent harsh criticism of General Motors for looking to develop alternative vehicles for reasons of economic survival rather than climate catastrophe is an example of counterproductive narrow mindedness.

    “If you were running national and global climate policy, what level of global CO2 concentrations would be your goal and how would you achieve it?”

    This is a great question. I hope everyone here will weigh in on this especially Killian and Mashey and Dano and some of the other “heavy hitters.” ClimateProgress has a remarkably intelligent and successful group of commenters and this is a great opportunity to “kick it up a notch.” Let’s get busy.

    Contention over the effects of CO2 is the major obstacle to action. Therefore, I recommend an approach that focuses on replacing carbon fuels. This has a much broader base of support, is the ultimate desired end and will eliminate CO2 emissions perforce. I’ll get specific in a later comment. Until then, I’ll note that technology, both the wide application of the currently available and the development of the new, is not a delaying tactic. It is the only path to success. Without an explosion of technology, the unwieldy, easily corruptible cap and trade schemes and regressive tax plans will serve only to oppress the people.

  8. David B. Benson says:

    Joe — How about just ‘fools’?

  9. tidal says:

    If you were to try to etch a “ppm concentration” number on the public’s consciousness, as JMG is suggesting, I think it would have to be modified to something like a 12-months-trailing-average so that you account for the annual cycling apparent in the Keeling curve. Anway, that would just be a matter of logistics.

    One (amongst many) advantage of this sort of numeric approach – it could help disabuse the public confusion w.r.t. to the “atmospheric CO2 stock” vs. “CO2 emissions flow”. I think this remains a significant stumbling block to motivating near-term change. People hear “we need to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050″ and even if they accept that, there is a natural tendency to hope that means “business as usual” for, say, the next 25 years, and then rapid cuts much later. In fact, because it is a stock problem, not a flow problem, we know that the reduction path is at least as important as the eventual emissions level. By netting out the “concern” to a single concentration/stock number, it could help focus collective efforts and understanding. (The findings of the Sterman-Sweeney paper “Understanding public complacency about climate change: adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter” still unfortunately apply…).

    Another advantage of such a metric: It would drive home the global and interdependent nature of the problem… Unlike measures like “air quality index” which can often be mitigated locally, it would be clear that for well-mixed, long-life GHG’s there will be no such option to isolate ourselves…

    Like some commenters above, I am not so sure that “delayer-1000″ itself is going to catch on. But I might encourage Joe to even consider extending the taxonomy in his writing – e.g. gambler-550, pragmatist-450, realist-330, etc. Again, the adjectives are potentially emotionally-loaded, and I just toss them out as examples, but I think that adding a number to the descriptor would help reinforce the importance of “concentrations” and cut through a lot of other mumbo-jumbo when trying to interpret what a specific speaker/policy is recommending.

    I am not sure what the research says about people responding to these kinds of numeric campaigns… i.e. do they really know what their BMI, blood pressure, cholesterol level, savings rate, etc. “should be”? Do they act on that knowledge? I don’t know, but maybe Joe and JMG are onto something…

  10. David B. Benson says:

    tidal — Tha’s a good idea. However ‘realist’ is

    realist-280

    while ‘optimist’ is

    optimist-315

    and, IMO, anything above that is

    destructionist–XXX

  11. Paul K says:

    My Action Plan for replacing carbon based energy has the goal of a 5 -10% per decade replacement by alternatives to achieve 80% replacement by century’s end. The first governmental action I recommend is the elimination of capital gains taxes on alternatives investment to maximize the infusion of venture capital. Subsidies for grid expansion and improvement will be needed to allow for the enormous increase in transmission capacity required in an “all-electric” future.
    Each energy use sector, manufacturing, transportation, residential and commercial electrical power, and heating and cooling should have its own focus. Joe says that transportation is the most problematic, but I think the greatest challenge is replacing heating oil and natural gas in the Northeastern and Midwestern large cities. I have no idea how this can be accomplished and welcome input from anyone who does. Hybrid and plug in cars will certainly push gas only vehicles out of the marketplace. A near total changeover will take 20 – 25 years as many purchase only used cars.

  12. Paul K says:

    David B. Benson,
    Have you seen this breaking news about a new biomass-to-ethanol process that takes advantage of a bacteria found in the Chesapeake Bay?

    Ronald,
    Might not be a good idea to “Let them name themselves”. Think of the problems if they picked Protectors of the Planet or Humanities Last Hope. Just kidding, but it is true that in political contests the winning strategy is to define the other person before they can define themselves.

  13. Anna Haynes says:

    I like Mike #1′s “fatalists”. Though I wish there was a way to put ostriches in there too.
    Destructionists good, but long.

    Sociopaths.

  14. SteveL says:

    They give Skeptics a bad name.
    They may be in denial, they may be addicted to BAU, but let’s
    KISS and make up a new term:
    They are CCC, Climate Change Cheerleaders.

  15. Anna Haynes says:

    Off topic, but any chance you could put up a post soliciting discussion on what we as individuals can do to raise awareness and counter the forces of evil? Maybe I’m missing something but I don’t see *anywhere* online for this. I have ideas but could really use some help getting them implemented.

    To give one example – our community access TV station played a global warming denialist propaganda piece 47 times in the last 6 months. But I can buy the DVD of Naomi Oreskes’ American Denial of Global Warming talk for 25 bucks, and the local TV folks say that if I bring it in, and we have permission to rebroadcast it, they’ll put it on the air.

    But my attempts to contact UCSD-TV to find out if purchasers of their DVDs do have permission to air them, has not gotten any response (at least not one that I’ve received). And I asked Scripps Communications about this and didn’t get a response either.

    Can anyone find out whether we have such permissions? Please????

  16. Ronald says:

    I have come up with a name.

    How about Climate truthers.

    I was trying to think of a group that is like the deniers and then steal some of what they call themselves. I then thought of ‘911 for truth’ or groups in that ‘industry’ and that they had many similarities to the global warming deniers.

    1) They’ll take some innocent fact and twist it to make some seemingly plausible but untrue claim.

    The twin towers and building 7 came down not from the fires in the buildings, but from explosive charges set by some government group.

    Instead of the Pentagon being crashed into by a jet liner that was flown by the highjackers, it was crashed into by another plane and explosives went off to make it look like a jet airliner did it.

    List some of the 911 for truth claims that aren’t true.
    List some of the Climate Truthers claims that aren’t true.

    2) There was an official commission that looked into the problem, but of course it is untrustworthy and had to be part of the government conspiracy against the people.
    The 911 commission for the 911 crisis
    IPCC for global warming.

    3) Mainstream scientists and others have examined their theories and have largely debunked them.
    List group that has debunked 911 for truth. Mechanics Illustrated has done a nice job with the 911 for truth group.
    List group that has debunked; IPCC and Realclimate.com for global warming.

    This is just a quick list of similarities, I’ll leave it for a professional writer to do a better job with it. I think it should be considered and do what you can with it. Maybe it will stick.

  17. Anna Haynes says:

    Another example – someone recently suggested facilitating behavior&attitude change by pointing out that a gas-profligate driver is serving as OPEC’s bitch. So, what should the slogan be? Where’s the artwork? How can we get the word out?

    Where are the other images that should be ubiquitous? Where are the artists and computer geeks who could create them? (I think Global Warming Art should have a “round earth” temperature-projections image, but the person I asked about it didn’t respond. (have spam filters developed an appetite for climate-related email?)

    This is worth getting off our butts for, isn’t it?

  18. Vance Wagner says:

    If you want to conjure the Terminator (T-1000), you should call them “D-1000s.”

  19. I recall the term “denialist” being proposed in sci.environment (back when it was still somewhat useful and interesting). I don’t recall that anyone mentioned the connection to “holocaust denier”. Indeed, references to the holocaust were considered very poor form on usenet! (See “Godwin’s Law”) As a descendant of Nazi holocaust victims m yself I would not countenance such an explicit link, but I bought into “denialist”.

    It is interesting to note that biologist confronted with pseudo-scientific attacks on evolution also call their opponents “denialists”. There was some overlap between the usenet communities so I;m not sure if the nomenclature was independently developed.

    It is nevertheless the case that anyone dealing with truths they find sufficiently inconvenient relies on a comparable array of tactics to befuddle the sympathetic and ill-informed audience. The use of these tactics, rather than the underlying purpose, reasonably needs a name and “denialism” is a good one.

    That said, it may in certain circumstances provide an unnecessary distraction. I have proposed “delusionist” as an alternative term. It has some nice features.

  20. Mark Lazen says:

    I agree with other commenters–delayer-1000 is too obtuse and requires explanation. the right term will have to just feel right.

    It’s tough to come up with a single word for these people, because their recalcitrance comes from a variety of sources. Some don’t believe because it conflicts with their religious sensibilities. Others simply are too concrete; they can’t follow the thread of scientific abstractions that say because we know A, B, and C, we can predict D will occur. Still others are unconsciously motivated by greed and hedonism–they can’t believe because then they’d have to give up their yacht.

    And some are just cussed, sour, contrarian mules. Come to think of it. THAT is the quality they all have in common–stubborness. They simply are consciously or unconsciously opposed to reevaluating their existing outlook.

    So I nominate something like the “obstinates,” the “intractables” or the “stiff-necks.” Or maybe “Dead-enders” is best of all.

  21. JMG says:

    If you think CO2e changes too slowly to be a useful metric for grabbing attention to the problem and focusing attention on it, let me introduce a new idea for a new SI unit:

    The Hansen (H) — the amount of atmospheric greenhouse gases of all types that is equivalent to 1/1000th of a ppm of atmospheric CO2. So if current CO2e is 420.nnn ppm, then it’s 420,nnn H, where H inexorably rises through time.

    I thought about the Keeling curve (and that might be another worthwhile name — Keeling units) and decided that there was some value to letting people see that, while it goes up and down through the year, the downs are never as low year to year …

  22. Anna Haynes says:

    Michael T’s “delusionists” gets my vote.

  23. Jay Alt says:

    Michael writes-
    . . . relies on a comparable array of tactics to befuddle the sympathetic and ill-informed audience. The use of these tactics, rather than the underlying purpose, reasonably needs a name and “denialism” is a good one.

    There’s a good name I’ve heard Don Wuebbles use for people using those tactics – “confusionists”

    Joe -
    I think “delayers” is excellent in ‘wrong-footing’ the opposition.
    http://www.allwords.com/word-wrongfooted.html
    It needs some context, without which it might be misunderstood to mean delaying climate change. Those practitioners will claim they’re delaying unnecessary action and so might embrace the name. Perhaps an adjective such as ‘dire’ or ‘dangerous’ could help.

    I’d hoped for more along these lines from the Rockbridge Institute but their efforts are infrequent. Joe Brewer sometimes writes about framing and climate. Chipping sharp tools from pieces of mental flint is hard work.

  24. Martin says:

    > So what to call them?

    My old friend Vladimir Ilyitch used to call them “useful fools”.

  25. RiHo08 says:

    Semantics is not the issue. Real world observations are the focus of delayers, etc. Globally, that is for the entire world, observed temperatures for 2007 were colder than 2006. 2008 was colder than 2007. For the first quarter of 2009, these temperatures, globally, that is for the entire world, were colder than 2008. Hmmm. The hypothesis of Jim Hansen at Goddard Space, is just that, spacey. His hypothesis of man made global warming does not account for decreases in world wide temperatures in the face of increasing atmospheric CO2 levels. Man may be adding CO2 to the atmosphere, but, CO2 may not be the major driver of earths’ temperature changes. We need look only to our sun for a plausible answer for changes in earth’s temperatures. In science, correlations do not mean causality, and the current global warming hypothesis is based solely upon correlations. We need to be more circumspect and not rush head long into solutions that not only will not make one iota of difference in global temperature changes, but divert attention to what current observations are telling us.