The New York Times has an excellent piece on why the people who spread disinformation about climate change are not “skeptics” — and why it’s no surprise they are called climate science “deniers.”
Now that the world’s leading scientists and governments have found that human-caused climate change is already causing serious harm on every continent, denying the grave risk posed by unchecked carbon pollution is no longer an abstract or theoretical issue. If we keep listening to those spreading disinformation, a livable climate will be destroyed and billions of people will needlessly suffer.
And yet we continue to see the sad and ultimately self-destructive spectacle whereby “contrarian scientists testify before Congress and make statements inconsistent with the vast bulk of the scientific evidence, claiming near certainty that society is not running any risk worth worrying about.” So as the Times explains:
It is perhaps no surprise that many environmentalists have started to call them deniers.
And it’s also no surprise that four dozen leading scientists and science journalists/communicators issued a statement in December urging the media to “Please stop using the word ‘skeptic’ to describe deniers” of climate science. The impetus for the Times piece is that letter, written by physicist Mark Boslough, and signed by such luminaries as Nobel laureate Sir Harold Kroto, Douglas Hofstadter, physicist Lawrence Krauss, and Bill Nye “the Science Guy.” Full list here.
The disinformers are not skeptics. “Skepticism is the very foundation of the scientific method,” as the Times explains. “Proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims,” as the 2014 letter reads. “It is foundational to the scientific method. Denial, on the other hand, is the a priori rejection of ideas without objective consideration.”
The author of the Times piece, reporter Justin Gillis, points out that the denial “movement” — those who “so vigorously denounce the science” — is “mainly rooted in ideology, but much of the money to disseminate its writings comes from companies that profit from fossil fuels.” These people tend to be conservatives because “Many of these conservatives understand that since greenhouse emissions are caused by virtually every economic activity of modern society, they are likely to be reduced only by extensive government intervention in the market.” Others have made the same point.
Now the climate science deniers, who generate a lot of phony objections to real science, also like to generate phony outrage when anyone has the nerve to explain that they are not skeptics. One of the deniers with the longest history of being debunked by scientists, Dr. Roy Spencer, responds on his website to Gillis’s use of the word “deniers” by claiming:
You know — as evil as those who deny the Holocaust. (Yeah, we get the implication.)
He then goes on to malign the scientific character of Dr. Richard Lindzen (a Jew who is not entirely pleased with misplaced Holocaust imagery) because the majority of scientific opinion runs contrary to Dr. Lindzen….
Except that isn’t the implication of the word “denier,” which simply means “one who denies.”
If the point of the word was to link someone to Holocaust deniers, then why would Lindzen himself tell the BBC back in 2010 (audio here):
“I actually like ‘denier.’ That’s closer than skeptic.”
It’s actually quite common for deniers to embrace the term — as the National Center for Science Education explained in their 2012 post, “Why Is It Called Denial?” Even disinformers associated with the beyond-hard-core extremists at the Heartland Institute like the term (video here). Heck, some even sing, “I’m a Denier!”
Spencer, the Charlie Sheen of deniers, actually went so far on his website last year as to write an entire post explaining why from now on he will refer to politicians and scientists who use the term “deniers” as “global warming Nazis”!
I do think that undefined labels are always subject to criticism and out-of-context attacks, especially by people who spread disinformation for a living, so it is a good idea to define one’s terms. As I’ve written, climate science deniers are nothing like Holocaust deniers. 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 climate science deniers, however, are very different and far more worrisome. They are not marginalized, but rather very well-funded and often treated quite seriously by the media. 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.
In fact, while we have high confidence that we could avoid the worst impacts if we act to sharply cut carbon pollution ASAP, we now know that if we continue to listen to the deniers, for even a couple more decades, we can expect billions of people to suffer from multiple, catastrophic climate impacts that are not merely very long-lasting and potentially beyond adaptation — but that are “irreversible” on a time scale of centuries. And we also know that action now would be super cheap.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science — the world’s largest general scientific society explained in a 2014 report: “Physicians, cardiovascular scientists, public health experts and others all agree smoking causes cancer. And this consensus among the health community has convinced most Americans that the health risks from smoking are real. A similar consensus now exists among climate scientists, a consensus that maintains climate change is happening, and human activity is the cause.”
The media doesn’t write about “tobacco science skeptics” or even bother quoting people who deny the dangerous health consequences of cigarette smoking any more. It’s time for the media to treat climate science deniers the same way.