February 27, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich

Moderation impossible? Climate change, alarmism and rhetorical entrenchment

Intense, polarised debate has been a hallmark of much public debate over the science and politics of climate change. Recently, there have been warnings that “heated rhetoric over ‘deniers’ not only likely alienates broader publics, but it also likely turns off many moderate and centrist influential” (Nisbet 2008). Calls are now being made for a more “respectful debate” which might be able to “help us recognize shared goals and craft realistic policy approaches” (Nisbet 2013). This blog provides some historical background to the climate change debate and some of the pervasive rhetoric used, which might indicate that calls for moderation and dialogue are timely but perhaps difficult to achieve.

When climate science became climate politics

Scholars interested in climate change/climate change science communication and the history of the climate change debate normally trace back the beginnings of a public and political debate about climate change/global warming to 1988 (see Jaspal and Nerlich, and also Asimov). Interestingly, it seems that as soon as climate science became climate politics, a pervasive discourse of ‘alarmism’ emerged, alongside a discourse of warning politicians about the potential impacts of climate change and/or global warming.

The words ‘alarmist’ or ‘alarmism’ were used by so-called ‘contrarians’ (see below) to designate climate scientists and climate policy makers or advocates of climate mitigation policies who based their thinking and actions on the view that greenhouse gases were contributing to anthropogenic global warming or climate change and might pose serious threats to the environment and human civilisation. Some of these warnings were framed in terms of catastrophe and were seen as troublesome exaggerations by some stakeholders in the climate change debate.

It also seems, but more research is needed, that both types of discourse have travelled alongside each other for at last a quarter of a century and that the core tenets of these discourses have not changed substantially, and neither have some of its most visible proponents. In fact, these two discourses seem to be mutual reinforcing each other.


To find out about the way that the words alarmist or alarmism were used from the 1980s onwards I have, as usual, looked first at their use in mainstream media, in this case Major World Newspapers. It seems that the word alarmist was first used in 1980 with relation to climate change in the Christian Science Monitor.* It was employed for the first time in a headline in 1989, namely in an editorial for the Washington Post by James Hansen, a physicist and climatologist, entitled “I’m not being an alarmist about the greenhouse effect’ (11 February, 1989) which was written in response to an article by Patrick Michaels, an environmental scientist and climatologist, entitled “The Greenhouse climate of fear” (Washington Post, 8 January, 1989).


I read this early piece by Hansen (who was then called “Mr Greenhouse” by some) just when an article by him appeared in my twitter stream entitled “A fork in the road” (Huffington Post, 19 February, 2013), where quite similar arguments are made to the ones he made in 1989. I then found that a few days earlier an article had appeared in a Forbes column ‘Climate of Fear’ by Patrick Michaels (15 February, 2013) (since then the title of the column has changed to ‘At the interface of public science and public policy’).

This was quite spooky I thought. Was history just repeating itself? Are activists on both ‘sides’, those warning and those calling warners alarmists also just repeating themselves? Are those who warn and those who talk of alarmism any nearer to talking to each other or are they still talking past each other, or, indeed talking past each other with increasing ferocity and mutual deafness to arguments made on both sides?

Alarmism then and now

Let’s look at these four articles in more detail. In 1989 Hansen quotes Michaels as saying that global temperature dates ‘hide a drastic warm measurement bias’. Here we have the embryo of the hide the decline debate that would begin twenty years later. Hansen claims that the greenhouse effect “is beginning to be large enough to load the climate dice”, a metaphor that would endure over time. He argues that the greenhouse effect is “changing the frequency of extreme climatic events”, a topic that has become increasingly topical in recent years. He also talks about the strong conviction of “the scientific community” that the world is headed for substantial climate changes and presents some policy options, such increasing energy efficiency, slowing deforestation and so on.

Let’s jump to 2013. Hansen now writes in a context that is quite similar to 1989 but also quite different (he is, of course, still referred to as an ‘alarmist’). The scientific community is, he claims, still convinced of the reality of the greenhouse effect; he points to extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts, wildfires etc. becoming more frequent and extreme; but he also refers to developments that were not yet on the horizon in 1989, such as unconventional fossil fuels (tar sands, shale gas etc.). More interestingly, ‘the public’ (a phrased used several times) is much more present in this article, as paying the price (in many senses) of the greenhouse effect; and his policy focus is now on the introduction of a carbon price.

In 2013 Hansen also refers to the Keystone pipeline controversy in the US (he was arrested during a protest on 13 February, 2013), which is the topic of Michaels 15 January piece in his short Forbes column. Michaels argues that protests against the pipeline projects try to scare people by telling the (alarmist) story of climate change.

Let’s jump backwards to 1989. Michaels’ 1989 article starts with a warning: “WARNING: Sen. Albert Gore has determined that the following article on global warming may be irresponsible. ‘That we face an ecological crisis without any precedent in historic times is no longer a matter of any dispute worthy of recognition,’ he told Time magazine recently. ‘And those who, for the purpose of maintaining balance in the debate, take the contrarian view that there is significant uncertainty about whether it’s real are hurting our ability to respond.’”

This could have been written yesterday. Michaels accuses Gore of suppressing one side of a scientific debate by invoking Thomas Kuhn: “As historian Thomas Kuhn has noted, major scientific advances tend to occur when a small group of researchers find problems with a widely accepted paradigm.” He refers to this small group as “us ‘contrarians’” and stresses that this group does not doubt the existence of the greenhouse effect but sees it as beneficial to life on earth rather than as having apocalyptic effects on it. He goes on to argue that policies based on a “politics of fear” may do more harm than good.


Obviously these are only four articles, two published at the beginning of the climate change debate and two published at the current ‘end’, by two vocal advocates for action versus inaction on climate change. What happened in between needs to be investigated in much more detail, including what contributed to the ebb and flow of the use of words like alarmism and alarmist over time (see graph above, depicting changes in use between 2005 and 2012, with peaks around 2006 and 2007 and 2009 and 2010; Major World Newspapers)

Such longitudinal research would continue and complement scholarly work on scientists as agenda setters, such as published by Helen Ingram et al. at the beginning of global climate change debates (1992 article, paywall; chapter in Risk and Society, 1991, google books), and many more afterwards. However, unlike this older work, focusing on the use of words such as alarmism and alarmist would also shed light on arguments used by climate science critics to resist arguments put forward by certain agenda setting scientists and policy makers. This might contribute to gaining a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the dynamics of climate change debates over time and across the whole spectrum of arguments and advocates and, hopefully, open up a space for dialogue and reflection.

* Around 1972 there seems to have been a similar type of ‘anti-alarmist’ discourse around computer modelling with relation to ‘alarmist’ Club of Rome predictions made in their report The Limits to Growth, but there was no mention of climate change or global warming in the media articles I looked at.


This post is part of the Leverhulme programme but also linked to an ESRC project.




Posted in Climate ChangeClimate PoliticsScience Policy