March 9, 2013, by Warren Pearce
Are they really climate deniers? Closing down debate in science and politics.
Just had an interesting back and forth with Vanessa Heggie about ‘what to call climate deniers/sceptics’? At the bottom of her excellent post on ‘how to debate with sceptics’, Vanessa wonders whether ‘denier‘ or ‘sceptic‘ is the right word to use around climate change. This was a handy reminder that, although I read stuff on this topic all the time (as it’s my research area), this may be quite a marginal issue for many informed observers. Therefore, here are a few thoughts on the denier debate.
Labelling: us, them and making sense
Labels on the whole are a tricky business, and are all about drawing boundaries – often between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (what sociologists call ‘othering‘). However, as Becky Higgett pointed out, attempting to cram various caveats into a label can be rather problematic:
@hps_vanessa @warrenpearce @steffanjohn Would it be better not to label? Eg ‘people who reject AGW [for x reasons]’ PWRAGW for short 😉
— Rebekah Higgitt (@beckyfh) March 8, 2013
Even more sophisticated attempts to get beyond labels – as with Tamsin Edwards’ sceptical compass can run into trouble when people can’t agree on the axes of measurement in the first place. However, labels are also an inescapable fact of life. We need short hand to make sense of the world. However, we may also want to ask who our labels ‘make sense’ to, and what meaning they have ‘out there’?
What do ‘climate deniers’ deny? Science or policy?
The problem here is that climate change is a particularly complicated area. While there may be a few people out there who don’t think carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping gas, I suspect that many people who are commonly labelled as ‘deniers’ don’t really subscribe to that view.
So if that is the case, then what are these views? Here, I will just take the example of climate critic Ben Pile, who helpfully lists some ‘starting position’ statements on his Climate Resistance blog. Here is what might be called a ‘lukewarm’ acceptance of the fundamentals of climate science, but with a scepticism over the strength of claims often made, based on the evidence currently available. As Pile points out, scientific evidence is not equivalent to fact. There is also an underlying concern here that the exaggeration of certain climate change claims is but another chapter in society’s ongoing flirtation with catastrophism.
Following this is a perhaps more strongly felt position on the current state of climate change policy. To adapt Carl Sagan’s maxim – extraordinary policy requires extraordinary evidence. While risks of increasing carbon emissions are acknowledged by many sceptics, the economic risks of curbing emissions – especially to developing countries – are also foregrounded. In short, do climate stabilisation scenarios “keep poor people mostly poor”?
Trust and mistrust: closing down the climate debate
Running through this critique is the issue of trust. Online critics of the climate science and/or climate policy have been fuelled by perceived efforts to close down debate on the issue – particularly by politicians declaring ‘the debate to be well and truly over‘, by climate scientists attempting to keep dissenting views out of IPCC reports, and by the BBC attempting (unsuccessfully) to keep secret the seminars at which the terms of their climate reporting policy were decided.
These efforts to close down debate chime with the ‘othering’ of critics with the ‘denial’ label. In psychology, denial is defined as ‘failure to acknowledge an unacceptable truth’. However, in the spirit of reflection called for by Heggie, those people using the word ‘denial’ may wish to ask themselves what ‘truth’ it is that they think their opponents are failing to acknowledge’? Bearing in mind the issues of touched on above (which are by no means the only ones involved), I contend that black/white truths are in short supply within the messy maelstrom of climate science and politics.
The ‘denier’ label: bad for science, bad for policy
By labelling opponents as climate deniers, advocates of strong climate policy move the territory for the argument from politics to science. It depicts opponents to climate policy as irrational characters who cannot be debated with rationally. Helpful in the short term, perhaps, for policy advocates, but in the longer term this threatens to have a corrosive effect on science and will almost certainly be unsuccessful in keeping politics out of climate change, which has been creeping back into the issue since the near-unanimous passing of the 2008 Climate Change Act. My advice to those supporting climate policies is to make strong political arguments for their implementation, rather than relying on painting your opponents as irrational and anti-science, for two simple reasons: it isn’t true, and it won’t work.
Questioning the wisdom of climate denier discourse
An etymological justification of ‘climate denial’
On loss of trust in climate science
Lennart Bengtsson: “If you do not support climate catastrophes as the one recently from the World Bank, you are placed into a deniers box and accused to support the interest of the oil industry or alternatively that you are a man in a senior age and therefore unable to understand the concerns of the younger generations.”
A thoughtful piece. thanks
Thanks Barry – putting your comment down as a success 🙂
Thanks Warren. It’s surprising really that this debate is still going on.
Another practical reason for avoiding the d word is that it used to mean different things: (a) believing that x is not true (b) accepting that x is true but not being able to face the consequences. In the climate debate, usually (a) is meant but Weintrobe in the recent BBC Thinking Allowed used it in the (b) sense leading to some confusion.
Of course one could also ask whether it is reasonable to use terms such as ‘warmist’, ‘alarmist’ and ‘activist’. Generally I agree with Becky that pigeon-holing people is best avoided since so much time is wasted on this rather than discussing the issues that matter. If it really is necessary, I’d suggest the blandest description, “concerned” or “unconcerned” about climate change.
Thanks Paul. Agree it is a bit surprising. Been a lot written about it, which very engaged people will have read and be aware of all the arguments. But ‘climate denier’ is another one of those phrases that is now ‘loose’ in society, so plenty of people who are politically informed but on fringe of climate debate will still use it: https://twitter.com/mehdirhasan/status/309036005422419968
Really, this boils down to the heavy pressure that climate science has been put under to act as a justification for policy. It has allowed those people questioning climate policy and representations of climate change in society (by media etc) to be painted as denying unquestionable truths. Argue with the politics, you must be denying science, and can be put in the pseudo-science box.
Pigeon-holing is problematic, but I think we need some form of short hand. The list of statements on Ben’s blog is mega-useful, I think, but impractical for general writing. Tamsin’s sceptical compass was a good effort at a middle ground. Have to say, I like concerned/unconcerned a lot. Although, where would you put Lomborg? Think he is concerned…but even *more* concerned by lots of other problems…
Where would I put Lomborg? That’s exactly what I don’t think is worthwhile, discussing which pigeonhole to put individuals in! What I meant, but didn’t explain, is that if necessary terms could be used more generally, eg “People who are concerned about climate change often say …”
I’ll be the first to say I’m a strong policy advocate, but I’m interested in what you would say about the “deniers” who are those promoted by fossil-fuel industry funded think tanks who are strongly “anti policy”. Free market, small government, etc.
These are the scientists who have specifically sat down and strategised to highlight the uncertainties in the science so that climate policy doesn’t progress and the fossil fuel industry continues to pump C02 into the atmosphere to its hearts content.
They are the scientists who are also hired by Big Tobacco to challenge the science of second hand smoke. The links have been documented. These guys might be scientists but they are hired guns by the industry that’s causing climate change.
I think the word deniers is appropriate here because of their shonky cherry picking of the science, their lack of peer reviewed publication, their links with the industry that causes the problem, and their campaigning against action.
I’m interested to see that you say the use of the word ‘denier’ moves the debate from science to politics, because that, in fact, is what these people themselves have done. They have let the politics of the fossil fuel industry influence the science. It’s not those who’ve pushed policy and labelled these people deniers who have pushed, for example, almost every Republican in the US congress into being a climate sceptics/denier. It’s the oil baron Koch brothers and the Tea Party movement they fund through think tank Americans for Prosperity who have done that.
Thanks for reading and highlighting this issue so succinctly. In general, I am trying to move the discussion on from the issue of fossil-fuel funded think tanks, as I think it has been done to death in the research. However, my decision does not imply that the issue of who is heard in the media and who funds them is unimportant. Couple of quick thoughts:
1) I’m pretty sure that most of the sceptic voices I hear in the UK are private individuals who do not have any particular financial stake in being ‘merchants of doubt’. More likely is that some, bout certainly not all, are influenced by their broader political worldview/values etc. My focus is the UK and I am clear that the political situation here is very different from the US in a number of ways. There is just one well-known sceptic think tank – the Global Warming Policy Foundation – but I am unsure about how much influence they have in the public square. Policy Exchange is, by far, the most influential right wing think tank in policy circles, and they are clear that climate change is a significant problem.
2) Regarding scientists who “specifically sat down and strategised to highlight the uncertainties in the science so that climate policy doesn’t progress”, I guess you are probably thinking about something like this recent discussion on Andrew Bolt’s show in Australia (not much ‘balance as bias’ here!) I don’t know the background of the discussants but, yes, clearly they are highlighting particular arguments which tie in with the presenter’s broader political point (scrap the carbon tax).
The problem is that science finds it very hard to get away from such uncertainties and, one should point out, it is not a given that such uncertainties will narrow as more science is done. Of course, there is plenty of scientific evidence about the links between carbon emissions and climate change which, at least in the UK, most mainstream sceptics accept. Really, the issue is political: how (or whether) to tackle climate change? The ongoing debate over this (which will never end!) will *not* be won by any new piece of science that comes along, or even by some tipping point where the accumulated scientific evidence causes a significant shift in opinion. Arguably this has already happened – most polls show majorities in favour of governments addressing climate change and increasing renewable energy capacity (confusingly, these figures are often larger than the numbers ‘believing’ climate change is taking place).
In summary, a point I and others have made before: climate science does give us very important context for the climate policy debate, we want to know as much as possible about a very complex set of atmospheric relationships. However, over-reliance on science as a lever for political action is a fraught, and probably unproductive, road.
Nail on the head, and this is the main thrust of the warmista. It is a political objective not a scientific one. With Lysenko stirring in his grave, what prospect for a society united by a belief in anything? The abuse of the trust people had for science is a much wider concern than the single issue of the corruption of climate science.
Thanks Rog. Think there are a couple of different things going on here – to put it very crudely, those who think ‘science is wrong’ and those who think ‘too much science (in policy)’. Some people may think one, both or neither.
Curious to know what other areas of science have contributed to an abuse of the public’s trust. Anything in particular?
Medecine: Pharmacology, public health stats, epidemiology,
Agriculture: Animal husbandry, feedstocks, pesticides, fertilisers, biofuels
Expert opinion for rent: Rates negotiable, Ethics manageable.
OK, now I’m intrigued – especially re the medicine. Any good examples?
Flocks of evidence in medicine!
Look at the whole H2 Antagonist area, let alone “Alternative Medicine”!
Riley Dunlap doesn’t seem to have got the memo
[…] the multiple meanings of ‘climate change’, understanding climate change becomes a complex affair. This also means that understanding the PUCC […]
[…] my research on climate change scepticism. My starting point was that climate change scepticism – or as it is often inaccurately described, denial – is not monolithic. Those people typically labelled as sceptics vary in their arguments. […]
Interesting piece. The one part I’d disagree with is – “By labelling opponents as climate deniers, advocates of strong climate policy move the territory for the argument from politics to science.” By comparing someone, however indirectly, to a holocaust denier – you’re moving any “discussion” out of science and into the politics of hate.
“politics of hate”
Now that’s a good example of closing down debate.
The fact is that denialism (which is, by the way, an increasingly well recognised and definable phenomenon with a far wider relevance than either the holocaust or climate change, or both together) is a set of methods that can be and is used to undermine the findings of a multitude of different areas of study, as widely varied as epidemiology and atmospheric physics.
Start here: http://eurpub.oxfordjournals.org/content/19/1/2.full
Just look for thirty minutes on Retraction Watch. Quite a few examples are in par lance of shoddy climate related papers.
“Really, this boils down to the heavy pressure that climate science has been put under to act as a justification for policy. It has allowed those people questioning climate policy and representations of climate change in society (by media etc) to be painted as denying unquestionable truths. Argue with the politics, you must be denying science, and can be put in the pseudo-science box.”
Warren, Unless I’m misunderstandnig you I would respectfully suggest that you are putting the cart before the horse there. The treatment of the findings of the science, and the debate about what to DO about those findings, are two separate issues which are treated as one by ‘sceptics’ / deniers.
The science should, and for genuine and scientifically literate sceptics does, stand on it’s own merits.
Efforts to move debate about what to DO about scientific findings – politics and policy – into territory where (in the case of many or most climate ‘sceptic’ arguments, disingenuous or ill-informed) efforts to discredit the science itself occur, in order to avoid the need to discuss the problem at all by making it go away, could almost be cited as a hallmark of climate change denialism.
Rejecting the evidence (scientific evidence, in this case) means that an informed debate about how to respond to the problem cannot take place.
This, to my mind goes to the heart of the entire climate science ‘debate’.
There also need not be any inherent contradiction, as you seem to suggest there is (correct me if I’m wrong) between the use of the term denier and the fact that climate ‘scepticism’ is a complex phenomenon with multiple facets and approaches.
In fact, rapidly changing and varied (and even internally inconsistent) arguments and ‘levels’ of denial are something of a hallmark of denialism, even at the level of single individuals. A common phenomenon I’ve come across when trying to engage climate ‘sceptics’ on the science of climate change is rapid changes in their own stances on specifics even within one conversation. A hugely simplified version might go something like:
Step 1. “There is no global warming and CO2 is lovely because it’s plant food”.
Step 2. “OK so there might be warming going on but it’s due to the sun and CO2 is still lovely because it’s plant food and anyway the medieval warm period was much warmer than today so what’s all the fuss about?”
Step 3. “OK so CO2 might be causing a rise in temperatures but it’s still natural because it’s all coming from volcanos.”
Step 4. “OK so the CO2 causing warming is coming from human activity but the feedbacks are all going to turn out to be negative in the long run and anyway history shows CO2 rise following climate change not preceeding it and climate sensitivity is much lower than the climate scientists say it is.”
Step 5. “OK so it may be a real problem if not tackled but we’ll find a way to adapt because it’s too difficult and expensive to reduce emissions and anyway wind turbines are ugly and the human species is super-clever / adaptable / watched over by God.”
Step 6. Take a break for a day or two then go through the whole process again from Step 1 after bumping into the same person in the staff canteen.
OK, so that’s something of a parody, but at all levels from the individual to the global that does seem to be a process that’s replicated again and again and again.
…. I should make clear that I live in hope of someone, somewhere, coming up with an expalantion for the whole thing so we can all just chill out and fly around the world for skiiing holidays without worrying about emissions, etc, etc, etc. All the more so since I have 2 young children who are likely to long outlive me, and who will in all probability experience, first hand, climate related problems that I’ll never see myself.
I have just as much reason for climate change to not be true as anyone else.
But the science says it is happening, and is going to continue to happen, and not a single one of the vast number of ‘sceptics’ around the world has yet come up with a rebuttal of the science that stands up to scrutiny.
There are many lvels of parody possible on the consensus opinion too. The latest being that they don’t know what caused the current plateau after 1997 but they are certain that what happened before it is manmade. Well except that bit before 1985 which the solar scientists Solanki, Lockwood-Frochlich declare can plausibly be explained by the sun. ie we have 12 years of unnatural warming – precisely as it happens at the pdo shift point. Hmmm…
Want more. How can you go against the simple physics of greenhouse warming? Well if you are prepared to declare a warming ocean as a sink rather than a source of CO2 and you are prepared to jettision heat transfer theory and declare that heat can bypass the ocean surface and disappear into the deep ocean and then further declare that it migght jump back – without accepting the probability that this would demonstarte a) negative feedback and/or b) natural variation that were missing from the models whren they predicted the apocalype.
Still more. The idea that manamde warming can be teased out of background solar warming is based on assuming natural variation is in decline and therefore assuming that mankind must be dominating because you match the 20th century without it and can’t think of any other heating agent. If you were to assume that the current plateau is due to natural variation then there is no scientific argument at all for manmade warming. Despite that all people who are employed by the scary story believe in the scare story. Funny that!
I’ve gotlots more. The only thing consistent about climate science is the way they throw away, logic, obdservations, physics, and common sesne willy-nilly in order to produce a motivated pre-decided, assumption-led conclusion.
Further to my last email. Taht skeptics don’t have any other explanation. Well currently we have around 0.7C of warming, most of it declared natural already (ie pre-1950) so natural warming by some source is agreed by everyone. What then is so unusual about the last 50 years, 17 of which gave us no warming at all. The obs show a gentle rise, not unlike a random walk (papers have been published stating that). Only the models, now discredited as running too warm, give cause for alarm. This is circular reasoning at best, unfounded specualtion at worst.
As it happens the convenient explanation for the drop after 1945 to 1975 was manmade aerosols – also caused by nasty fossil fuels that apparently diappeared after the clean air act. Now imagine I sai that the plateau should have occurred in 1960 after sunspot numbers stopped increasing but aerosols cooled the planet and we are now experiencing the real temperature again. The argument has similar
the argument has simialr roots. But only one of these argument is likely to be funded because the other does not predict catastrophe.
Continuing on the solar theme. The Arctic and the US48 show warming in the 30’s was the same as current warming, exactly matching the solar curve prepared by solanki. Now these datasets are the only ones unlikley to have been tainted by urban heating bias , ie that populations gre up around the traditional met measuring points. The vast majority of the world data has no mechanism applied for removing such Urban heating effect. If we were to base our entire theory around what is happening in the arctic therefore, the acknowledged worst place for manmade warming, should it exist, then we see nothing unusual. In fact the GISP2 plot of arctic temps shows all sorts of warming there before 1950. MWP, Roman period, holocene maximum, the lot.
And if you want a refutation of AGW theory than accept first that the one true fingerprint of AGW was declared by the IPCC to be cooling of the stratosphere – something that has also been flatlining since 1995. Yes you can come up with lacklustre excuses, even unphysical mechanisms but that is specualtion. The obs, ie nature is screaming at the scientists that nothing unusual is happening anywhere, except perhaps some greening of the planet.