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:

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.

Further reading

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.”

Posted in Climate ChangeClimate PoliticsScepticism