April 13, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

Climate realism: What does it mean?

During the publications of the various IPCC reports between September last year and today, I have increasingly come across the words ‘realism’ and ‘climate realism’. Here are just some examples: In a BBC report Roger Harrabin says about a draft of the IPCC WG3 report that it “adopts a new tone of realism”. This echoes a statement by Chris Field, co-chair of the IPCC’s WG2, who spoke of “cold analytical realism”. A tweet by Sheril Kirshenbaum led me to an article entitled “Climate change needs the politics of the impossible” which ends by saying: “This isn’t idealism. It’s a higher realism”. All these quotes seem to use the word ‘realism’ in the sense of “the attitude or practice of accepting a situation as it is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly” and use adjectives like ‘new’, ‘cold’, ‘analytical’ and ‘higher’ perhaps to demarcate this use from other uses of the word ‘realism’.

This made me curious: What does ‘realism’, and ‘climate realism’ in particular, actually mean in the context of climate change?

A dip into the Google pond

When I put ‘climate realism meaning’ into Google, just to test the water, the first hit (on my computer, on 9 April, 2014) led to a philosophical definition of ‘realist’, the second to a post on WUWT entitled “Shocker: Huffington Post carries climate realist essay”. The article referenced was written by Harold Ambler at the beginning of 2009 and argues against Al Gore and other ‘alarmists’. This indicates that, at least for some people, ‘climate realism’ seems to be an antonym (a word opposite in meaning to another) to ‘(climate) alarmism’ and a close synonym (a word or phrase that means exactly or nearly the same as another word or phrase) to ‘climate scepticism’ (itself a particular meaning of scepticism that has emerged in the climate change debate).

If you put in ‘climate plus realism’ into Google, the first few hits talk about the apparently new IPCC realism we have already encountered above. Hence, there seems to be a slight difference between the use of the noun-noun compound ‘climate realism’ and the use of the noun ‘realism’ in the context of climate change.

A more systematic approach

I then went on to see how the compounds ‘climate realism’ and ‘climate realist’ in particular were used over time. To do this, I searched the news database Lexis Nexis using the search terms ‘climate realism’ or ‘climate realist’ and ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’. I found that the two phrases were used 412 times in ‘All English Language News’ (no time restriction; search carried out 8 April, 2014). Interestingly, half of this news output is in the form of blog posts. It should be noted that Lexis Nexis doesn’t record all blogs, only those aggregated by Newstex. The words were first used, it seems, in 2005, peaked in 2009, and then the usage drops off, but might be on the rise again – see figure below.


The 2005 article was published in UPI and is entitled “Climate: Hockey sticks and hobby horses”. Dan Whipple writes: “UPI’s Climate was reminded the other day there is a broad spectrum of interpretations of the science behind global climate change. Roger Pielke Jr. … took to task a recent column on adapting to warming, saying, ‘You equate ‘climate skeptics’ with those who support adaptation. Most climate skeptics do not support adaptation because it would mean admitting that there is a problem needing to be adapted to in the first place.’ Pielke added many who support adaptation are not skeptical of climate science at all. ‘Perhaps (they should be) more accurately described as ‘climate realists,’ he said. We don’t want to put words in Pielke’s mouth, but we may hazard to guess he considers himself a realist.” This is interesting in view of more recent discussions around adaptation and what some call adaptation realism.

The emergence of a special meaning

Let us now see what happened in 2009. 118 news items are recorded in Lexis Nexis, of which 87 are blogs (and one blogger in particular seems to have used the phrases quite vocally), 25 newspaper articles (mostly in Australian newspapers), 4 news wires, 4 web-based publications, 3 magazine articles and 1 tenders opportunities). This was the year of climategate and the Copenhagen summit – both events happened at the end of 2009.  However, talk about climate realism began early in 2009 when a blogger wrote on 2 January: “Climate realists around the world have contended for years that the real goal of alarmists such as Nobel Laureate Al Gore and his followers is to use the fear of man-made global warming to redistribute wealth.” Here we see again an implied semantic distinction between alarmism and realism. This is indicative of the emergence of a new meaning or shade of meaning, as realism is normally used in opposition to, say, idealism (as in the article quoted in the first section of this post).

March and April seem to have been particularly important in promoting climate realism, partly through a conference at the Heartland Institute and partly through the formation of the International Climate Science Coalition (this was what the item ‘tenders opportunities’ referred to, where setting up such a coalition is discussed). The coalition has the aim to promote “public understanding of the realities of climate science”. This was seen as necessary, “[b]ecause of the strong vested interests of the press and politicians in maintaining climate alarmism” and because “skeptics media and government relations efforts have generally not resulted in more realistic public assertions about climate change”, TendersInfo, 18 April, 2009).

Throughout 2009 one climate sceptical blogger in particular (from Canada, it seems) used the words ‘realism’ and ‘realist’ most extensively, especially in headlines in which he named a series of well-known climate sceptics and called them ‘realists’.  In a post from 19 March he wrote: “There are also a growing number of former AGW [anthropogenic global warming] believers that have studied the science and become climate realists. Last week, many of those signers joined about 800 other realists at the ‘International Conference on Climate Change’ sponsored by the Heartland Institute.” And on 7 April he reported the setting up of a climate realist news site. On 25 April he talked about Australia as a climate realist nation.

After climategate at the end of November 2009 things changed only slightly and a small number of mainstream news outlets used the the words ‘realism’ and ‘realist’ in the context of climate change, such as The American Spectator on 23 November: “Dr. Tim Ball said, via a phone conversation captured in a video by The Corbett Report and posted at Climate Realists, current alarmism represents the ‘hijacking of climate science by computer modelers and the IPCC’.” However, it should be stressed that bloggers, and one blogger in particular, seem to have appropriated the compounds ‘climate realism’ and ‘climate realist’ throughout 2009, not the mainstream press. After 2011 these compounds appear a few times in contributions to the Telegraph by James Delingpole for example.

(Climate) Realism: A tale of two meanings?

Overall, the results of this quick analysis seem to indicate a particular linguistic trend in word usage, where the noun-noun compounds ‘climate realism’ and ‘climate realist’ have been used in contra-distinction to ‘alarmism’ and ‘alarmist’ and in order to argue against, say, Al Gore or the IPCC. More recently, the noun ‘realism’ by itself seems to be used more positively with reference to IPCC reports and has even been adopted by some IPCC experts and communicators themselves, without focusing so much on the antonym ‘alarmism’. Can one therefore speak of the emergence of two slightly different meanings of ‘realism’ in the context of climate change debates. The question is: are these meanings diverging or converging? We’ll have to see.

Of course, this post can only provide a very cursory analysis, and the findings still need to be validated by a more in-depth analysis. I’d love to hear from people who would call themselves or others ‘climate realists’ for whatever reasons and also from people who would use or not use the phrase ‘climate realism’ for whatever reasons.

PS There may be a difference in meaning because some talk about realism in the context of science and some in the context of policy – thanks to @gillott_john for that.

This post is also linked to our ESRC project on climate change which tries to study long-term fluctuations in climate change debates through linguistic analysis.

Image: I tried to think of an image for climate realism, which made me think about realism in art etc. and I just like this painting: wikimedia commons: Young girl reading by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1868)










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