November 24, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich
Climate alarmism and climate realism
A week ago, a comment by Jeffrey Levine appeared underneath my second post on climate realism which said: “We’re now three years out from the original date of this post. The usage of climate realist was beginning to show an upturn toward the end of 2014. I’d be interested to see what the numbers say, but I’d guess it’s continued to increase, as I feel the label has ‘stuck’, especially when used in contrast with alarmist.”
That got me thinking – or rather, counting. So, I first updated the graph on climate realism.
As before I used the news database Lexis Nexis, using the search terms ‘climate realism’ or ‘climate realist’ AND ‘climate change’ OR ‘global warming’ and added the years 2014 to 207 (but, of course, 2017 is incomplete; I stopped on 17 November). As numbers are quite small, I did yearly counts not monthly ones.
I found that, indeed, talk about realism in the context of climate change hadn’t waned; it might in fact be on the rise again. There was a peak in 2015 around struggles regarding Obama’s clean power plan and also the COP21 conference in Paris. Another one is emerging now for various political reasons relating to the new Trump administration.
In 2015 one headline proclaimed for example: “Heartland Institute Leads Contingent of Climate Realists to Paris for UN#s COP 21 Conference” (Global English, Middle East and North Africa Financial Network, 2 December) One blog post published on The Moral Liberal on 21 October 2017 refers to the release of the Climate Science Special Report and points out: “It would be ironic indeed if the skeptical Trump Administration were to simply issue this alarmist report as federal policy on climate change science. In fact it would be tragic, a major defeat for climate realism and sound science.”
I then also updated the graph on alarmism, this time using monthly figures, as the numbers are larger; this also allowed me to search until October 2017. In my 2013 post I had used Major World Newspapers to search for ‘alarmism’ OR ‘alarmist’ AND ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming. However, as I had used All English Language News in my search for ‘realism’, I did that again for ‘alarmism’/’alarmist’. I expected the results to be quite similar, but they weren’t.
The main difference between the old graph based on Major World Newspapers (2005 to 2012) and the new one based on All English Language News (2005 to October 2017) is that ‘alarmism/alarmist’ in All English Language News peaked once before climategate (2009), namely in 2007 around the release of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, while it didn’t do that in Major World Newspapers. The rest of the graph is more or less similar. I am not totally sure why there is such a difference, but it might be that All English Language News captures more small-scale and online news outlets and some blogs.
Another, and even more interesting, finding was that alarmism discourse did not wane after 2013, as I had expected in 2013/14, but peaked several times more, albeit with slightly smaller peaks than in 2007 and in 2009. It’s certainly not dead as a talking point; it has staying power.
As hinted at in the old blog post, the description of climate science as ‘alarmist’ and ‘alarmism’ began as soon as scientists alerted politicians to the greenhouse effect at the end of the 1980s. The rhetorical use of ‘alarmism’ began to take off more prominently at the turn of the millennium, after the Kyoto protocol was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, on 11 December 1997, and entered into force on 16 February 2005.
In 2003, for example, Senator James Inhofe gave a long speech on the Senate floor entitled “Global Warming: The worst of all environmental scares”, published in two parts in Human Events Online (partially republished in The Independent). The ‘highlight’ for part 1 said: “With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phoney science, could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it.” The ‘highlight’ for part 2 said: “No wonder the late political scientist Aaron Wildavsky called global warming alarmism the ‘mother of all environmental scares.”
This quote, not the word ‘alarmism’ though, is, it seems, taken from the 1995 book But Is It True? A Citizen’s Guide to Environmental Health and Safety Issues by sociologist and political scientist Wildawsky. The quote seems to have been in circulation in climate contrarian circles since around 1998, and is still being used to day when accusing climate scientists of alarmism and when contesting the scientific consensus (for example in a 2017 article published in The Scotsman).
These quotes set the tone for ‘alarmism’ discourse for years to come and many of the talking points were repeated over and over again.
Peaks and troughs
Let us now look at the peaks and troughs in alarmism discourse over time from 2006 onwards, that is to say, discourse that frames mainstream climate science as ‘alarmist’.
There is a first peak in the spring of 2006, when Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was released and publicised (in February the documentary won an Oscar). There is also peak in October 2006 when the Stern review was released. In 2007 the year begins with various publications around the fourth IPCC report which triggered talk of alarmism. In addition, March 2007 sees an increase in attention to alarmism around the release of the Channel 4 documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle. In October 2007, the IPCC and Al Gore received the Nobel Peace prize, and of course, that made people talk about alarmism again.
2008 was a relatively quiet year. Even the publication of the UK Climate Act at the end of the year didn’t really cause a stir. Things changed, obviously, at the end of 2009 with climategate and COP15 in Copenhagen. Alarmism discourse continued into 2010 with glaciergate fuelling it, as well as more discussion around climategate.
Then things were quiet again until around 2014 when the results of another IPCC report were announced in March. The end of 2015 is dominated by COP21 in Paris which was signed in April 2016. In November 2016 Trump was elected President of the United States and in January 2017 he was sworn in. In June 2016 he withdrew from the Paris agreement and the second half of 2017 is dominated by various hurricanes, from Harvey to Maria, as well as changing energy politics, the election of Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator etc. This is reflected by further small peaks in alarmism discourse.
I can’t go through all the news items around alarmism for this post in any detail. However, I just want to close with one or two quotes. When Trump announced that the United States wouldn’t sign up to the Paris climate agreement, which surprised many observers, the Irish Independent published an article (6 June) saying “it’s hard to escape the impression that much of the outrage is as manufactured and fake as the claims so routinely made by the climate change alarmists.” On 22 June 2017 ClimateWire reported the selection of Mario Loyola as the new associate director of regulatory reform at the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality and quoted him as saying that ‘alarmists’ have “utterly failed (though they refuse to admit it) to establish sufficient certainty for a conclusive policy analysis”.
Some tentative conclusions
What may this mean for climate change discourse? It seems (but more research is needed) that those framing climate change science and scientists as alarmism and alarmists respectively push this message quite systematically on occasions when mainstream climate science comes to the fore in public and political life. This involves contrasting alleged alarmism (also associated with authoritarianism) with climate realism, rationality and sound science, or hot-headedness (alarmists are also called warmists) with cool-headedness. The two discourses, that of attributing alarmism to mainstream science and that of attributing realism to its opponents support each other rhetorically and politically.
Proviso: Lexis Nexis is a convenient source for the analysis of news. However, a significant drawback is that this data source is frequently reconfigured, leading to slightly different results obtained when consulting at different dates.