Are President Obama and Hillary Clinton in Climate-Change “Denial”?

Some environmentalists are expanding their definition of the term, but not everyone in the movement agrees.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
April 11, 2016, 8 p.m.

Is Hillary Clinton a climate-change denier? Friends of the Earth Action, a green group that backs Bernie Sanders, recently accused her of “engaging in soft climate denial.”

Clinton seems like a bizarre target for the accusation. That’s because the term “denier” is most often lobbed at the substantial number of Republican lawmakers and candidates who reject, or at least strongly question, robust evidence that burning fossil fuels is causing dangerous global warming.

But as progressive activists fight for more ambitious steps to steeply cut emissions, they are also deploying the term as a weapon to criticize energy and climate policies that they call weak or counterproductive.

Clinton certainly does not dispute the scientific consensus that the Earth is heating up and human activity is the main driver. Indeed, she has called climate change “one of the defining threats of our time” and released various plans on boosting green electricity and making natural-gas infrastructure more climate-friendly, among other areas.

The criticism has come anyway, in this case during a spat between Clinton and Sanders over the global climate pact reached in Paris in December. Activists are hitting Clinton’s strong support for international agreements that Friends of the Earth believes are woefully inadequate.

Friends of the Earth’s usage is just the latest example of elastic—and controversial—usage of “denial” and “denier.”

Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes raised eyebrows last year when she accused the pioneering climate scientist James Hansen (and three other scientists) of a “new, strange form of denial.” The crime? Their argument that expanded nuclear power, not just renewables, are needed to slash emissions enough to prevent extremely dangerous levels of warming.

And the prominent activist Bill McKibben last year used the “d” word when he attacked President Obama—who embraces climate science—for giving oil giant Royal Dutch Shell permission to conduct exploratory drilling in the Arctic, his then-indecision on the Keystone pipeline, and opening new areas for coal mining in Western states.

“This is climate denial of the status quo sort, where people accept the science, and indeed make long speeches about the immorality of passing on a ruined world to our children. They just deny the meaning of the science, which is that we must keep carbon in the ground,” McKibben wrote in The New York Times.

(Since McKibben’s Times piece, Obama has rejected Keystone and moved further left on the Arctic and coal-mining policy).

The way that McKibben and, more recently, Friends of the Earth use the term “denial” is to denounce what social scientists refer to as “implicatory denial”—that is, denial of the significance or logical consequences of a fact or problem; in this case, what advocates see as the necessary policies that flow from the dangers of global warming. Oreskes has used the term differently, saying, “the denial of climate science is because people don’t like its implications.”

But there’s no consensus about whether it’s appropriate or useful to lob the “denier” charge at people who don’t deny the existence of global warming or the human influence.

Sen. Brian Schatz is a liberal Democrat who’s outspoken on climate change, has worked to put Republicans on record about their rejection of mainstream climate science, and wants a carbon tax.

He’s not crazy about use of the phrase in disputes over strategies for battling climate change or how much should be done. For Schatz, the term should be used for “those who deny the scientific consensus that climate change is real and caused by humans, and urgent.”

“What’s happening is that actual climate denial is on the wane. That’s the good news. The bad news is now people are throwing around the term without any precision,” Schatz told National Journal.

Michael Mann, a prominent and outspoken climate scientist, is comfortable with an expansive definition. He says the term should be applied to those who are in denial of “facts and objective truths.” But that doesn’t just apply to the basic scientific evidence of human-induced climate change, Mann said in an email.

“There are other relevant forms of denial. For example, denial of evidence of the impacts of climate change and denial of the potential solutions to the problem,” the Penn State University academic said in response to general questions about the term.

A definition that broad is important, Mann argued, because the fault lines in battles over climate change are moving. He says that “industry-funded contrarians” are shifting their messaging toward what Mann calls these “kinder, gentler” forms of denial, rather than denying the existence of human-induced climate change.

But Alex Trembath of The Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank, doesn’t like the term “denier” at all, and he’s especially downbeat on usage broad enough to capture Clinton and Hansen, calling it “foolish and counterproductive to the extreme.”

“Climate change is a phenomenon with many impacts that needs many solutions, and the Friends of the Earth statement about Secretary Clinton is another regrettable attempt by green groups to polarize and divide, rather than expand and diversify the movement and policy portfolio,” said Trembath, the group’s communications director, in an email.

But Ben Schreiber of Friends of the Earth Action is defending their criticism of Clinton. He argues that climate denial is a “spectrum.” It ranges from denying science, to denying the impacts, and finally to the “soft” denial of refusing to take needed action. That’s where Clinton comes in, he said.

“She acknowledges climate change and yet wants to pretend that the Paris accord is sufficient to address the problem,” Schreiber said.

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