What Should a Journalist Call Someone Who Doesn’t Think Climate Change Is Real?

The climate-denier-skeptic-doubter debate has new life thanks to a change in the AP style guide.

Sen. James Inhofe wields a snowball on the Senate floor, February 26, 2015.
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Jason Plautz
Sept. 23, 2015, 5 a.m.

When Jim In­hofe threw a snow­ball on the floor of the Sen­ate to protest the sci­entif­ic con­sensus on cli­mate change, was he be­ing a cli­mate den­ier? Or a cli­mate skep­tic? Or a cli­mate doubter?

The dis­tinc­tion may seem trivi­al, but to those act­ive on both sides of the is­sue, the words mat­ter. So much so that law­suits have even been threatened over them. And an ad­di­tion to the As­so­ci­ated Press Stylebook entry on “glob­al warm­ing” an­nounced Tues­day has only in­flamed the de­bate.

In a re­lease, the AP said this: “Our guid­ance is to use cli­mate change doubters or those who re­ject main­stream cli­mate sci­ence and to avoid the use of skep­tics or den­iers.”

When the AP talks, journ­al­ists across the globe listen—the agency’s stylebook can dic­tate ex­actly what words and phrases are used in re­port­ing on polit­ic­al de­bates. So right on cue, en­vir­on­ment­al­ists and cli­mate sci­ent­ists jumped on the change.

Here’s how the Si­erra Club re­acted on Twit­ter:

“It’s not like [In­hofe’s] cli­mate-change views are nu­anced or well thought out. It’s not as if he’s found some fun­da­ment­al flaw with cli­mate sci­ence—he just re­fuses to ac­cept the vast body of ex­ist­ing sci­entif­ic work,” said Karthik Ganapathy of 350.org in an email.

The con­cern for the Left is that “doubter” car­ries a con­nota­tion of ques­tion­ing or con­cern. But the sci­ence on cli­mate change is ob­ject­ively over­whelm­ing—97 per­cent of the world’s sci­ent­ists agree that the cli­mate is chan­ging as a res­ult of hu­man activ­ity and that its ef­fects are be­ing felt.

The AP guid­ance for “those who re­ject main­stream cli­mate sci­ence,” then, would seem ac­cept­able. But it’s “doubter” that has proved con­tro­ver­sial.

“Those who are in deni­al of ba­sic sci­ence, be it evol­u­tion or hu­man-caused cli­mate change, are in fact sci­ence-den­iers,” cli­mate sci­ent­ist Mi­chael Mann told Think­Pro­gress. “To call them any­thing else, be it ‘skep­tic’ or ‘doubter,’ is to grant an un­deserved air of le­git­im­acy to something that is simply not le­git­im­ate.”

Even the word “skep­tic” has proved con­tro­ver­sial. In an open let­ter last year, sci­ent­ists and edu­cat­ors with the Com­mit­tee for Skep­tic­al In­quiry urged the me­dia to stop con­flat­ing skep­ti­cism with a re­jec­tion of sci­ence.

“Prop­er skep­ti­cism pro­motes sci­entif­ic in­quiry, crit­ic­al in­vest­ig­a­tion, and the use of reas­on in ex­amin­ing con­tro­ver­sial and ex­traordin­ary claims,” they wrote. “It is found­a­tion­al to the sci­entif­ic meth­od. Deni­al, on the oth­er hand, is the a pri­ori re­jec­tion of ideas without ob­ject­ive con­sid­er­a­tion.”

Paul Fidalgo of the Cen­ter for In­quiry, which was be­hind the let­ter, said that “doubter” fell in the same cat­egory by im­ply­ing that there was some “genu­ine skep­ti­cism and in­quiry.”

“This isn’t like Big­foot or ali­ens, where we can de­bate. Cli­mate change is a real-world prob­lem go­ing on right now,” he said. “If we be­stow den­iers with le­git­im­acy, it’s bad for us as a spe­cies. It means we can’t move for­ward on con­front­ing the prob­lem.”

Paul Colford, a spokes­man for the AP, said the change was dis­cussed “at length” and that the AP had “de­cided that the de­scrip­tion we ad­ded to the entry was the most pre­cise.”

But “den­ier” has also proved con­tro­ver­sial, something the AP cited in its re­lease on the change. The word de­lib­er­ately car­ries with it con­nota­tions of Holo­caust deni­al. In an email, George C. Mar­shall In­sti­tute CEO Wil­li­am O’Keefe said the word “was in­ten­ded to be pe­jor­at­ive and was seen that way.”

If we bestow deniers with legitimacy, it’s bad for us as a species. It means we can’t move forward on confronting the problem.
Paul Fidalgo, the Center for Inquiry

In April, the Amer­ic­an Le­gis­lat­ive Ex­change Coun­cil, a right-lean­ing part­ner­ship of state law­makers and cor­por­a­tions, threatened to sue act­iv­ists over the term. In a “cease and de­sist” let­ters to some left-lean­ing groups, ALEC said that state­ments char­ging the group denied glob­al warm­ing were “in­ac­cur­ate” and “false and mis­lead­ing ma­ter­i­al.”

The de­bate over what word is ap­pro­pri­ate is still on­go­ing. The New York Times covered the de­bate in Feb­ru­ary and fol­lowed up with a May column by pub­lic-ed­it­or Mar­garet Sul­li­van. So­ci­ety for En­vir­on­ment­al Journ­al­ists ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or Beth Parke has said there’s no “col­lect­ive opin­ion or in­sti­tu­tion­al stance” among the mem­ber journ­al­ists but that the dis­cus­sion is con­tinu­ing.

Wil­li­am Hap­per, a phys­i­cist at Prin­ceton Uni­versity who has ques­tioned cli­mate sci­ence, ap­plauded the AP for the move, but said he was still happy to be called a skep­tic. “All real sci­ent­ists should be skep­tics,” he said.

But green groups want the harshest word pos­sible to be lobbed against a com­munity they say is harm­fully stand­ing in the way of pro­gress on cli­mate change. Demo­crats have sought re­peatedly to put Re­pub­lic­ans on re­cord about cli­mate-change sci­ence, as­so­ci­at­ing a deni­al of sci­ence with oth­er ex­treme po­s­i­tions. It’s be­come a fre­quent talk­ing point on the cam­paign trail, es­pe­cially as many GOP pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates have openly ques­tioned hu­mans’ role in cli­mate change.

Marc Mor­ano, a former In­hofe aide who now runs the web­site climatedepot.com, said he had to “com­mend the AP from mov­ing away from ‘den­ier’ and en­ter­ing the realm of ob­jectiv­ity.” Mor­ano—who was re­cently fea­tured in a doc­u­ment­ary called “Mer­chants of Doubt” about cli­mate-change deni­al—has long em­braced the word “skep­tic” but said he’d gladly ad­opt “doubter” be­cause it still in­dic­ates that there’s room for de­bate.

“If you get Al Gore or the United Na­tions mak­ing some out­rageous claim, at least you can say, ‘I doubt it.’”


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