Verbal Warming: Labels in the Climate Change Debate

by Owen Dubeck

Justin Gillis discusses a movement to alter the terminology used by the media to describe climate change deniers. Mark B. Boslough, a New Mexican physicist, started the movement with an open letter urging the phrase “climate skeptic” to be discontinued. His letter gained support from Bill Nye and Lawrence M. Kraus. There is now a petition with 22,000 signatures to make the phrase “climate denier” a convention for news outlets.

The scientist’s reasoning for this change in terminology is quite simple. Skepticism is a key part of the scientific method. It includes asking key questions and challenging data. However, when one does not believe concrete data, it is no longer skepticism. Climate change data have been collected and confirmed at a fast pace for over 10 years now. Most climate change deniers are in no way skeptical in the same way as scientists, according to Gillis.

Furthermore, the article explores the reasons people deny climate change, and claims that scientific ignorance is not the main issue. Many of the climate change deniers share similar political beliefs. These conservatives understand that limiting climate change will require large efforts across almost every industry. They fear the widespread intervention by the American government. Some scientists, labeled as contrarians, downplay the severity of climate change. The contrarians claim that the rate of warming is too slow to have significant environmental impacts and often only acknowledge data supporting their stance. Unsurprisingly, the scientific papers have been rather unsuccessful. The debate on appropriate terminology extends to this group as well. The contrarians are often labeled as skeptics, a term they strongly disagree with. Although Boslough doesn’t choose a side, he suggests that these scientists have better reason to be called skeptics than the deniers.

The time to act on climate change is now, and climate change deniers are the greatest obstacle to political intervention. Labeling this group as climate change deniers invalidates their movement, which could accelerate the process for change.

Gillis, Justin. 2015. Verbal Warming: Labels in the Climate Debate. The New York Times, 1-4.


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