Taxonomizing the Climate Change Commentator

“Doubt, indulged and cherished, is in danger of becoming denial; but if honest, and bent on thorough investigation, it may soon lead to full establishment of the truth.” – Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913)


Those of us with an ear to the community have long realized that there is no legitimate debate about the reality of human-caused climate change. That our activities can alter the climate on a planetary scale was predicted in the 19th century and has since been confirmed by numerous studies reaching across several fields of research. The concatenation of inquiry stretching from Tyndall and Arrhenius to Hansen and Mann has delivered a clear picture of where we stand in our relationship with the planet.

The state of climatology today is not one which focuses on whether anthropogenic warming is happening but on matters of a more particular nature. These range from gaining a more complete understanding of components such as the interaction of clouds and aerosols, ocean variability and air circulation to improving our historical record using more reliable proxy data. Progress in these areas will lead to more accurate climate models for projecting future trends in response to human activities.

With the central questions settled and no longer a source of dispute in the field, this should, in turn, dictate how we discourse about climate change. The terms we use to identify members of the conversation should shift along with the science itself. For example, it is common for us to see the labels ‘skeptic’ and ‘denier’ used interchangeably, but depending on the matter under discussion, should they?

In December a group of scientists, science communicators and other intelligentsia, including Bill Nye, Ken Miller, Daniel Dennett, Massimo Pigliucci, James Randi, Lawrence Krauss and Eugenie Scott, co-signed a letter advocating a sharper distinction between these two labels, especially when identifying individuals at odds with the scientific consensus on climate change. They pointed out how oftentimes the same news organization will use both terms to describe the same person on different occasions, and that this is not only inconsistent, but misleading.

I could not agree more. Given that we live in a society in which a sizable bloc of the voting public rejects this consensus, it is critically important that we not create the wrong impression for our readers. And aligning our terminology with the state of the science is a key part of this. As the letter’s signatories emphasize, skepticism is integral to the scientific process. Without it, progress would be an illusion because an uncritical environment allows answers to go unchallenged. Science only makes progress through the prolonged process of turning critical investigation and skeptically grounded rational inquiry toward the study of nature.

And we must acknowledge this progress where it has occurred, such as in the case of climate change. By branding someone a ‘climate skeptic’ we run the risk of creating the misimpression that there are grounds for informed persons to be skeptical. At this point in human history, one can no more be an informed skeptic on climate change than they can on what biology tells us about the common descent of life. Other, unsettled scientific questions do invite a skeptical attitude, such as the extent of influence our microbiome wields over human behavior, or whether life is common in the universe. The jury is still out on these questions, warranting skepticism of claims made on either side. In climate science, there aren’t sides, but rather a strong convergence on a central premise and healthy debate surrounding the particulars, in the same way the Chicago Bulls’ coaching staff concurred that Michael Jordan was their star player but powwowed over how best to utilize everyone else.

In this vein, I’ve put together my own “hierarchy” of sorts to help sort through these labels. Though these were conceived specifically with respect to climate change, the categories might apply in other contexts as well.

skeptic – someone who relies on evidence in forming their beliefs and will respond to the weight of that evidence once confronted with it. As such, a skeptic can be someone who has not made up their mind on a scientific matter, either due to insufficient evidence weighing on the matter (e.g., exobiology) or because they simply have not engaged the relevant literature. This category includes laymen or non-experts approaching the field with an inquiring mindset in pursuit of a more informed understanding of the conclusions of experts. The key here is that ignorance, whether genuine or intentional, does not entitle one to make affirmative statements one way or the other, but rather to withhold judgment until justifying reasons are found.

denier, denialist – someone who resists the claim that the climate is warming or that humans are the cause of that warming (or both) in spite of the strong evidence to the contrary. Whether they have waded into the literature personally or not is irrelevant. Examples include much of the elected GOP, the conservative mainstream press (you know who you are) and the Koch brothers-Heartland Institute, et al echo chamber.

inactivist – someone who accepts that humans are changing the climate but thinks that the long-term effects have been overblown. Accordingly, they advocate for relaxed response efforts or no response at all. Examples include Matt Ridley, Bjorn Lomborg and Richard Muller(?).

Using the taxonomy above and applying it to someone like Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla), it should be clear that the appropriate label is denier, not skeptic. He is far afield of someone who, without recourse to preconceptions or ideological affiliations, tests their doubts in the furnace of scientific evidence to see if they survive the flames. Rather, Inhofe, now a ranking member on the Committee on Environment and Public Works, has stood up on the Senate floor and seriously claimed that our national and international agencies—from the Department of Defense, NASA and NOAA to the IPCC—are all “colluding together” to promote a “global warming agenda”. Are the world’s scientific societies and private industry (e.g., Pepsi, Coca-Cola, insurance providers) in on the hoax as well, I wonder? Through how many administrations and generations has this collusion been going on, one wonders?

Anyone paying attention can see that Inhofe has zero regard for evidence, insisting on more than one occasion that God controls the climate and as long as “God’s still up there”, humans cannot have an influence. For people like Inhofe, evidence is not even part of the picture where the topic of climate change is concerned. And if you don’t care about evidence, you are many things, but a skeptic isn’t one of them.

Our public policy should be in constant conversation with the science, and partisan denialism has frequently interfered with this process. Science reporting, for its part, should be mindful of the distance between the scientific conversation and its public counterpart and use consistent language that informs rather than misleads. Fortunately, significant progress has been made in revamping public perception. The latest polls show that some 97% of Americans under 35 now accept the science of climate change. The issue has become decreasingly partisan and more generational, which may hint at an expiration date for widespread climate denialism. That may be optimistic, but while science ignorati like Inhofe continue to spout made-up “facts” that are not in evidence, it’s clear the younger demographic is distancing itself from ideologues who have taken up a battle they cannot win. The media can further improve the situation by being more circumspect in the language chosen to represent parties to this discussion.

UPDATE: Advocacy group Forecast the Facts has taken the letter and turned it into a public petition. As of this writing, they are close to reaching their goal of 25,000 signatures.

Feature image credit: AP/John Davisson