Call Them Climate Deniers, Not Skeptics

Justin Gillis of the New York Times recently raised the question of what journalists should properly call those who deny climate science.  Are they “skeptics,” as they generally call themselves, or something else?

Given the stakes of our current climate crisis, the semantics matter.

The gap between what the public understands about climate change and the scientific consensus is troublingly wide. While 97 percent of the scientific community recognizes our role in climate change, only 50 percent of Americans believe that human activities are mostly to blame, according to a 2011 study by the Yale Center for Climate Communication.

Exposing the lies on climate starts with calling out the biggest liars of them all: climate change deniers. As depicted by the film Merchants of Doubt, opening this week. Directed by Robert Kenner and based on a book written by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, the film shows how fossil fuel interests have taken a page from the tobacco playbook to confuse the public about the science of climate change. Vested interests pay slick, camera-ready pundits to manipulate the media’s coverage of climate science and to distract attention from the national conversation about the climate solutions that we so desperately need. Given the disturbingly large gap in public understanding, it would appear that these “merchants of doubt” are succeeding — and the mainstream media is helping to make that happen.

A key part of a denier’s modus operandi is framing him or herself as a “skeptic.” After all, as Gillis wrote in the New York Times, “skepticism is the very foundation of the scientific method” — it suggests that the “skeptic” in question has taken an honest look at the evidence and is just not convinced of the facts. But the basic fact of human-caused climate change is unequivocal. To deny this reality is to be either willfully ignorant or driven by a political or financial motive.

Three well-established conclusions form the basis of the scientific consensus about climate change: that it is happening, that it is primarily caused by humans, and that is causing serious harm. There are no major scientific institutions anywhere in the world that dispute these conclusions. Even the U.S. Navy recognizes the threat and urgency of man-made climate change. Those who deny these basic facts aren’t skeptics. They’re deniers.

Of course there are many legitimate scientific questions around climate change — for example, how fast temperatures will increase or how severe the impacts will be. There’s also legitimate debate over the degree to which climate change influences severe weather events such as wildfires. But the basic questions over the existence of man-made climate change have been answered.

That’s why, when 48 scientists called on the media to stop calling deniers “skeptics” in December, nearly 23,000 of our members nationwide resolved to support them – asking journalists to report accurately on climate change by denying them the imprimatur of the “skeptic” label.

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