Please stop calling them ‘skeptics’
What name can we possibly use for the people who are working feverishly to convince the public to ignore the broad scientific understanding of global warming and delay taking serious action, action needed to avert a very grim fate for our children, their children, and so on?
I suspect future generations will call them “climate destroyers” or worse, since if we actually (continue to) listen to them, that pretty much ensures carbon-dioxide concentrations will hit catastrophic levels — 700 to 1000 — this century, as explained in part two. But what should we call these people in the meantime, while we still have time to ignore them and save the climate?
In this post I will explain why “skeptics” is certainly the wrong term, discuss why the current favorite among advocates (including me) — “deniers” — doesn’t work (except maybe in headlines), and offer a new alternative. (Tomorrow I’ll give you the reaction of a genuine skeptic to the new alternative.) For now let’s call them “delayers,” since that is their primary, unifying goal — delaying action. As the NYT‘s Revkin explained about the recent skeptic denier-delayer conference in New York, “The one thing all the attendees seem to share is a deep dislike for mandatory restrictions on greenhouse gases.” What unites these people is their desire to delay or stop action to cut GHGs, not any one particular view on the climate.
They Aren’t Skeptical: Their Minds Are Made Up
The traditional or mainstream media still call them “skeptics,” as in this NYT headline. As long as they do so, they trivialize the problem and render the word “skeptic” devoid of meaning.
All scientists are skeptics. Hence the motto of the Royal Society of London, one of the world’s oldest scientific academies (founded in 1660), Nullius in verba: “Take nobody’s word.” Indeed, as Wikipedia explains in its entry on skepticism:
A scientific (or empirical) skeptic is one who questions the reliability of certain kinds of claims by subjecting them to a systematic investigation. The scientific method details the specific process by which this investigation of reality is conducted. Considering the rigor of the scientific method, science itself may simply be thought of as an organized form of skepticism. This does not mean that the scientific skeptic is necessarily a scientist who conducts live experiments (though this may be the case), but that the skeptic generally accepts claims that are in his/her view likely to be true based on testable hypotheses and critical thinking.
Skeptics can be convinced by the facts, but not the delayers. Skeptics (and real scientists) do not continue repeating arguments that have been discredited. Delayers do. Skeptics believe in science, in well-tested theories backed up by real-world observations, but delayers do not.
My personal experience is that no amount of scientific evidence can convince the well-known “skeptics.” I have debated Lomborg and he is very well versed in the science — he just chooses not to believe most of it. Indeed, if the overwhelming evidence of the last four years doesn’t convince someone, then they simply aren’t open to scientific reasoning, the basis of true skepticism.
The media — and everyone else — should stop using the term. It makes a mockery of the English language, it is an insult to real scientific skeptics, and it feeds the overall disinformation effort that makes humanity’s self-destruction more likely.
They Aren’t Anything Like Holocaust Deniers
I — and many, if not most, other advocates for action — have used the term “deniers” or “denialists” for these people. But the more I think about it, and the more comments I read from delayers, the more I realize that the term doesn’t work, especially as a broad brush.
First, many delayers are clever enough that they don’t issue outright denials that (1) the climate is changing and (2) humans play a role. They typically argue that humans play only a limited role and warming this century will be modest at best, and will perhaps even have some positive benefits. That view is in direct contradiction with our current scientific understanding, but it falls short of the kind of outright denial that was common in the 1990s (there are some classic deniers still around, like Bill Gray, but they are fairly marginalized).
Second, I see comments from a lot of delayers who intensely dislike being linked to “Holocaust deniers.” They feel there is no way to use the term “denier” without people immediately thinking of that other group of disinformers. If the term were accurate, this objection wouldn’t count for much, but in fact the delayers are nothing like Holocaust deniers.
“Holocaust deniers” are denying an established fact from the past. If the media, politicians, or the public took them at all seriously, I suppose it might increase the chances of a future Holocaust. But in fact they are marginalized, and are inevitably attacked and criticized widely whenever they try to spread their disinformation — so they have no significant impact on society. The delayers, however, are very different and far more dangerous. They are trying to persuade people not to take action on a problem that has not yet become catastrophic, but which will certainly do so if we listen to them and delay acting much longer.
“Delayer” is a far more accurate term.
By calling them “deniers” we are making the focus of our response the climate science; we are fighting on their turf, so they still win. In fact, the science has long since passed the realm in which the delayers try to debate it. The key question for humanity today is not whether human-caused global warming does or does not exist — it is not even whether human-caused global warming is a serious problem. It is already past a serious problem. The only serious question facing the human race now is whether we will act strongly enough and quickly enough to avert a catastrophe that is both beyond historical comparison and probably irreversible for centuries, if not millennia. Again, that is why I think “delayer” is better (though it can be improved, see below).
Finally, I see two different kinds of skeptics/deniers. One is the small “professional” class, the people who speak at conferences and whose job is to spread disinformation. I have called them disinformers. I may still occasionally use that term, since it is descriptive and better than denier. The second is the much larger group of people who question global warming because they are conservatives and libertarians who get their news from Fox, or Limbaugh, or conservative blogs and think tanks. So they are primarily exposed to the well-crafted disinformation, and believe it because it sounds plausible and it come from people they trust. Also, these people have a reflexive distrust of environmentalists, progressives, and “experts,” and they intensely dislike the government-led solutions needed to stop global warming. They are predisposed to believe and repeat the disinformer talking points. I have given them the benign term “doubters” in the past, but the climate situation is simply too dire for niceties at this point. Even “misinformers” is too weak.
So what to call them? What is an accurate label that moves the debate to the ground it should be fought on? I believe the discussion/debate we need surrounds the most important climate question, the one you should ask anyone as quickly as possible before wasting a lot of time on pointless arguments:
If you were running national and global climate policy, what level of global CO2 concentrations would be your goal and how would you achieve it?
If you can’t get an answer, put them down for 1000 ppm — and that brings me to their proper name.
They Want Delay, and Delay Is Fatal
What unites the delayers is the “deep dislike for mandatory restrictions on greenhouse gases.” From George Will to Bjorn Lomborg to Michael Crichton to James Inhofe, they believe strong action isn’t needed, won’t work, would cause more harm than good, or some combination of the three. Their beliefs were well articulated by science-fiction writer Michael Crichton in a 2006 New Republic interview:
If you just look at the science, I, at least, am underwhelmed. This may or may not be a problem, but it is far from the most serious problem. If you want to do something, [limiting emissions] is not what to do. We don’t at this moment have good technology to do this, if, in fact, it’s necessary to do it.
This is very similar to the Luntz/Bush/Lomborg playbook of “Technology, technology, blah, blah, blah.” Frank Luntz, one of the best strategists and word gurus of either party, actually wrote a detailed manifesto for conservatives on how to win the climate debate, based on polling and focus groups. He concluded:
We need to emphasize how voluntary innovation and experimentation are preferable to bureaucratic or international intervention and regulation.
“Technology” and “voluntary” = delay, delay, delay.
“Delayer,” though, while much more accurate than skeptic or denier, isn’t strong enough and still doesn’t drive the debate to its necessary endpoint.
And delay is, of course, sometimes good. Not in this case, however. As noted in part two, our current understanding, as expressed in the IPCC “consensus,” which almost certainly understates how dire things are, is that if global emissions merely average 11 billion tons of carbon a year (11 GtC/yr) this century, we are going to 1000 ppm atmospheric concentrations. And that is the end of life as we know on it this planet.
Yet, we’ll be at 11 GtC/yr around 2020 at our current pace. And just keeping emissions flat for several decades after that in the face of rising population and rising economic growth, especially in rapidly-developing countries, would still require those onerous GHG regulations that delayers hate.
So delayers are really “1000 ppm’ers,” if not worse, since many don’t just want delay, they want permanent inaction. That doesn’t, however, get pronounced “trippingly on the tongue.” So I’m leaning to “delayer-1000.”
Yes, I realize that doesn’t trip off the tongue too well, either: It needs definition whenever used, and the media won’t ever use it. On the last point, I would just say to advocates the media won’t use “denier” either. I’d say to the media you probably shouldn’t be using any undefined labels — and that goes most importantly for “skeptic,” whose definition does not describe those you are labeling with it.
On the other hand, “delayer-1000” is accurate, descriptive, modern (like the Terminator-101), and gets to the heart of the matter. If if someone doesn’t like it, then they have to explain what target they do support and what action they would take to achieve it. And that moves the debate to the ground it belongs on.
Tomorrow I will reprint a back-and-forth with a delayer-1000, which I think underscores all of the points made here.
UPDATE: I knew I would forget something. I think “delayer” works as a stand-alone, and I’d recommend that to most people. But I will still probably use “delayer-1000.” Yes, it is “jargony,” but over the next decade many if not most Americans will learn all about 280 ppm, 350 ppm, 450 ppm, and 1000 ppm. That’s because CO2 ppm will become the single most important number in the lives of every human being on this planet and their children and so on. One reason I proposed the more unwieldy “delayer-1000” is that we need to accelerate the learning process as much as possible. I am aware of the virtual impossibility of changing widely used jargon — almost everybody in the EV community hates “plug-in hybrid,” but we just couldn’t get all the key players on board to use another term. So realistically, this post is mostly a media critique to try to get them to stop using “skeptic” and an explanation I can link to for the terminology I’m going to use.
Get Grist in your inbox