Sunday, October 15, 2006


Inhabitants and visitors to various climate science obsessed blogs have noted the recent controversy about calling climate change denialists denialists. As James Annan points out this is an Amen Chorus, which originated in London, but like the wave in a stadium, is propagating to the rather peculiar corners of the world, Australia, England, California, and, wait, now flys Ethon** into my den with news that even in view of the snow covered mountains of Boulder, Colorado great umbrage is being taken. You would think they had better things to do out there, like wait for the snow to fly and the skiing to start.

For the plaintiff, we have the well know commissioner of the language police and climate debate, Roger Pielke, Jr., himself.

Let's be blunt. The phrase "climate change denier" is meant to be evocative of the phrase "holocaust denier". As such the phrase conjurs up a symbolic allusion fully intended to equate questioning of climate change with questioning of the Holocaust.
Let's be blunt. This allusion is an affront to those who suffered and died in the Holocaust. Let those who would make such an allusion instead be absolutely explicit about their assertion of moral equivalency between Holocaust deniers and those that they criticize.
This allusion has no place in the discourse on climate change. I say this as someone fully convinced of a significant human role in the behavior of the climate system.
As many in the comments in that place which cannot be named, point out climate change denialist is an accurate description that has nothing to do with the Holocaust. They speak for themselves, but I would like to point to the best response I have seen, from Michael Tobis on the google group, globalclimatechange (see how to join on the right hand side).
Denialism does not have as its purpose a denial of warming. It is the denial of necessity for a policy.
Its weapon is diversion. It diverts the conversation to minutia of the science. Its objective is to divert the scientist from summarizing the situation effectively, to divert the casual reader from making the effort to understand, and to leave the casual reader with the impression of a subtle controversy even where the facts are entirely clear and rather straightforward.
Among its tactics is a reliance on the good nature of the scientist, who loves to make every effort to explain and explore scientific knowledge, and in many cases believes himself or herself obligated to do so.
RP has retreated to the meta, now being obsessed with the origin of the term climate change deniers, a topic that the Rabett Institute could shed some light on, perhaps at a different time. Today's seminar discusses:
  • Why is the issue being raised?
  • Why is the issue being raised now?
The answer to both of these questions is closely tied to Pielke's fall back position:
As an exercise in research on symbolic politics, I'd like to use this thread to see if we can collectively track the exact origins of the phrases "climate change denial" and "climate change deniers".
The issue is being raised because denialist is the most powerful and terse description of those who deny anthropic climate change. It is a negative description. As Tobis points out, denialist is an accurate description. There is NO comparable term to describe those who worry about climate change driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases, or indeed those who worry about other environmental problems.

The rhetoric the denialists have used to describe their opponents seeks to belittle, but because it does so, the language is childish. Lifting a few from various places, we get Green Stalinists, Climate Catastrophists, Radical Environmentalists, Green Fanatical Moron and it goes rapidly downhill from there.

A good analogy can be found in the Abortion Wars. Those who would outlaw abortion, call themselves Pro-Life. Those who would allow abortion have stuck themselves with the rather strained Pro-Choice. The asymmetry in clarity and image of the LABELS has been of great advantage to those favoring outlawing abortion.

RPJr is a POLITICAL scientist. He knows that the term "climate change denialist" shifts the PUBLIC debate towards those who hold with the IPCC consensus and believe that public policy should be based on it. This is the answer to why. Where Pielke's interests lie is interesting. As with all questions of motivation, one is best advised to look at what people do, not at what they say.

The answer to why now, is also simple. Ten years ago, the evidence for human influence on the atmosphere and climate was strong, but not extremely so. Enough then to justify no cost policies, which also were strongly opposed by the denialists wearing the cloths of skeptics, but probably not enough for stronger action. It was reasonable to assign skepticism to those who had strong reservations at that time, even though several of them (Singer, Michaels, Seitz, Baliunas, et al.) had strong political motivations and were being supported by political interests. Still, within the climate science community, they were then perceived as members of the group, perhaps with odd opinions on some things and their political connections were not known or ignored.

As the evidence strengthened, the assumption of skepticism has become no longer tenable. Increasingly denial is seen for what it is and called out with increasing frequency over the past few years. This is uncomfortable for the denialists, so they are trying to eliminate the description from polite conversation, thus why now.

**Ethon or The Eagle Kaukasios was a gigantic eagle born of the monsters Typhon and Echidna. As punishment for stealing fire from Mount Olympus, Zeus had Prometheus chained to Mount Caucasus, where Ethon was set to gnaw on his liver.


David Graves said...

Mr. Annan makes the obvious point that to be "in denial" has entered the language through popular understanding of psychology, with no other baggage. I heard Paul Ehrlich (now there's a name to conjure up a storm of Green Stalinist references) come up with a term to refer to those who cannot imagine our planets's limitations as constraining human behavior and ambition. He called them members of a latter-day Cargo Cult, with a magical belief that everything will somehow turn out okay just because we deserve it to, by golly. Maybe we should score the whole thing in thirty or so years with something like the Dante's Inferno scale of bad faith. My money is on a certain senator being way down in the metaphorical hole. That's just my opinion, though.

Dano said...

My clue is that, unlike his prolific posts of loud umbrage at poor scientists who just don't get it shouldn't do (but should, and quick), RP is deafeningly silent when asked what poor hapless scientists should do.

I suspect my frequent asking of RP Jr to explain this thing is #2 on the list of why I can't comment there any more (#1 likely being my intolerance of the FUD spreading in comments and my listing of FUD phrases, Dano-style).



Anonymous said...

Dano, my guess is that RP thinks he has answered your question #2.
But don't ask me to translate, I haven't figured out what he thinks.

Michael Tobis said...

I had no clue about this issue that Dr Pielke was raising when I posted my article and it should not be taken as a response to anything Pielke said.

Here is my response to the terminology question, which should be taken as separate from my globalchange posting which was made in complete unawareness of this issue.

I think terminology is important and I think Pielke has a point. Frankly, as a son of Holocaust survivors and a grandson and nephew of non-survivors, I find his point well taken.

Trivializing Holocaust denial was never my purpose!

However, we need a term for the reprehensible behavior that people who like to call themselves "skeptics", but are in fact simply advocates for a policy position and not remotely as interested in science as they pretend. It is this pretense of an interest in science that makes their behavior unacceptable. Perhaps it is not as evil as Holocaust denial, but on the other hand, the comparison is rarely a sign of a healthy debate.

I assure Dr Pielke and all concerned that I was an early user of the term and am horrified to see the connection.

What I am and others are calling "denialism" is probably well short of genocide in the moral spectrum but the comparison is in any case unhealthy and ought to be avoided.

I am more than open to a new word, but it cannot be value neutral. There are people who are doing bad things here.

coby said...

FWIW, I didn't think you were responding to Pielke myself. I have since read and written "climate change denial" several times and am more and more convince this is a white elephant...or is it a red herring? Anyway, some animal of some color, but not a serious issue. As you say, we need some term that is not value neutral.

Some discussion of the Tobis article is going on here:

Hank Roberts said...

A slight dupe here from a later thread, but I think the words are worthwhile on this topic.

Dr. Lindzen, as quoted by Dr. Curry, nails this one I think --

"industry stooges ... interested in obfuscating the issue towards supporting their own agenda."

I think we can trust there will be industry stooges for the "CO2 control and adaptation" side of industry as well, as that begins to expand -- and that there are political stooges of all stripes and colors already, who care more about having an issue than having good research -- and scientists have to be skeptical about and careful of getting close enough to be confused with stooges.

Anonymous said...

pielke's 'point' is total bs.

first of all, pielke is confused about the terminology. those who deny the holocaust are termeed holocaust 'deniers' not 'denialists'.

second the term 'denial' was in the dictionary long before the holocaust deniers ever came along and it has a meaning quite indpendent of that context.

perhaps there are a few who use the term denialist hoping to lump their targets with those who deny the hoolocaust, but there are alos lots of people who have no such intent.

finally, with regard to pielke's effort to try to find the first use of the term 'global warming denialist', i'd simply wish him 'good luck'.

does he think he is going to find it with a google search?

if that is what passes for 'research' in political 'science', then i'd say the reputation that behavioral 'scientists' have is well deserved.