Lose the labels in climate change debate

Published: 18 February 2015 at 11:47

Terms such as ‘sceptic’ and ‘alarmist’ stifle progress and constructive dialogue – new study.

Labels such as “sceptic”, “denier” and “alarmist” are unhelpful to the climate change debate and lead to polarisation, according to the authors of new research published in the journal WIRES Climate Change.

Co-authored by Dr Candice Howarth of the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University and Amelia Sharman of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Labelling opinions in the climate debate: a critical review examines academic articles and selected online literature.

The authors argue that labels, both in their theoretical use in academic research and practical use in public policy, contribute to polarising the debate into opposing ‘us and them’ factions.  

Labels are used by everyone from scientists and policy makers to bloggers and the media, although, crucially, no labels exist to identify those who are not actively engaged in the climate debate.

The paper sets out four main ways that climate change labels hinder progress:

  • Labels’ pejorative undertones frame the debate as antagonistic and combative, allowing uncriticised stereotypes to develop
  • Labels only identify those at polarised extremes, encouraging these groups’ identities to harden and become less open to dialogue
  • Labels help to fix opinions, underestimating the evolving nature of opinions and allowing people to ignore the opinions of others
  • Labels fail to capture the complexity of individual opinions and rationales

The paper pays particular attention to the term “climate change sceptic”.  In this context, the authors believe “scepticism” has shifted far beyond its original definition as a fundamental scientific tenet and a key part of any scientific process.

The first use of the sceptic label was “greenhouse sceptic” in 1989.  By the late 1990s, this label was overtaken by “global warming sceptic” until 2005, after which “climate change sceptic” became the most commonly used label.

Dr Howarth, a Senior Research Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University, said:

“Scepticism implies seeking the truth, distancing oneself from personal dogma and thoroughly examining findings and conclusions. A central tenet of scientific practice is thus demonstrating scepticism to one’s own work and that of peers to participate in a rigorous process of self and peer review."

“However, a ‘climate change sceptic’ is seen as someone who believes that global environmental changes have been grossly exaggerated, or even fabricated.”

The authors note that the use of the term “denier” is regarded by some as particularly contentious and obstructive. However they argue that all labels in the debate can contribute to polarisation, regardless of their origin.

Ms Sharman, a PhD researcher at LSE, said:

“Some labels within the debate appear to have the intent of being derogatory, such as denier or alarmist, with the latter associated with ‘crying wolf’ or exaggerating danger.

“Indeed, the very idea of labelling someone as an alarmist, rather than as legitimately sounding alarm at the potential implications of climate change, implies a diminished importance to that individual’s claim.

“In essence, the use of these labels is serving to isolate, dismiss and exclude people from constructive dialogue.” 

Dr Howarth added:

“Research shows that scientific and policy disagreement leads to lower certainty amongst the public that climate change is occurring and consequently lower support for climate change policies. 

“Labels are an important component in terms of public awareness of climate change as they frame the conversation as contentious.  This perception is also heavily influenced by media coverage and attempts to provide a ‘balanced debate’.

“What we need are new ways of framing and talking about climate change.  Removing these antagonistic labels from the debate could encourage all those engaged in this area to think of it less as a polarised debate, and move towards a more nuanced and constructive discussion about specific issues of disagreement.”