warming words

Not long ago, the Associated Press made a decision in-house regarding the use of particular words that has considerable significance in the realm of climate change. AP decided that it would call persons who reject the proven scientific fact of anthropogenic climate change “climate doubters” instead of “climate deniers,” “climate change deniers” or “climate skeptics.” While I’m not entirely certain the reason for the change, what I’ve heard in the press is that AP didn’t like the term “denier” because it sounds too much like “Holocaust denier.” So they decided to be nicer to people who deny climate change by not using a word that is also associated with virulent anti-Semitism, bigotry and hatred. Isn’t that nice?

Well, it isn’t nice, and in fact it’s semantically, conceptually and factually wrong. A person who rejects the proven scientific fact that human processes, especially the burning of fossil fuels, are causing the warming of our climate is not “doubting,” he or she (usually he) is “denying.” One who denies is, by definition, a denier. It doesn’t matter whether the Holocaust is involved or not. People who believe the Holocaust did not happen, or was not as bad as historians say it is, is also a denier. There’s a reason why the term “denier” has stuck to people with certain misguided opinions on climate change: because it fits. The word “doubt” does not.

ap styleguide 922

Webster’s New World Dictionary, which has been sitting on the corner of my desk since I began writing my dissertation a long time ago, defines “doubt” thusly:

doubt: to be uncertain or undecided. To be uncertain about. To tend to disbelieve.”

This is how it defines “deny” and “denial”:

deny: to declare a statement untrue. To refuse to accept as true or right. To repudiate.

denial: a refusal to believe or accept (a doctrine, etc.).”

Now you tell me. Reading these simple definitions, what are the people who reject the proven scientific fact of anthropogenic climate change doing? They’re not “doubting” at all. They are not uncertain. They don’t tend to disbelieve. They affirmatively state that greenhouse gas warming is not happening or that humans are not causing it. They are declaring a statement (the proven fact of anthropogenic warming) untrue. They are refusing to accept it. They are repudiating it. Not doubting–not being uncertain–they are repudiating it.

In short, they are deniers. The word fits. I can’t think of a better one. So what is the Associated Press–an organization who uses words as their stock in trade, and whose journalistic integrity depends on the accuracy and objectivity of those words–doing deliberately instructing its people to use the wrong word to describe climate change denial?

This would not be so troubling if this was the first time that AP has been caught doing something like this. But it isn’t. Back in March AP decided that the terms “global warming” and “climate change” can be used interchangeably. This is also quite wrong, and the reasons why it’s wrong I explained in a previous blog on that occasion. Global warming is a type of climate change, but they’re hardly interchangeable. All Impalas are Chevrolets, but not all Chevrolets are Impalas. The issue is not merely semantics, because treating them interchangeably tends to confuse people who may not know the difference and may mistake some form of climate change that is not global warming for what’s happening now.

james inhofe pd

This person (James Inhofe, Senator from Oklahoma) is not a “doubter.” He is a “denier.”

I confess I don’t understand the Associated Press’s attitude toward climate change, or why they seem unconcerned about the misuse of terminology. A change of wording by AP has the potential to affect vast amounts of press coverage of climate change and related issues. Although climate change deniers clearly have no meaningful role to play in crafting policy, cultural or societal responses to climate change, that doesn’t mean that what we call them is of no importance. Indeed, the word “denier” is so apt precisely because it explains why those who reject climate science are irrelevant: they have no role to play in solving the problem because they deny that the problem exists. Use of the word “doubters” makes it seem as if there is a legitimate debate. There isn’t. It’s settled.

Climate change is the most serious issue facing the world today. The Associated Press, as a responsible journalistic entity, owes it to the public to choose its words accurately. That they have chosen to do the opposite calls their accuracy, and their credibility, into serious question.

The header illustration is a composite of various public domain images. The photo of Senator Inhofe is in the public domain.