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Deniers vs alarmists? It’s time to lose the climate debate labels

Climate debaters will put you in a box, whatever your views might be. daveynin, CC BY

The climate debate seems to be as polarised as ever. While joint political pledges offer some hope that climate change no longer has to be a partisan issue, a look at the comments below most articles on global warming says otherwise.

Some put this is down to differing core values, others point to psychological outlooks. However our research highlights an overlooked element – language itself and labelling opinions can frame public debate as polarised and antagonistic.

Labels are everywhere in the climate debate, including politicians railing against “flat-earth climate sceptics”, popular science writers calling their critics “climate change alarmists”, and even others who argue that people who use the word denier should themselves be called “global warming Nazis”.

These labels are not only offensive, but they also polarise the debate into opposing “us and them” factions. This has important knock-on effects, as the perception of widespread scientific and policy disagreement makes the public less certain climate change is happening and lowers support for climate policies.

We like putting people into boxes

Categorising and grouping people is a fundamental part of the human cognitive process, helping us understand and assimilate the vast amount of information we face each day.

Labels are used in all walks of life, but when it comes to climate change, Susan Lawler’s words could not be truer: “their meaning is opposite to their definitions”. For example, “scepticism” implies seeking the truth, constant questioning and is a fundamental scientific tenet – it famously took Thomas Edison 1,000 attempts to invent the light bulb, refining his approach along the way – but these days it is applied to all sorts of positions and rationales.

The use of the term “denier” is also particularly contentious and obstructive – however all labels in the debate can contribute to polarisation, regardless of their origin. Crucially, no labels exist to identify those who are not actively engaged in the climate debate (with the label “lukewarmer” arguably on the sceptical end of the spectrum, rather than identifying the unengaged general populace). The debate is therefore putting people off from engaging in constructive dialogue.

How labels lead to polarisation

Firstly, labels have pejorative undertones which frame the debate as antagonistic and combative, allowing uncriticised stereotypes to develop. Using labels directly influences the way in which individuals are seen in the eyes of others, rather than attempting to understand how underlying political or ideological viewpoints can contribute to individual opinion formation.

Secondly, labels only identify those at polarised extremes, encouraging these groups’ identities to harden and become less open to dialogue. This delays public understanding about climate change by contributing to a “logic schism” across which dialogue and real policy action is less politically viable. Labels foster an environment where preservation of one’s ideology and group identity takes priority over constructive deliberation of knowledge or evidence. Essentially who one is becomes more important that what one is arguing.

Thirdly, labels fix opinions and increase their likelihood of transforming into stereotypes. Opinions can evolve over time, but labelling an adversary allows people to ignore their views and can contribute to an opinion becoming increasingly static or unresponsive to new information. Labels such as “denier” or “warmist” reduce the need to delve deeper into arguments and rationales of others in the debate and to write off those expressing an opposing point of view.

Fourth, labels fail to capture the complexity of individual opinions and rationales. Academics have come up with increasingly detailed taxonomies of climate thinking, yet they do not capture well the arguments and motivations which together make up an opinion. Labels are also failing to capture geographic complexity, as viewpoints on climate change encompass different meanings in different geographical contexts].

The way forward…

We need new ways of framing and talking about climate change. We need to remember that science “does not provide us with convenient yes/no answers” and being sceptical is part of the scientific process.

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.

The current academic focus on categorising labels about climate change diverts attention away from much-needed research on underlying rationales. Scientists can play an important role in informing and legitimising new policies, therefore it is vital that climate researchers pay attention to their choices of language.

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