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Deniers Vs Alarmists? It’s Time To Lose The Climate Debate Labels

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Candice Howarth & Amelia Sharman, The Conversation

Removing antagonistic labels from the climate 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 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 populous). The debate is therefore putting people off from engaging in constructive dialogue.

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