Climate change ‘delayers’

Emily Horn in the snow

There is a good post over at Grist on the proper nomenclature for what are generally called ‘climate skeptics’ or ‘climate deniers.’ It argues that calling them skeptics is inaccurate, since they don’t actually treat information with skepticism:

Skeptics can be convinced by the facts, but not the delayers [the author’s preferred term]. Skeptics (and real scientists) do not continue repeating arguments that have been discredited. Delayers do. Skeptics believe in science, in well-tested theories backed up by real-world observations, but delayers do not.

“Denier” is also problematic, both on its own and as a half-reference to Holocaust deniers. This is both because they don’t generally outright deny the existence of climate change and because their ‘denial’ concerns something ongoing, on which action must be taken, rather than something that has already passed.

The piece makes some good points about the state of the discussion:

By calling them “deniers” we are making the focus of our response the climate science; we are fighting on their turf, so they still win. In fact, the science has long since passed the realm in which the delayers try to debate it. The key question for humanity today is not whether human-caused global warming does or does not exist — it is not even whether human-caused global warming is a serious problem. It is already past a serious problem. The only serious question facing the human race now is whether we will act strongly enough and quickly enough to avert a catastrophe that is both beyond historical comparison and probably irreversible for centuries, if not millennia.

Despite the unambiguous nature of the science, that really doesn’t seem to be the understanding that is dominant within popular culture. It is not clear whether additional scientific evidence or reports would ever change that. As such, the kind of rhetorical arguments that this post is addressing have considerable importance.

In general, I see good reasons for using the term ‘delayer’ but, unless it catches on fairly widely, it will always be necessary to explain it. I plan to do so by linking back to this post.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

24 thoughts on “Climate change ‘delayers’”

  1. A section of a book I read today reminded me somewhat of the non-sceptical opposition you describe above, albeit in a different policy framework:

    “Empirical evidence that might call into qustion the deterrence of Three Strikes will be of little effect in undermining support for the statute…The belief that penalties must deter because they are morally justified is very hard to shake with counterevidence because the subject wants to believe. Thus the belief can be maintained against a formidable assault…The doubts about Three Strikes are not resented because they may lead to political difficulties; they are in and of themselves a denial of the normative beliefs that supporters hold. It is heresy itself rather than what further harm it might accomplish that provokes the anger of Three Strikes supporters.”
    Punishment & Democracy: Three Strikes and You’re Out in California, Zimring, Hawkins & Kamin p.221-2

    Of course, environmentalists are sometimes guilty of the same problems, for instance in insistent defence of micro wind turbines and home solar panels across England, which generally produce minimal amounts of energy at substantial cost because they are poorly sited. Maintaining a sceptical, scientific attitude rather than basing judgements on some form of ‘accepted wisdom’ or one’s beliefs is a pretty unusual practice.

  2. I think it is appropriate to have a third group for those who don’t know enough about climate change to make an informed judgment. After all, it should come down to a Bush-esque “with us or against us” dichotomy.

  3. I think it is appropriate to have a third group for those who don’t know enough about climate change to make an informed judgment.

    If you (a) think climate change is a highly important issue and (b) feel you don’t know enough to take a position, it seems that you have a pretty clear obligation to educate yourself. The accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere does not pause to allow time for contemplation.

    After all, it should come down to a Bush-esque “with us or against us” dichotomy.

    Just because one unpopular president used that phrase once doesn’t mean that well-defended and honestly held positions should be abandoned in favour of wishy-washy statements about uncertainty.

    Yes, there are uncertainties. We should definitely work to reduce them. At the same time, we should start taking action based on our best guesses about how the world really works.

    We don’t have time to wait for certainty, especially given how true certainty can only arise from experimentation, and we only have one planet to work with.

  4. Morano’s misinformation machine
    Marc Morano’s secret list of climate deniers

    Posted by Brad Johnson (Guest Contributor) at 5:54 PM on 17 Feb 2009

    Marc Morano, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK)’s environmental aide, sits at the center of the right-wing global warming denier propaganda machine — of fifty-two people. Conservative columnist Fred Barnes recently refused to tell TPM Muckraker who’s informed him “the case for global warming” is falling apart, but all signs point to Marc Morano. Morano’s “entire job,” David Roberts explains, “is to aggregate every misleading factoid, every attack on climate science or scientists, every crank skeptical statement from anyone in the world and send it all out periodically in email blasts” to the right-wing echo chamber. The Wonk Room has acquired Morano’s email list, and we can now reveal the pack of climate skeptics, conservative bloggers, and corporate hacks who feed the misinformation machine.

  5. I noticed in your other posts your use of “Climate Change Delayers.”

    Grammatically, this implies these people are delaying climate change. Rather, they are delaying action on climate change. While I get your point and reasoning for using the term, I find the term sounds kind of goofy, which results in the opposite effect it’s meant to have.

  6. I can see where you are coming from. A term like ‘climate change doddlers’ might be more appropriate.

    That said, ‘delayers’ in the sense of delaying action on climate change is a term that is gaining common usage, at least among environmental authors and bloggers.

  7. Greg Craven’s book What’s the Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate contains a nicely phrased version of the main anti-delayer argument:

    [Nicholas] Stern’s conclusions seem to support the claim of many of the sources cited earlier in this chapter that delay only makes the inevitable more expensive.”

    (p.122 paperback)

  8. “In the long run, the climate-deniers will be a footnote to history. But by delaying action, they will have helped prevent us from taking the steps we need to take while there’s still time. If we’re going to make real change while it matters, it’s important to remember that their skepticism isn’t the root of the problem. It simply plays on our deep-seated resistance to change.

    That inertia is what gives the climate cynics ground to operate. That’s what we need to overcome, and at bottom that’s a battle about data, but also about courage and hope. In the last year, we’ve rallied millions of people in almost every country to demand action on climate change, and to start building the world beyond fossil fuel. The truth will out.”

  9. Climatopolis

    Matthew Kahn’s Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future is a must-read for anyone interested in cities and environmental economics. But it’s also a mighty strange book. The author seems to have committed himself to a marketing strategy as the guy who’s not a climate change denialist but who’s “optimistic” about its consequences. But there’s basically nothing in the book to justify optimism relative to any kind of reasonable baseline

  10. But one clarifying thing about Trump’s presidency is the view it has given us of why powerful people deny climate change. These days, you rarely see leaders argue that it isn’t happening at all—that’s become too gauche to defend. Even Trump, via surrogates, admits to “believing” in climate change. Instead, just as straight racism has become impolite but arguments that suggest alternatives to racism are too costly abound, climate change denialists now make arguments about degrees of certainty, about the improbability of staving it off, about the costs of attempting to do so. The new denialists don’t deny climate change—they just refute the fact that it matters enough to require action.

  11. Norgaard is particularly interested in what she calls “implicatory denial.” Of course, she notes, there are people who claim climate change isn’t happening at all, but there are just as many who accept the reality of climate change yet do nothing about it. This kind of denial accepts the underlying premise of the threat while ignoring its implications that we may have to change our behavior, our lifestyles, our culture, and our economies if we want to fight the looming existential crisis of climate change. In her research, Norgaard spoke with people who understood and accepted the science of climate change, even those whose livelihoods had been directly affected by the slow rise of average global temperatures, but who told her they were uncomfortable talking about the topic, or that it was someone else’s problem to deal with, not theirs. In Norway, for example, people told her that climate change didn’t seem like a polite thing to discuss in casual conversation, leading to an ongoing silence on the issue. Besides, they said, the real problem wasn’t the notoriously eco-friendly Norwegians but those Americans with their gas guzzling SUVs and big corporations. What’s more, Norgaard’s interviewees admitted that when they thought through the economic changes that dealing with climate change would require, it often made them uncomfortable. When you know someone who works in the oil industry or you have a job that requires you to fly regularly, the realities of any changes that may need to be made to combat the climate crisis hit close to your pocketbook or lifestyle.

    As such, Norgaard argues, even those who know the science, even those who express a deep concern about the issue, often do very little besides shake their head and throw up their hands, asking, “what are we supposed to do, destroy our whole economy to save a few lives?”

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