Climate Denialese: A Phrasebook


During a recent Question Time session in the Federal Parliament, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard accused the Opposition of being "in a state of denial" over climate change, characterising the Coalition as "stuck in the past". Gillard chose her words carefully, avoiding the controversy that erupted following NSW Premier Nathan Rees’ comparison of climate change denial with 1930s appeasement policies.

The increasingly bitter debate over the Rudd Government’s proposed emissions trading scheme in Australia is a powerful reminder that language matters. Words matter.

In his 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant!, the American cognitive linguist George Lakoff argued that the conservative side of politics was more effective than the progressives at "framing" political debates. Lakoff explained: "Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary — and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas."

The ability of language to "carry" or sink an idea is exemplified in the propensity of climate change denialists to assume the rather noble mantle of "sceptics". Former Prime Minister John Howard, National Party Senator Barnaby Joyce, and former New South Wales Treasurer Michael Costa are all commonly described as "climate change sceptics".

This nomenclature has political uses, helping to characterise the debate as a battle between credulous groupthink-addled greenies on the one side, and thoughtful, reasoned intellects on the other. For instance, an editorial in The Australian briefly compared climate change sceptics with dissidents in the former Soviet Union, a regime which "could not tolerate any deviation from the party line" and suggested that "scepticism and the spirit of inquiry" were signs of "a healthy mind".

In contrast to the sceptics, those who support government action to address climate change are disparagingly dubbed "believers" and often derided as the adherents of an undefined "green religion". Energy Minister Martin Ferguson is only the most recent high-profile figure to characterise those who push for zero emissions as "faith based", as reported in Crikey yesterday.

Adopting Lakoff’s approach, the word "sceptic" evokes a particular frame, associating climate change denial with a long tradition of philosophical scepticism — and equally with a refusal to conform to imposed ideals.

The Australian Skeptics — who adopt the American spelling of the original US Skeptics — describe their approach as "a dynamic attitude to the world around us … not a dogmatic approach restricted by ‘accepted wisdom’, but a serious and sincere appraisal of claims of how the world works". One of the organisation’s key aims is to "investigate claims of pseudoscientific, paranormal and similarly anomalous phenomena from a responsible, scientific point of view".

The narrative of climate change scepticism does not embrace this type of dynamism; it is remarkably one-sided, readily accommodating deeply held beliefs as to the value of an untrammelled mining industry; the benign nature of nuclear power; the ability of the market to self-regulate; or the effectiveness of "clean coal".

In his recent Quarterly Essay, Quarry Vision, Guy Pearse quoted one American Carbon Capture and Storage advertisement which featured the slogan "We Believe" 17 times in 60 seconds, "as if enough faith and repetition will magically make ‘clean coal’ happen".

In addition to branding themselves as sceptics, those opposed to legislative responses to climate change also adopt an even more grandiose title: they are the defenders of humanity. Their opponents, the environmentalists, are classed as inner suburban, latte drinking misanthropists who prefer the fragile green planet to their fellow human beings.

Thus the geologist Ian Plimer, author of Heaven and Earth: Global Warming — The Missing Science, states starkly that the "environmental religion embraces anti-human totalitarianism". Sara Hudson of the Centre for Independent Studies describes conservationists as "misanthropic"; and Brendan O’Neill, the editor of Spiked Online, charges that environmentalists view humanity as no more than "a pox" on the earth, an "alien presence, an infestation, a malady that has made the planet terminally ill". O’Neill also argues that the "political promotion of [polar bears]represents the denigration of human desire, the subordination of the human will to the animalistic fearmongering of environmentalism".

Clive Hamilton has written a robust analysis of the strange new alliance of hardline Marxists like O’Neill with free-market liberals, noting that "segments of the far left have been hostile to environmentalism from the outset, seeing evidence of environmental decline not as the result of unbridled corporate power but as a middle-class distraction from the concerns of the workers".

Hamilton correctly observes that environmental movements do not necessarily fit easily with the doctrines of "the left". Of course, the terms "left" and "right" have become increasingly problematic in capturing political discourse.

Humanities academic David McKnight cites environmental movements as one of the many developments in contemporary politics which transcend the simple dichotomy of left and right. In his 2005 book Beyond Right and Left: New Politics and the Culture Wars, McKnight argued that the "Right-Left spectrum is breaking up" and notes specifically that the "image of green politics as "left-wing" and radical … [forces]new politics into old categories".

Despite the difficulty of attaching labels to political beliefs, it is arguable that there are still clear differences between progressives, conservatives and neo-liberals which affect the way that adherents to these ideologies view climate change.

In particular, believers in social democracy — what Hamilton terms "the progressive left" — must assert themselves in the face of the strawman being busily constructed by Plimer, O’Neill and other members of Hamilton’s strange alliance.

The simplest and most compelling argument for addressing climate change is humanist in nature. As human beings, we must take seriously our need to care for each other, whether at the specific level of provision of universal healthcare benefits and international aid, or in the more abstract sense of societal cohesiveness. By extension, policies put forward to combat the effects of climate change need not be justified by invoking Gaia or anthropomorphising dolphins or polar bears.

Rather, progressives sensibly argue that human beings have a duty to each other, including to future generations. Humans will fail in this duty if we place short-term economic gain over the environmental conditions which will shape the lives of humanity in the future.

Arguments like these are drawn not from a "green religion", but from a belief in humanity.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.