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Sea change in climate journalism: The Guardian and the D-word

Watts Up With That?
March 3, 2010

As we all know, the debate over global warming is contentious, often vitrolic. Labels are often applied by both sides. One the most distasteful labels is “denier”. I’m pleased to report that the UK paper The Guardian has taken on this issue headfirst.

In a recent email exchange with the Guardian’s James Randerson, where he discussed an outreach opportunity to climate skeptics via a series of stories on the Guardian website, I raised the issue with him.

From: “Anthony Watts <[email protected]>
Date: Friday, February 19, 2010 11:13 AM
To: “James Randerson” <[email protected]>
Subject: Re: Guardian: CRU emails

Hello James,

Thanks for the response.

If the Guardian truly wishes to engage climate skeptics, I do have a piece of advice that will help tear down walls. Get the newspaper to go on record that they will never again use the label “deniers” in headlines or articles.

For example:

And there are many others I could cite.

That simple, single act, recognizing that the term is erroneous, distasteful due to its holocaust denier connotation, and unrepresentative of the position on climate change of many who simply want the science to be right  and reasonable solutions enacted would be a watershed event in mending fences.

There’s no downside for the Guardian to do so that I can envision. It would  elevate the paper’s credibility in the eyes of many. The Guardian can lead  by example here.

Thank you for your consideration.

Best Regards,
Anthony Watts

Yesterday I received an email from him. It is my impression that he sent the suggestion out to other staff members and there was a discussion about it, which was written about here:

I excerpt the relevant paragraphs here, highlight mine:

We have been discussing such terminology, and some of my colleagues have suggested that Guardian style might be amended to stop referring to “climate change deniers” in favour of, perhaps, “climate sceptics”.

The editor of our environment website explains: “The former has nasty connotations with Holocaust denial and tends to polarise debate. On the other hand there are some who are literally in denial about the evidence. Also, some are reluctant to lend the honourable tradition of scepticism to people who may not be truly ’sceptical’ about the science.” We might help to promote a more constructive debate, however, by being “as explicit as possible about what we are talking about when we use the term sceptic”.

Most if not all of the environment team – who, after all, are the ones at the sharp end – now favour stopping the use of denier or denialist (which is not, in fact, a word) in news stories, if not opinion pieces.

The Guardian’s environment editor argues: “Sceptics have valid points and we should take them seriously and respect them.” To call such people deniers “is just demeaning and builds differences”. One of his colleagues says he generally favours sceptic for news stories, “but let people use ‘deniers’ in comment pieces should they see fit. The ’sceptics’ label is almost too generous a badge as very few are genuinely sceptical about the science but I think we have to accept the name is now common parlance.”

I applaud the editorial staff at the Guardian for taking this step, and even more so for having the courage to put it to print. I thank James Randerson for bringing the subject to discussion. I hope that other editorial staff and news outlets will take note of this event.

On that note let me say that we could all (and that includes me) benefit from the dialing back of the use of labels, and we should focus on the issues before us. There’s really nothing positive or factual to be gained from such labeling.

I call on readers of WUWT to reciprocate this gesture by The Guardian by refraining from labeling others they may disagree with here and at other web forums.

Let’s all dial back and treat others with the same respect in conversation as you might treat dinner guests having a discussion at home.

My position has been that there is no debate that the earth has warmed over the past 100+ years, but that the magnitude of the measured warming and the cause(s) remain in debate. The question of whether such warming is beneficial or detrimental depends on who you ask. I’ll also point out that it took our modern society about 150 years of science and technology advances to get where we are now. Doing it cleaner and better won’t be an overnight solution either.

There are also other pressing environmental issues which have been swallowed whole by the maelstrom of this worldwide climate debate and are getting the short shrift. The sooner we can settle it, the sooner we can get on to solving those.


In related news, the nastiness of debate caused one long time blogger to close his discussion forum.

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