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5 October 2015

“Climate doubters“: Associated Press changes the way it refers to climate change deniers

Does the news agency's style guide change create false equivalence?

By Emad Ahmed

What does the word “doubt” make you think of? Perhaps you’re preparing for a major upcoming test, wondering whether you’ll be capable of completing it successfully. What about “deny”? It’s a stronger term, and probably makes you think of rejection, right? 

These words are central to subtle changes made by the Associated Press (AP) in their style guide, which might have huge implications in their reporting of climate science. Having previously used the terms “climate denier” and “climate sceptic” to refer to the select folks who continue to reject mainstream science, AP is choosing to refer to such people as “climate doubters”.

AP is a widely used and respected news wire service, and its work is used by many different organisations around the world, meaning this could result in a giant shift in climate science reporting. 

Seth Borenstein, AP’s climate science journalist, tried (miserably) to defend the change on NPR’s On the Media radio show. At one point, the host Bob Garfield kindly cuts Borenstein off by stating the reporter was trying to create a “false balance” after he said there should be two sides to the climate change discussion. Borenstein hit back saying he had never been accused of false balance, not realising he was just being accused of it that very moment.

He continued his defence by insisting the word “denier” has negative connotations due to it being used to describe those who dispute the Holocaust. But Holocaust deniers ignore facts just like climate change deniers, and are never socially accommodated.

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“Climate denier” is the most sensible term because such individuals don’t recognise the reality of the ever-changing world shown by science that the climate is warming due to human activity. You only have to look at the current Republican presidential candidates to get an idea of the type of people who don’t engage with modern research. After all, the major conservative parties in other large countries seem to be at peace with recognising the existence of climate change.

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The term “sceptic” is iffy. It implies an inherent curiosity behind the individual, and that they’d want to seek out greater detail and information before coming to a conclusion for a stronger opinion.

Think of a football pundit unsure about a new signing at a particular club and whether the player will have an impact on results. You’d be inclined to call the pundit a sceptic, because they’re sitting on the fence, waiting for more evidence to see if the player has a good start. Some climate deniers might call themselves “sceptics”, even if they are not open-minded enough to allow thousands of peer-reviewed studies to sway their thoughts. 

A climate “doubter” hints that such a person could potentially be moved by new scientific developments. But we know that’s never going to be the case with climate deniers. The tired “we don’t have all the evidence” line creates a smokescreen to cloud doubt on the substantial evidence already in the public domain. It will give misguided individuals (think Peter Hitchens) the opportunity to continue airing opinions that have no scientific foundation, but still have some sort of influence. 

And influence is what this is all about. AP retains a good reputation. There is never going to be a perfect, concise way of distinguishing between those who believe climate change is real (most people fit into this category); its effects are being overstated; it’s happening but it isn’t man-made; and those who outright dismiss the scientific findings. 

The term “climate change denier” is well-suited because that’s what certain politicians (and it’s mostly politicians with very loud microphones) and fossil fuel industry representatives are doing. They are denying the very reality of the fast-changing global environment and ecosystem. Sometimes certain opinions (and they really are just opinions) can’t be given the same standing as hard science.