Battling for the right name: thinking about climate 'sceptics'

Getting the name of your movement right is crucial. Can you imagine waking up one morning, as a campaigner for the right of women to have abortions, to realise that the other side had just called their campaign Pro-Life? How can you counter that, without seeming somehow ‘anti life’? So Pro-Choice was born. It’s a good attempt, but can’t help but sound like a compromise, like second best. Fairtrade is another example, which shows that sometimes the liberals get in first. By labelling ethically traded goods as ‘fair’, the strong implication is that everything that is not so labelled is (by definition, indeed) unfair. (There was even a suggestion, which I rather like, on Mark Thomas’s Radio 4 political comedy The Manifesto that all goods which do not carry the ‘FairTrade’ logo should be labelled ‘Unfair Trade’…) Of course, what some of the big importers of coffee, chocolate, tropical fruit and so on have done is to introduce their own brand of fair trade (without actually signing up to the binding conditions that the fair trade label requires; ‘not-quite-as-unfair-as-usual-trade’, if you like), but again, it feels like they’ve been caught on the hop.

The reason I bring this up is because of the shameless commandeering of the word ‘sceptic’ by those who refuse to accept the evidence that Earth’s climate is changing as a consequence of human actions.

Now, I happen to think that the term ‘sceptic’ is a very complimentary one. As a child in Sunday School, I was always kind of proud to share a name with the only sceptical disciple (an early sign, perhaps, that I was bound for the scientific rather than the clerical life…) And I certainly believe that one has to earn the title ‘sceptic’ (although there might be exceptions: I remember a report in the local press when I was a kid, of a star rugby player forced to miss a game with a ‘sceptic toe’…).

By all reasonable definitions of the term, all of us scientists should aspire to be sceptics. But even the most fervent sceptic should be swayed by the weight of evidence (my biblical namesake, after all, was finally convinced by the evidence of his eyes and fingers). So, I would like to think of myself as a climate change sceptic: I have critically considered the evidence, and the most parsimonious (i.e. sceptical) position is that anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are having a profound effect on the Earth’s climate, biogeochemistry, and ecology.

But, us proper sceptics have been gazumped: the term ‘climate sceptic’ is now irreversibly associated with a different kind of sceptical approach. One which cherry picks facts to match an argument, and ignores all evidence to the contrary – even when this contrary evidence far outweighs the favourable evidence in terms of both quality and quantity. One which gives more credence to internet rumours than to peer-reviewed (i.e., quality controlled) scientific research. A definition of ‘sceptical’ which is, in fact, indistinguishable from ‘credulous’.

What can we do? We need a name that encompasses proper scientific scepticism, to counter this false-sceptic meme. To date, the argument has usually been framed as between climate scientists and climate sceptics, but this is misleading – it suggests that the ‘sceptics’ are some kind of independent scrutinising body, overseeing the scientific process. To return to the example I started with, it’s kind of like pitting ‘pro-life’ against ‘the medical establishment’; there’s a non-equivalence there.

My suggestion? Well, it’s tricky, because most candidates have already been snapped up by the brand-savvy ‘sceptics’. I’d originally thought of ‘climate realist’ as an umbrella term which suggests scepticism, pragmatism, and a certain down-to-earthness; but it turns out there’s a different kind of realist (read: fantasist) already… So what about ‘climate thinkers’?

I would love to see a news programme pitting a ‘renowned climate sceptic’ (Nigel Lawson, say) against a ‘respected climate thinker’ – perhaps Nicholas Stern, or David King, or Paul Nurse, or any other true sceptic.