What Should a Journalist Call Someone Who Doesn’t Think Climate Change Is Real?

The climate-denier-skeptic-doubter debate has new life thanks to a change in the AP style guide.

Sen. James Inhofe wields a snowball on the Senate floor, February 26, 2015. (National Journal)

When Jim Inhofe threw a snowball on the floor of the Senate to protest the scientific consensus on climate change, was he being a climate denier? Or a climate skeptic? Or a climate doubter?

The distinction may seem trivial, but to those active on both sides of the issue, the words matter. So much so that lawsuits have even been threatened over them. And an addition to the Associated Press Stylebook entry on “global warming” announced Tuesday has only inflamed the debate.

In a release, the AP said this: “Our guidance is to use climate change doubters or those who reject mainstream climate science and to avoid the use of skeptics or deniers.”

When the AP talks, journalists across the globe listen—the agency’s stylebook can dictate exactly what words and phrases are used in reporting on political debates. So right on cue, environmentalists and climate scientists jumped on the change.

Here’s how the Sierra Club reacted on Twitter:

“It's not like [Inhofe’s] climate-change views are nuanced or well thought out. It's not as if he's found some fundamental flaw with climate science—he just refuses to accept the vast body of existing scientific work,” said Karthik Ganapathy of 350.org in an email.

The concern for the Left is that “doubter” carries a connotation of questioning or concern. But the science on climate change is objectively overwhelming—97 percent of the world’s scientists agree that the climate is changing as a result of human activity and that its effects are being felt.

The AP guidance for “those who reject mainstream climate science,” then, would seem acceptable. But it’s “doubter” that has proved controversial.

“Those who are in denial of basic science, be it evolution or human-caused climate change, are in fact science-deniers,” climate scientist Michael Mann told ThinkProgress. “To call them anything else, be it ‘skeptic’ or ‘doubter,’ is to grant an undeserved air of legitimacy to something that is simply not legitimate.”

Even the word “skeptic” has proved controversial. In an open letter last year, scientists and educators with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry urged the media to stop conflating skepticism with a rejection of science.

“Proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims,” they wrote. “It is foundational to the scientific method. Denial, on the other hand, is the a priori rejection of ideas without objective consideration.”

Paul Fidalgo of the Center for Inquiry, which was behind the letter, said that “doubter” fell in the same category by implying that there was some “genuine skepticism and inquiry.”

“This isn’t like Bigfoot or aliens, where we can debate. Climate change is a real-world problem going on right now,” he said. “If we bestow deniers with legitimacy, it’s bad for us as a species. It means we can’t move forward on confronting the problem.”

Paul Colford, a spokesman for the AP, said the change was discussed “at length” and that the AP had “decided that the description we added to the entry was the most precise.”

But “denier” has also proved controversial, something the AP cited in its release on the change. The word deliberately carries with it connotations of Holocaust denial. In an email, George C. Marshall Institute CEO William O’Keefe said the word "was intended to be pejorative and was seen that way."

In April, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-leaning partnership of state lawmakers and corporations, threatened to sue activists over the term. In a “cease and desist” letters to some left-leaning groups, ALEC said that statements charging the group denied global warming were “inaccurate” and “false and misleading material.”

The debate over what word is appropriate is still ongoing. The New York Times covered the debate in February and followed up with a May column by public-editor Margaret Sullivan. Society for Environmental Journalists executive director Beth Parke has said there’s no “collective opinion or institutional stance” among the member journalists but that the discussion is continuing.

William Happer, a physicist at Princeton University who has questioned climate science, applauded the AP for the move, but said he was still happy to be called a skeptic. "All real scientists should be skeptics," he said.

But green groups want the harshest word possible to be lobbed against a community they say is harmfully standing in the way of progress on climate change. Democrats have sought repeatedly to put Republicans on record about climate-change science, associating a denial of science with other extreme positions. It's become a frequent talking point on the campaign trail, especially as many GOP presidential candidates have openly questioned humans' role in climate change.

Marc Morano, a former Inhofe aide who now runs the website climatedepot.com, said he had to "commend the AP from moving away from ‘denier’ and entering the realm of objectivity.” Morano—who was recently featured in a documentary called “Merchants of Doubt” about climate-change denial—has long embraced the word “skeptic” but said he’d gladly adopt “doubter” because it still indicates that there’s room for debate.

“If you get Al Gore or the United Nations making some outrageous claim, at least you can say, ‘I doubt it.'”