Image source: Associated Press

Climate change denial has always been about controversy. As the science of man-made climate change has become increasingly certain over the last three decades of work by thousands of researchers, a cadre of deniers, often funded by fossil fuel industries, has become more vocal. During that same time, the use of the term “denier” to describe them has become increasingly common. Now that is controversial, too.

In many newsrooms, the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook is the default rulebook on everything from what to capitalize and which words to avoid. So when the AP banned the term climate change “denier” on September 22, it started an argument that matters.

The AP announced that it was adding the following to its stylebook: “To describe those who don’t accept climate science or dispute the world is warming from man-made forces, use climate change doubters or those who reject mainstream climate science. Avoid use of skeptics or deniers.”

From a scientist’s viewpoint, the AP may have gotten it half-right. Scientists have long argued that they are the true skeptics because they want proof of what people believe is true, proof based on evidence. After decades of research, the overwhelming majority of climate scientists are convinced that the world is getting warmer, and that greenhouse gases emitted by human activity is the main cause.

The term “denier” — as in climate science denier — has come into more frequent use in the past decade. There are a lot of people, including most Republican presidential candidates, who deny the consensus of degreed, professional climate scientists — that the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans are warming and that human activities, such as CO2 emissions, are the main cause. So the use of the term is technically accurate. But it is also harsh and pejorative to many ears. Many deniers do not wish to be called deniers.

The AP’s Stylebook change caused a ruckus that is still going on.

The controversy over the AP ban on “denial” rages intensely within the news media community itself. So much so that the NPR program “On the Media” featured the issue on a September 25 segment . Host Bob Garfield interviewed Seth Borenstein, a veteran AP science reporter who has covered climate for years, and who supported the AP change. Borenstein noted that for some people, the term “denier” recalls holocaust deniers — without suggesting that that this creates exclusive ownership of the term. Borenstein said the AP’s terms — “doubters” and “those who reject mainstream climate science” — were more precise, because there was a spectrum of views among those rejecting the science. Garfield remained… skeptical — saying it was often more precise to call an outright denier like Senator James Inhofe just that: a denier.

In an article in InsideClimate News on September 29, Lisa Song checked in with various climate journalists to ascertain how they responded to the AP’s decision. She found there was little agreement among reporters as to whether they would follow the guideline and whether it would make any difference. Song wrote of the AP: “Its attempt to clarify the issue has resulted in little clarity.” Many journalists and publications will not follow the AP Stylebook on climate science rejectionist terminology.

Generally, liberals and advocates of action to stop climate change disliked the AP’s ban on the word “denier.” Deniers, anti-regulatory conservatives, and those opposing action liked it pretty well.

For example, Marc Morano, who runs the denier blog Climate Depot, told the National Journal that he commended the AP for moving away from “denier” and would gladly adopt “doubter.” For years, Morano — beginning when he was a communications aide to Inhofe — has criticized the AP for reporting what climate scientists were concluding and has attacked Borenstein personally. Likewise Anthony Watts, who also runs a denier blog, praised the AP move in a September 23 post. Morano and his ideological cohort have their own set of pejorative terms for people who accept science and want to address climate change: “warmists,” “alarmists,” “lefties,” etc.

By contrast, Joe Romm, who runs the progressive blog Climate Progress is an active and vehement voice for addressing climate. He made his views known within hours of the AP change with an article whose title declared: “I Deny That Makes Sense.” In the article, Romm quoted an email from Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State, who himself had long been the victim of unfounded attacks from deniers.

“As they say, if the shoe fits, wear it. Those who are in denial of basic science, be it evolution or human-caused climate change, are in fact science deniers,” Mann wrote Romm. “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.”

Likewise Graham Readfearn, a journalist writing in The Guardian, a UK paper that has gone on a bit of a climate crusade, made the point in the headline of a September 24 story: “What other term is there for climate science deniers other than denier?”

Media Matters for America, a left-leaning media criticism blog, also cited criticism of the AP change. In a piece entitled “Experts Criticize Associated Press For Disavowing Term “Climate Change Denier,” Denise Robbins cited a number of deniers not mentioned above as approving of the AP change. Robbins cited many scientists and journalists who said, in essence, that the AP change legitimizes those who reject scientific fact.

Several experts cited in the Media Matters piece compared the tactics of climate science deniers to the tactics of those who had denied that tobacco smoke causes cancer. In fact, some prominent deniers, like S. Fred Singer, were actually involved in both campaigns. It was a tobacco company executive who once said “doubt is our product,” to describe that industry’s PR offensive against science. The resonance of that old adage with the AP’s preferred term was not lost on some (for a fuller account, see David Michaels’ book “Doubt Is Their Product,” or Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s “Merchants of Doubt”).

One takeaway from the discussion: regardless of the pros and cons of the “denier” term, the “doubter” term is an inaccurate and misleading replacement.

Some backstory: one impetus for the AP’s change was a plea from the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry — who in 2014 called on the AP to stop using the term “skeptic” for climate science deniers. Deniers, they said, were giving true skepticism a bad name. But the AP’s serene justification of its stylistic fiat has ignored that group’s dissatisfaction with the change. “Referring to deniers as ‘doubters’ still imbues those who reject scientific fact with an intellectual legitimacy they have not earned,” the committee’s parent organization, The Center for Inquiry, said in a September 22 press release.

The Huffington Post’s Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim also focused scorn on the term “doubters,” which he said is “almost always simply false.” “It presumes knowledge of somebody’s state of mind,” Grim wrote on September 23, “but more often is just inaccurate.” He noted the recent revelation by InsideClimate News reporters that ExxonMobil had known the validity of climate science since 1982, but had continued to fund a vast denial campaign for decades thereafter.

“In no other circumstance would the complete rejection of science be treated so gently,” Grim wrote. “And it is only being done because, over the past decade, under intense pressure, an entire political party has embraced denialism.”

In any case, the term “doubter” seems inadequate to describe Senator James Inhofe, who believes the idea of manmade climate change to be a “hoax.” He is sure of it. He even wrote a book about it. There is not the slightest doubt in his mind.


Joseph A. Davis, Ph.D., is a CSPW Contributor and independent journalist who has written about the environment for more than three decades. His work over the years spans covering all events related to the environment, energy, and natural resources on the Hill for CQ Weekly Report, to authoring a book on climate for journalists originally funded by NOAA that went into three printings.