The Denier Boomerang

Last week, many cheered a landmark global agreement that promises to tackle global warming. Some prominent greens dissented, but experts are cautiously optimistic and clear-eyed about the difficult challenges ahead.

Now that much of the world is officially united on the need to reduce greenhouse gases, one of the biggest fights going forward will be about what source of energy to use in place of fossil fuels. The battle lines are already being drawn. Earlier this month, four highly respected climate scientists declared in the Guardian that nuclear power had to play an important role. They wrote:

The climate system cares about greenhouse gas emissions – not about whether energy comes from renewable power or abundant nuclear power. Some have argued that it is feasible to meet all of our energy needs with renewables. The 100% renewable scenarios downplay or ignore the intermittency issue by making unrealistic technical assumptions, and can contain high levels of biomass and hydroelectric power at the expense of true sustainability. Large amounts of nuclear power would make it much easier for solar and wind to close the energy gap.

This week an influential science scholar, Naomi Oreskes, unleashed a rhetorical missile aimed straight at the four climate scientists, calling their pro-nuclear argument “a new form of climate denialism.”

Reaction in the climate/energy/environment sphere was swift and palpable.

True, that. But as Greenwire noted earlier this year, there’s a reason why climate “denier” or “denialist” caught on as a rhetorical device:

“Climate change has always been a kind of a framing war,” said George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network in Great Britain and the author of the book “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.” “If you can get out there and you can get your language inserted into the discourse, it’s your ideas that dominate.”

To that end, it was Marshall and co-author Mark Lynas who “published the first reference to ‘climate denier’ in the English-language press in a 2003 op-ed they wrote for the left-leaning magazine The New Statesman,” Greenwire reported.They wanted those words to sting.”

Yes, so did Naomi Oreskes, when she used a close variation of those words against her own allies in 2015. As is often the case in climate debates, some people focus more on winning an argument than solving the problem.


There’s been much much anguished and puzzled reaction, including this New Yorker piece by Michael Specter.

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