Why Is It Called Denial?

There is a debate among those involved in social controversies surrounding climate change about how to refer to the positions that reject, and to people who doubt or deny, the scientific community’s consensus on the answers to the central questions of climate change. Many such people prefer to call themselves skeptics and describe their position as climate change skepticism. Their opponents, however, often prefer to call such people climate change deniers and to describe their position as climate change denial.

Recognizing that no terminological choice is entirely unproblematic, NCSE — in common with a number of scholarly and journalistic observers of the social controversies surrounding climate change — opts to use the terms “climate changer deniers” and “climate change denial” (where “denial” encompasses unwarranted doubt as well as outright rejection). The terms are intended descriptively, not in any pejorative sense, and are used for the sake of brevity and consistency with a well-established usage in the scholarly and journalistic literature.

Climate change denial is most conspicuous when it is explicit, as it is in controversies over climate education. The idea of implicit (or “implicatory”) denial, however, is increasingly discussed among those who study the controversies over climate change. Implicit denial occurs when people who accept the scientific community’s consensus on the answers to the central questions of climate change on the intellectual level fail to come to terms with it or to translate their acceptance into action. Such people are in denial, so to speak, about climate change.

Implicit denial in a rural community in western Norway in economic crisis due to climate change is the topic of the sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard’s book Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (MIT Press 2011). “[D]espite clear social and economic impacts on the community,” she writes, “no social action was taken at the beginning of this century. … What perplexed me was the fact that despite the fact that people clearly were aware of global warming as a phenomenon, everyday life in Bygdaby went on as though it did not exist” (p. xvi).

The links below provide more information about and discussion of the terminology of climate change denial.

Further reading:

“Denial” is the term preferred even by many deniers. “I actually like ‘denier.’ That’s closer than skeptic,” says MIT's Richard Lindzen, one of the most prominent deniers. Steve Milloy, the operator of the climate change denial website JunkScience.com, told Popular Science, "Me, I just stick with denier ... I’m happy to be a denier." Minnesotans for Global Warming and other major denier groups go so far as to sing, “I’m a Denier!”.

Denialists’ Deck of Cards: An Illustrated Taxonomy of Rhetoric Used to Frustrate Consumer Protection Efforts is a 2007 paper by lawyer Chris Jay Hoofnagle, available through the Social Science Research Network, which provides a taxonomy of what he refers to as “denialism,” a phenomenon he catalogues in many settings based on his experience advocating for consumer protections.

Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, by journalist Michael Spector (Penguin 2009), examines how denialism plays out in opposition to vaccines, criticism of genetically modified organisms, debates over pharmaceutical safety, and other settings.

Denialism: What Is It and How Should Scientists Respond?, a 2009 paper by Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee, published in the European Journal of Public Health, explores the commonalities between climate change denial, creationism, denial that HIV causes AIDS, and denial of the link between smoking and cancer.

Climate denier, skeptic, or contrarian?, a letter by Saffron O’Neill and Max Boykoff in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America criticizes a recently published paper for using the term “climate denier.” The authors of the original paper — William R. L. Anderegg, James W. Prall, and Jacob Harold — replied: “denialism has been well established in the literature as a relevant and appropriate concept and frequently applied.”

Global warming: How skepticism became denial is a 2011 paper by historian Spencer Weart in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Weart argues that skepticism of climate change was warranted by the evidence until the 1980s. The critics of climate change science changed in that period, their arguments shifting from scientific critiques published in normal scientific venues to legal, political, and personal attacks in popular media. “At some point they were no longer skeptics — people who would try to see every side of a case — but deniers, that is, people whose only interest was in casting doubt upon what other scientists agreed was true.”