No Denying the Implied Context for Climate Denier

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJun 19, 2012 8:53 PM


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My previous post on Nature's use of "denier" in a recently published paper has triggered a lively comment thread, including this question to me:

Since you obviously object to the usefulness of the term "˜denier', would you care to comment on its appropriateness after considering Micha Tomkiewicz"˜s thoughts?

This is in reference to several provocative blog posts by a Holocaust survivor (and physics professor) who, several months ago, asked:

But what about climate change deniers? Can we really compare the two, the Holocaust and climate change? Does this have anything to do with science?

Shortly after this appeared, I did have some thoughts on the heated debate over the meaning of climate "denier," and cobbled them together in a post for another site. For reasons that I won't divulge (it's complicated), that post never appeared. But now seems like a good time to put it up here: A frequent lament of climate campaigners is that "disinformation" from contrarians and ideologues opposed to any action on global warming continues to muddy the larger public conversation. The stalled politics (in the U.S. and several other countries) frustrates many who regard climate change as an existential threat to future generations. Much of their ire, rightly or wrongly, is often directed at fossil fuel interests, conservative think tanks, and climate skeptics. So it's not surprising that a recent forum at Penn State University was devoted to the climate "disinformation campaign." The first speaker, Donald Brown, a climate ethicist at Penn State, argued that the last 25 years of potential action have been lost because of deliberate "disinformation" from the aforementioned. The continuation of such tactics led Brown to suggest:

I think we should encourage a conversation whether this is some kind of new crime against humanity. It is really evil stuff. It is nasty.

Predictably, this lit up various precincts of the climate blogosphere. Never mind that Brown was essentially repeating something he'd already writtena few years earlier. There are others who want to move the climate conversation on to this same highly charged moral terrain. For instance, just weeks after the Penn State forum, Micha Tomkiewicz, a Brooklyn college physics professor, triggered a firestorm after he explicitly associated  denial of climate change with denial of the Holocaust. Most (if not all) climate commentators studiously avoid making such a direct comparison. Some shy away from using the "denier" label altogether because of the connotation. What was especially striking about Tomkiewicz's use of it is his personal history: He is a Holocaust survivor. He invoked his personal history while also saying that global warming today might result in the "potential genocide of billions of people." Thus, denial of climate change, he argued, was akin to "a self-inflicted genocide." In a follow-up post Tomkiewicz elaborated:

But, of course, I am using the term "denier" to make a point. In 1933, very few people believed that Hitler would seriously try to accomplish what he preached and almost no one could imagine the consequences of his deadly reign. Although there was evidence available "“ Hitler was clear about what he wanted to do in Mein Kampf "“ why did people not pay attention? These "deniers" might as well have been called skeptics in their day. I make my "climate change denier" claim for one reason. It's easy today to teach students to condemn the Holocaust, but it's much more difficult to teach them how to try to prevent future genocides. There are different kinds of genocides and they don't repeat themselves; they come to us in different ways. I am not suggesting that the Holocaust is just like climate change. But what I am suggesting is that it's hard to see a genocide "“ any genocide "“ coming. The future is hard to predict, but we can see this one coming. This genocide is of our own making, and it will effect everyone, not just one group or country.

This line of reasoning takes climate rhetoric to a new level. Judging by the varied responses from across the environment/climate-concerned spectrum, most people are not going there. [Perhaps the editors at Nature should take note.] Others reject the validity of the moral equivalence frame altogether. Mark Hoofnagle at his Denialism blog (his subject is the phenomena of denial as it relates to all science-related issues) wrote:

I do not think that a moral comparison need be made between holocaust deniers and climate change denialists. The only comparison needed is between their tactics, which are dishonest and intellectually bankrupt"¦The comparison between climate denialists and other denialists should come from the fact that they argue the exact same way, and it should end there. Holocaust denial and climate change denial share many features, as does evolution denialism, HIV/AIDS denialism, vaccine crankery, 9/11 trutherism etc., that is they use rhetorical tricks to deny a body of evidence that contradicts an ideological position.

This most recent clash over labels and Holocaust/climate change analogies is reminiscent of the controversy stirred up by NASA climate scientist James Hansen's provocative metaphorical statement in 2007:

If we cannot stop the building of more coal-fired power plants, those coal trains will be death trains "” no less gruesome than if they were boxcars headed to crematoria, loaded with uncountable irreplaceable species.

As Andrew Revkin notedat the time, scientists and environmental campaigners have for several decades "been on an ongoing quest for imagery and analogies sufficiently jarring to focus public attention on global warming." Today, that quest remains just as elusive and contentious as ever.

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