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date: 01 May 2017

Influence of Labeling and Incivility on Climate Change Communication

Summary and Keywords

Labels play an important role in opinion formation, helping to actively construct perceptions and reality, and to place individuals into context with others. As a highly complex issue, climate change invites a range of different opinions and dialogues about its causes, impacts, and action required. Much work has been published in the academic literature aiming to categorize differences of opinion about climate change using labels. However, the debate about labels acts as a distraction to more fundamental and pressing issues of policy response. In addition, the undercurrent of incivility present in the climate change debate also contributes towards a hostile and unconstructive conflict.

This is an evolving area of academic enquiry. Recent work has examined how the different labels of climate change opinions are constructed, used in practice, and portrayed differently in the public and policy spheres. The growing number of categorization systems used in the climate debate are also argued to have implications for the science-policy interface, creating a polarized debate involving many different actors and interfaces.

Moving away from unhelpful use and construction of labels that lead to incivility would enable constructive and fruitful dialogue across this polarized debate. A way forward would be to explore further the role of underlying motivations and rationales as to why these different opinions about climate change come to exist in the first place. Focusing on potential overlaps in perceptions and rationales may encourage constructive discussion amongst actors previously engaged in purposefully antagonistic exchange on climate change.

Keywords: climate change debate, labels, opinion, incivility, communication

In 1942, the sociologist Robert K. Merton introduced an influential conceptualization of scientific norms. These informal rules included communalism–that scientists should all be able to access scientific knowledge; universalism–that all scientists should be able to contribute to the creation of that knowledge; and disinterestedness–that all scientists should act for the greater good, rather than personal gain. But most notably among these Mertonian norms, is the emphasized ideal of organized skepticism. By way of this norm, all scientific claims should be subject to “an ongoing process of questioning, hypothesizing, validation, and refutation” (Sarewitz, 2000, p. 84) before they may be accepted. Even once they are accepted, they must continue to be questioned should new evidence emerge. The positivist tradition of contemporary science is strongly based on the idea that skepticism is a fundamental basis of the scientific process. Importantly, it emphasizes that conflicting arguments should be based either on flaws in existing evidence or on the production of new, contrary evidence.

In the context of climate change, scientific debates may focus on overarching topics or specific physical relationships. Topics that have been debated include, for example, the relationship between sunspots and climate change (Huntingford & Fowler, 2008), the impact of clouds on climate feedback mechanisms (Baum, Haqq-Misra, & Karmosky, 2012), or whether or not specific weather events may be attributable to longer term climate change (Parmesan & Yohe, 2003).

Disagreement about climate change is not surprising. As Merton first articulated, debate and the continued questioning of all findings and conclusions are fundamental parts of the scientific process.

Climate change is a complex issue to communicate, particularly to non-scientists. This is additionally challenging when it is assumed that simply communicating about the science of climate change is sufficient to increase understanding, engagement, and willingness to act. This is known as the “technocratic model” or the “information deficit model” (Hulme, 2009; Sturgis & Allum, 2004); however, this linear approach often raises significant challenges in communication and debate on climate change. This is because viewpoints on contentious topics are not solely decided by evidence and may be influenced by many other factors (as we outline below). Nonetheless, the expectations of participants in the climate debate, notably decision-makers, can lead to an over-reliance on evidence-based policy that cannot necessarily be fulfilled, particularly where large uncertainties are involved and where decision-making processes are highly context-dependent (Dessai, Hulme, Lempert, & Pielke, 2009).

Research into the boundaries of the science-policy interface has enabled a deeper understanding of how to manage the challenges that emerge in the climate debate (Jasanoff, 1990, 2004). Science that is used to inform decision-making needs to be perceived as credible (e.g. that it is rigorously assessed and reviewed), salient (e.g. that it is relevant to debate participants such as decision-makers), and legitimate (Cash, Clark, Alcock, & Dickson,2002). Though evidence does not always address these attributes (Howarth & Painter, 2016), they can help frame how science is produced, assessed, and used in the climate debate. However, things such as scientific uncertainties can limit the influence of science as an input to policy-making (Dessai et al., 2009; Frigg, Smith, & Stainforth, 2015).

Achieving such outcomes, however, also depends on applying a more critical understanding of those dimensions of climate change that are currently debated and why. They also depend on recognizing the rise of intense incivility in relation to these lines of disagreement, and the unfortunate role that labels play in seeding polarization and deepening disagreement.

What is the Climate Change Debate?

Debate about climate change brings together many different, albeit frequently overlapping, arguments. These range from disputes about the scientific basis of climate change, such as the reality and severity of the physical nature of climate change (Hoffman, 2011a), to arguments more explicitly about climate change policies or politics. Debates may also be so-called surrogate debates, where what is the apparent topic of debate (such as physical science) serves to hide contestation over other issues, such as the way humans should use resources or interact with the physical environment (Rayner, 2012).

Debates in the Scientific Community

Debates about climate change, such as among scientists working in universities or research centers, tend to focus on uncertainties at the edge of scientific knowledge—the things that are only just beginning to be understood. Debates outside these environments, such as where the public (i.e., non-scientists) is involved, are more likely to include disagreement about issues or topics that are no longer considered controversial by the majority of climate scientists (Painter & Gavin, 2015). These include discussions about the anthropogenic influence on the climate system, including whether or not climate impacts can already be observed.

Debates in the Political Community

Political debates about climate change are also varied. They can include arguments about the necessity or effectiveness of regulatory mechanisms such as carbon taxes or energy policies (Boykoff & Olson, 2013; Lockwood, 2013), or about whose responsibility it is to reduce emissions both historically and into the future. Political debates about climate change are also often linked to other debates about broader environmental, social, or economic policy, such as discussions about the future of human civilization (Eastin, Grundmann, & Prakash, 2011) or how science should be used as a basis for policymaking (Hess, 2014; Sarewitz, 2004). There are also significant spatial variations in political debates about climate change. For example, in the United Kingdom, broad political agreement about the scientific veracity of climate change resulted in the passing of the Climate Change Act in 2008. Conversely, in countries such as the United States and Australia, there remain vocal and influential political figures who disagree with the scientific majority viewpoint on climate change.

Debates may also be about both scientific and political factors, either explicitly or implicitly. This intertwining of arguments is important. For example, arguments about the need for climate change policies are often based on judgments about climate science as a whole or in part (Demeritt, 2006; Engelhart & Caplan, 1987). Conversely, other arguments about whether or not claims emerging from climate science are legitimate are understood as likely to be influenced by political viewpoint (Nisbet, Cooper, & Garrett, 2015). These interlinked debates are often a focus of studies examining what are known as scientific controversies or public scientific controversies. Understanding how such controversies come to exist can be a useful way of making sense of the climate change debate (Harker, 2015).

Why are People Debating About Climate Change?

The climate change debate is rarely focused solely on technical scientific data; it encapsulates a range of topics. It is also fundamentally about how knowledge claims interact with worldviews, perceptions of risks, and values (Demeritt, 2006; Douglas, 2009; Su, Cacciatore, Brossard, Corley, Scheufele, & Xenos, 2016). Consider several of these dynamics and how they seed various forms of debate.

First, accepting that human influence is a contributory factor to climate change can be an uncomfortable challenge to peoples’ values and ways they see themselves in the world (Braun & Jorgens, 2013; Hulme, 2009). It is uncomfortable because the potential range of policy options to address climate change, such as changing individual behavior or imposing regulatory controls, all have related ideological implications (Dryzek & Lo, 2014). For example, depending on your viewpoint about the role of government in society, the introduction of a carbon tax can be seen as a challenge to individual freedom and an unnecessary government burden, or it can be regarded as a cost-effective and efficient mechanism to incentivize climate change mitigation (Hoffman, 2011a). Therefore, if the truth of the science behind climate change is disputed and doubted, this reduces the legitimacy of, and underlying need for, the associated policy response. The values held by scientists have also been subject to interrogation, particularly in terms of wider debates regarding how to reconcile a desire for a so-called “value-free ideal” of science (Douglas, 2009, 2015) with an understanding of the role of personal subjectivities in human action.

Second, climate change can also make people feel uncomfortable because of the implications for individual behavior (Fudge & Peters, 2011; Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole, & Whitmarsh, 2007). Understanding how fossil fuel emissions relate to consumption patterns may make people feel guilty about their lifestyle choices, and so, to avoid feeling guilty (Cohen, 2001; Lorenzoni et al., 2007), it can be easier to debate the legitimacy of the science. Climate change can also make people feel uneasy because it reduces peoples’ perceived sense of control over nature (Longino, 2013).

Third, much work has been carried out examining the psychological basis underpinning debate about climate change. Much of this work has examined the concept of risk. A substantial strand of analysis has focused on identifying differences in risk perception and understanding how these relate to values and ways of valuing knowledge. Building on the work of Douglas and Wildavksy (1982), who developed the cultural theory of risk, and the theory of the psychometric paradigm developed by Slovic (2000), Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, and Braman (2011) suggest that differences in “cultural cognition” mean that people tend to form perceptions about risk that suit their own values. Kahan et al. (2011) identify two categories of risk perception:

  • Hierarchical-individualistic: People in this category tend to be more skeptical about environmental risks, because if they were widely accepted, they would negatively impact the freedom of industry and commerce, which are highly valued by this group.

  • Egalitarian-communitarian: People in this category are more likely to perceive that commerce and industry create social disparity, and therefore are more likely to think that such activities may create environmental risks and should be regulated.

Fourth, debate continues on climate change, because people tend to weigh and consider uncertainty and evidence in diverse ways. Rabinovich and Morton (2012) found that among those who believed that science was about ongoing debate, messages about climate change that communicated high levels of uncertainty were more persuasive than for those who saw science as a search for absolute truth. Knowing that uncertainty is valued differently is important because it has implications for the value people place on different pieces of evidence as a basis for policy decision making (Landström, Hauxwell-Baldwin, Lorenzoni, & Rogers-Hayden, 2015). This is particularly pertinent given the inherent uncertainties regarding climate change (as a complex system with feedback loops and interactions). The idea of confirmation bias is thus also relevant, whereby people are understood to value evidence differently based on their existing attitudes towards, and understanding of, a subject (Corner, Whitmarsh, & Xenias, 2012; Kraft, Lodge, & Taber, 2015; Lord, Ross, & Lepper, 1979)

In summary, all these differences in values, risk perception, and understanding of uncertainty mean that people come to value knowledge about climate change differently (Collins, 2014; Martin & Richards, 1995; Nowotny, Scott, & Gibbons, 2001). These different assessments of the claims about climate change, and the associated valuations of expertise and evidence, are important contributory factors to how people respond to the idea of climate change.

Incivility in the Climate Change Debate

The climate change debate has frequently been characterized as polarized, antagonistic, and uncivil for a number of reasons. This hostility has been particularly evident in English-speaking countries (Antilla, 2005; McCright & Dunlap, 2010, 2011; Young & Coutinho, 2013). Several factors account for the intensity of incivility.

First, the participants in the climate change debate are often framed as existing at either end of a polarized spectrum, engaged in a hostile battle or duel(Hoffman, 2011b; McKewon, 2012). The intense disagreement is most commonly presented as between those who believe that climate change (thus in essence, the findings of climate change science) is real, and those who do not. While many nuanced positions may exist between these points of view, the extremes have been found historically to get the most focus, particularly in the mainstream media (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2004). The media are sometimes accused of fanning the flames of debate in order to achieve greater viewer and readerships (Freudenburg & Muselli, 2010), although it is relevant to note that research design (i.e., design that focuses on two main opposing groups) has also been implicated in the perception of a polarized debate (Schuldt, Roh, & Schwarz, 2015).

Second, such antagonism is perhaps unsurprising given the high stakes of the climate change debate. Many elements of the debate, such as the role that government should play in regulating human-nature interactions (Kane, 2013), or the way in which policy decisions are influenced by scientific elites and which may leave outsiders feeling disenfranchised (Poortinga, Spence, Whitmarsh, Capstick, & Pidgeon, 2011), are touchstones for strong emotional responses. In addition, the implications of what is being decided now, and which is based, at least in part, on scientific evidence, will also have resonance for many generations into the future, upping the stakes of the debate.

Names and Labels in the Climate Debate

One of the most common forms of incivility and hostility in the climate change debate is the use of derogatory names, which people who hold opposing viewpoints use to refer to those with whom they disagree. While a certain element of debate focuses on the evidence brought forward by debate participants, the antagonism is frequently more personal and related to reducing the legitimacy or status of the other individual in question. These labels identify individuals at either ends of an extreme spectrum—either those who believein climate change (also known by labels such as warmists), or those who deny or are skeptical of various elements relating to climate change (usually climate change science, but not necessarily). There are rarely labels that describe those who are apathetic about climate change, or who have no fixed viewpoint. The section below explores the types of labels used in the climate debate in more detail.

The cause and effect relationship between the use of labels and the polarization evident in the debate is unclear. In other words, we do not know whether the use of such labels are causing polarization, or whether the political polarization of the climate change debate influences the subsequent use and polarized nature of these labels. The existence of a self-reinforcing feedback mechanism is also possible, with the use of labels reinforcing the polarization and vice versa (Howarth & Sharman, 2015).

As discussed at the beginning of this article, skepticism is a standard part of scientific inquiry. However, in the climate change debate, the term “climate skeptic” now more commonly refers to those who express uncertainty, dissonance, or cynicism about climate science or the need for climate policies. The first occurrence of this skeptic label in relation to climate change can be traced back to 1989, with the label greenhouse skeptic (Nerlich, 2014), which was overtaken a decade later by global warming skeptic as the most common term, up until 2005. Following this, climate change skeptic became the most commonly used label, followed closely by the label denier. A suggested reason behind climate change denial is that climate change is too worrisome a topic—if it were to be real, significant lifestyle and other changes would become necessary which may not be desirable (Weintrobe, 2013).

The use of the label skeptic has led many people to argue that scientific skepticism has now been given a bad name. Expressions of conflicting opinion in the scientific community, which would otherwise be regarded as a constructive form of skepticism, may be at risk if this automatically invites the ascription of the label climate skeptic and its associated connotations. Partly in response to this concern, and as a way to distinguish climate skepticism from organized scientific skepticism, a growing body of research has attempted to sub-categorize the idea of skepticism, or create new, alternative labels instead.

The earliest, and arguably most influential, was Stefan Rahmstorf’s (2005) identification of trend, attribution and impact skeptics: Trend skeptics are those who completely deny the physical existence of global warming. Attribution skeptics agree that climate change is occurring, but question its human influence or that increases in greenhouse gases are leading to temperature increases. Impact skeptics are similar to attribution skeptics in that they believe that climate change is occurring, but they question whether the consequences will be problematic. Some impact skeptics may also consider that the effects of climate change will be positive (Lahsen, 2008).

Since Rahmstorf’s work, many other ways of trying to understand and categorize the climate change debate have been developed (Howarth & Sharman, 2015). These include more detailed sub-categorizations of individuals (Doherty, 2009), climate discourses (Hobson & Niemeyer, 2012) and arguments (Capstick & Pidgeon, 2013), as well as the creation of new categories and labels, such as denier or contrarian (Kemp, Milne, & Reay, 2010; McCright, 2007; McCright & Dunlap, 2000). These contributions to the literature have all recognized that the climate change debate is complex, that context is important (Boykoff, 2015), and that even if people hold similar viewpoints, they may do so for very different reasons. These sub-categorizations of skepticism identified in the literature may be understood as falling into three broad categories, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Categories and Sub-categories of Skepticism





(Motivated) contrarianism

Combative confrontationists

Automatically assume a position in opposition to any major consensus

(Doherty, 2009)

Professional controversialists

Assume a contrary position in order to appear more significant in dominant discourse

(Doherty, 2009)

Conflicted naysayers

Think climate change is/may be occurring, but feel a sense of loyalty to their career industry (oil, coal, etc.), and therefore do not protest

(Doherty, 2009)

Policy-related skepticism

Mitigation skepticism

Question how effective mitigation policies will be

(Akter, Bennett, & Ward, 2012)

Global cooperation skepticism

Question how likely it is that other countries will reduce their emissions

(Akter, Bennett, & Ward, 2012)

Response skepticism

Referring to doubt about climate change policy

(Capstick & Pidgeon, 2013)

Unperturbed pragmatism

Despite the existence of climate change, unilateral action is futile

(Hobson & Niemeyer, 2012)

Knowledge-related skepticism

Epistemic skepticism

Skepticism about the physical existence of climate change

(Capstick & Pidgeon, 2013)

Emphatic negation

Categorical belief that climate change is not happening

(Hobson & Niemeyer, 2012)

Proactive uncertainty

Doubt that climate change is happening, therefore tendency to inaction or indifference to policy

(Hobson & Niemeyer, 2012)

Earnest acclimatization

Climate change is a natural phenomenon therefore humans should adapt, but not reduce GHG emissions

(Hobson & Niemeyer, 2012)

Non-committal consent

Fundamentally uncertain about the causes of climate change, therefore focus should be on adaptation rather than mitigation

(Hobson & Niemeyer, 2012)

Conversely, other labels such as denier or contrarian have also been employed (and have overlap with several of the above categories under “skepticism”). The reference to denial is intended to suggest the replacement of “rigorous and open-minded skepticism of science with the inflexible certainty of ideological commitment” (Specter in Washington & Cook, 2011, p. 3). Denial (and thus, “denier”) has been associated with a particular political viewpoint (McCright & Dunlap, 2000) or a reluctance to change position despite the identification of evidence to the contrary (Washington & Cook, 2011, p. 89). Several types of denial have been identified in the literature, ranging in degree from outright or literal denial to negation. (see Figure 1).

Influence of Labeling and Incivility on Climate Change CommunicationClick to view larger

Figure 1: Example of typologies of denial.

A contrarian is a person who opposes or rejects popular opinion. It is suggested that contrarians often have financial support from fossil fuel industry organizations or conservative think tanks, and thus have a motivated rationale for their vocal opposition; or that they have ideological motivations underpinning their viewpoints (O’Neill & Boykoff, 2010).

While the majority of work has been focused on so-called skeptics, deniers, or contrarians, some attention has been given to those at the other end of the polarized climate debate. This other group of labels includes alarmist, warmist, believer, or catastrophist (Risbey, 2008). These appear to be employed almost exclusively by those themselves labeled as skeptics, deniers, or contrarians to identify individuals who agree with mainstream climate science and/or the need for mitigation or adaptation of climate policy (with some labels such as catastrophist or warmist applied to those who are particularly vocal in their agreement). These labels are most often used to criticize individuals who do not evaluate knowledge claims on merit, but “believe” that such claims must be true. This may be for a number of reasons such as uncritical acceptance of scientific proclamations, or because they align with self-interested viewpoints such as the need for supra-national government structures.

Finally, there is a lack of labels to identify individuals who occupy the so-called middle ground between these extremes. Where these labels do exist, they tend to fall under the category of the mainstream, which appears to be largely limited to climate science, as public opinion regarding climate change is continuously evolving (Clements, 2012). As a result, no clear labels have been developed to identify this more fluid public grouping. This again helps to exacerbate the perception of the climate debate as one between polarized adversaries. It isn’t entirely clear whether these middle ground opinions have not been the focus of as much labeling attention, as it may be considered unnecessary to do so, or whether they are regarded as too varied to accurately categorize.

Labels, Incivility, and a Path Forward

The use of such labels contributes to intense incivility common to the climate change debate in a number of ways. But such conditions do not need to exist, and by recognizing the unfortunate impact of labels, a path forward beyond incivility can be defined.

First, labels can be used to mask the detail of particular points of view, such as the motivations behind why these opinions are formed in the first place. This is of particular concern given that the meaning of some labels may change over time. Consequently, what may once have been a term with a positive or neutral implication (such as the idea of skepticism within scientific practice) changes as it becomes associated with particular individuals who hold outsider views. For example, uncertainty is often not due to a lack of scientific understanding, but is a result of differing and competing scientific understandings, which are amplified by political, cultural, or institutional contexts. In addition, uncertainty, and the words we use to describe uncertainty, can mean different things to different people (Morgan & Mellon, 2011).

In the scientific enquiry, the term has come to be associated with ignorance. Uncertainties can therefore be deliberately highlighted by those seeking to cast doubt, which can further deepen opposition between those who conceive of science as a “search for absolute truth” and those who understand it more as an ongoing debate. It is also important to recognize that, even among experts, the definition of uncertainty can be difficult to pin down. For example, in their guidance note to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for the preparation of the third assessment report, Moss and Schneider (2000, p. 35) recognize that the term uncertainty “can range in implication from a lack of absolute sureness to such vagueness as to preclude anything more than informed guesses or speculation”—making it possible to easily use the concept as a negative term.

Second, labels can also be used in a pejorative and derogatory manner. Calling someone an “eco-loon” (Delingpole, 2012) is specifically intended to delegitimize their viewpoint, and calling someone an “alarmist” immediately reduces the credibility of the intended message. The label “denier” has also been alleged to have connections to Holocaust deniers (O’Neill & Boykoff, 2010).

Third, labels like denier or alarmist only identify those people at the polarized extremes of the debate, making it seem like these polarized extremes represent the majority of individuals (Jones, 2011). This is despite evidence suggesting that the majority of the public does not ascribe to either extreme (Whitmarsh, 2008). Framing the debate as binary and dualistic creates the aforementioned duel between warring factions. This makes it less and less likely that dialogue is possible with the “other,” because they have already been identified as both different, and more importantly, wrong.

Since polarization is related to the notion of group identity formation, labels help to create and preserve the identity of members of a group. This is important because it fosters an “environment where preservation of one’s ideology, identity, and the group one belongs to takes priority over constructive deliberation of knowledge or evidence: who one is becomes more important that what “one is arguing” (Howarth & Sharman, 2015, p. 246). Thus, in order to maintain the cohesion and identity of the group, psychological mechanisms, such as assimilation bias, whereby information that conflicts with a pre-existing point of view is discarded or discredited, are more likely to occur (Cormick, 2011; Whitmarsh, 2011).

Fourth, labels contribute towards the incivility in the debate by acting as fixed markers of opinions. People may feel the need to continue to debate the position that they have either self-designated, or been designated to by others. These positions can become hardened into stereotypes that frame the “negative other” as using so-called junk science to make their case (Koteyko, Jaspal, & Nerlich, 2012). This is in opposition to the “sound science” used by the party who thinks they are in the right (McGarity, 2003–2004). This can lead to debates becoming less and less (ostensibly) about evidence (as that may conflict with the pre-existing position), and more about more about explicitly attacking the credibility and status of any opponents.

Finally, the blanket nature of the labels used in the climate debate, and their inability to capture the nuance and complexity of individual peoples’ positions, values, and worldviews, also serves to demonize individual debate participants. Max Boykoff (2013, p. 13) concisely argues that the “treatment of individuals through denigrating monikers does little to illuminate the contours of their arguments; it actually has the opposite obfuscating effect in the public sphere.” Previous research conducted, aiming to explore motivations of climate scientists and climate skeptics who actively participate in the debate, found that understanding overlaps in their motivations may in fact enable more constructive dialogue on the issue (Sharman & Howarth, 2016). Promoting self-reflexivity as well as identifying and emphasizing commonalities (even among explicit rather than “true” underlying motivations) were argued to provide fruitful avenues for conflict resolution.

While a common public perception is that of a single debate where climate scientists are representatives of scientific truth, and skeptical voices are the dominant challengers, there is a growing understanding of a more multi-layered reality to the divide over climate change that can be understood through the analysis of the potential misalignment of actors and their roles in public debate.

Critically, identifying and emphasizing overlaps in opinions, views, values, and beliefs may defuse the antagonism evident in the debate. Hostile arguments may reduce if participants are reminded of commonalities, such as a mutual love of enquiry and scientific understanding, or of agreement on the antagonistic and potentially off-putting nature of the current climate debate (Sharman & Howarth, 2016). This could produce a constructive and more civil debate on climate change, with the use of labeling as categorizations of opinions, and not ways in which to isolate or exclude participants in the debate.


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