Climate Change or Global Warming? Skeptic or Denier?

According to the New York Times on February 5, "The Trump administration plans to withdraw its nomination of Kathleen Hartnett White, a climate change skeptic, to lead the Council on Environmental Quality, a White House official said."

What is a "climate change skeptic" anyway? The phrase conflates two inappropriate terms into a meaningless pair.

The dictionary definition of skeptic is one who maintains "an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object." Thus taken literally, a climate change skeptic is someone who doubts that the climate has changed or is changing. But that is clearly not what Ms. White, or any global warming denier, believes. Indeed, the most common response from them is that "The climate is always changing," with its implication that any modern climate change is natural. So how did we get to "climate change skeptic?"

First, it has been common in the media to call those who do not accept man-made global warming, "skeptics." This began years ago when there was less evidence and because "denier" seemed an insult to people who perhaps merely held a different opinion about a matter of science that was not yet settled. It was part of a misguided effort by the media to be "fair and balanced" and present two sides even when there was only one side.

Honest skepticism is a tenet of science, one of the essential characteristics of a scientist. Scientists need to be cautious, reserving judgment until they fully corroborate new claims. But when evidence for a theory becomes strong enough, greatly outweighing any contrary evidence, an honest skeptic is honor bound to accept the theory, at least provisionally.

But sometimes an individual or group will not accept a theory no matter how much evidence supports it. This is clearly the case with the global warming deniers. As the evidence for man-made global warming has mounted and mounted, I cannot think of a single prominent so-called "skeptic" who has ever changed their minds.To call these people "skeptics" is to misuse a term of honor and imply that there is still a debate over whether man-made global warming is true. There is not.

These people have never changed their minds and will not until the invading seas are up to their necks and maybe not even then. That is denial.

Would you call someone a Holocaust skeptic?

Second, why "climate change" and not "global warming"? A number of years ago, in a presentation to Republican clients, consultant Frank Luntz urged his audience to use the phrase "climate change" which he said "is less frightening than global warming." As one participant at his focus group noted, "climate change 'sounds like you're going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale."' While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge." After that, the George W. Bush administration and others took Luntz's advice and switched to "climate change." We have now reached a point at which climate scientists are accused of making this change to confuse the public. It's enough to make your head explode.

Here is a chart showing how the usage changed.

Just as "skeptic" is the wrong term, so "climate change" is wrong. Yes, as we geologists know, Earth's climate is always changing. But it waxes and wanes on a timescale of hundreds of thousands or millions of years, not in less than two centuries. A change on that timescale has only happened after a near-instantaneous catastrophe like the meteorite impact that killed the dinosaurs. And that was 65 million years ago.

Also, we are not concerned with climate change in general, say cooling and a new Ice Age. Rather we are concerned because the climate is changing in a specific and dangerous direction: it is warming and the only known explanation is human activity. Why not call it what it is rather than use a euphemism?

If you have a known heart problem, which would you rather have your cardiologist tell you: "You have blockage in your main arteries and unless you have immediate heart surgery, your mortality is 50% in two years." Or, "We detect some changes in your heart and arteries but since these are always changing, we need to wait to do anything about them until we have absolute proof."