Labouring with Labels

by | Mar 4, 2009

It’s often hard to have a discussion about the climate change debate without recourse to language about ‘sides’.

We are certainly not the only ones to have argued that the conventional portrayal of the debate as a polarised one between warmers/alarmists and sceptics/deniers is counter-productive. Not only does it too easily translate into a battle between good and evil, but it is a misleading description of climate change debates.

Moreover, while such debates are principally about what to do – the politics – the existing categories relate to what is believed about the material reality – ‘the science’. For instance you could attract the label ‘denier’ (and many do) by arguing that there’s no urgent need for ‘drastic action’ to avoid climate change in spite of holding that CO2 is influencing the climate, and will cause problems, and that it would be a good idea to cut emissions in the longer term.

The polarisation of the political debate using scientific terms is an impediment to understanding the actual arguments being made. An individual’s views on the science aren’t always sufficient to explain the ‘side’ he ends up on, or which label is applied to him. To label someone in a way that relates to ‘science’ when their views are essentially political is like determining what football team someone supports according to how they dance. It might work in some more extreme cases if you’re armed with some cultural knowledge, but broadly speaking, it’s just silly.

How then, should we sensibly identify ‘sides’ in the debate? We think we have the germ of an answer.

It seems to us that there are two categories of people – the interested and the uninterested. The uninterested are not engaged with the debate. The interested are.

Then there are those who believe that what emerges from climate science constitutes moral imperatives that demand a special form of politics. This contrasts with those who may or may not recognise climate change as a problem, but who do not recognise the need for such special ‘eco’ politics. Their arguments are categorised as ‘orthodox’ and ‘unorthodox’ respectively.

These two opposing categories can be joined up:

Somebody for whom climate change is central to their political perspective, and actively engages with the debate. Somebody who does not engage with or challenge the debate but takes at face value the terms presented by politicians, the media, and instructions to recycle, etc.
Unorthodox Somebody who does not believe that environmental problems demand a special form of politics, and who engages with the debate. Somebody who does not engage with or challenge the debate, and who doesn’t pay much attention to what environmentalists tell them to do.

We’ve included people who are not ‘in’ the debate as such, because we think that a lot of the debate is about them. For instance, how to get people in the Uninterested-Unorthodox category (which includes the vast majority of the human race) to change their lifestyles, is a major concern of those in the Interested-Orthodox category.

Any thoughts?


  1. Luis Dias

    You present a 2 dimensional table. I was thinking more of a multi-dimensional table. These are, of course, the extremes of such dimensions.

    Dimension 1. The Interested and the Uninterested.

    Dimension 2. Catastrophical AGW believers, passing through AGW believers (but not catastrophical) and AGW deniers.

    Dimension 3. Political believers and political deniers (that is, the ones who believe that it is economically feasible to curb down CO2 and the ones who see it as humanity suicide or take Kyoto for instance to be irrelevant and too expensive)

    Dimension 4. Right and Left. This because there is a lot of noise that comes from the Right (it’s all a big government conspiracy), and a lot of noise that comes from the Left (it’s all an oil industry conspiracy), which contributes nothing to the debate, but it exists, and pollutes it, so it should be mentioned.

    Just sayin.

  2. Barry

    I agree, this article presents the case as a dichotomy, something of an unsupportable position, I would suggest.

    Here’s another (excessively simple) model:

    On one extreme you have the misanthropists utilizing the enhanced greenhouse hypothesis in an attempt to implement the Maurice Strong-expressed: “Isn’t the only hope for the planet that the industrialised civilizations collapse? Isn’t it our responsibility to bring that about?” (Maurice Strong, head of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and Executive Officer for Reform in the Office of the Secretary General of the United Nations).

    On the other extreme you have the humanists who view human welfare as paramount and human ingenuity as boundless, so even if real global temperature effects are completely irrelevant.

    At all points in between you have varying amounts of understanding and belief, with “sheeple” right in the middle being tugged and swayed by the most strident (or most recent) claims.

    How do you see that as a simple dichotomy?

    How do I see it?

    Simple, people affect their environment but I don’t view that as necessarily bad or even undesirable.

  3. Lee Jones

    The danger in trying to classify thought in this way is that, as Heartfield points out in ‘Green Capitalism’, environmentalism is not a coherent ideology but a ragbag of often contradictory prejudices and impulses.

  4. Editors

    Luis, on your 2nd dimension, we didn’t think that catastrophism was a decisive category as such. Granted that it’s a problem, but it is covered by our ‘orthodox/unorthodox’ categories. The point is how the catastrophism turns into ethics or politics. It is feasible (though perhaps unlikely) that someone could be a catastrophist, but not think that it demanded special eco-politics. In which case, we can have a discussion with such a catastrophist on different terms. The catastrophist who believes that politics needs to be prefixed by ‘eco’ demands a very different debate.

    On your 3rd dimension – political beleivers/deniers. A discussion about the effectiveness or outcome of a particular policy can happen within either of or between the ‘interested’ categories. It is often the case that the old warmer/denier categories split people who agree with each other on a certain issue. Plenty of climate scientists who argue that action is necessary also believe that Kyoto was a failure from the start. Others believe that carbon trading is a grave mistake. The point is that the number of people who uncritically commit themselves to any policy as long as it intends mitigate climate change are few and far (and fewer and farther) between. We think that our ‘orthodox/unorthodox’ categories work for your dimension here; because one can hold the view that we ought to act to reduce CO2, but again, that it doesn’t require special forms of politics or supra-national institutions to govern the environmental behaviour of states.

    On the 4th dimension – right and left. Of course people bring these views to the debate. But we didn’t think they were decisive. Derek Wall of the UK Green Party, for instance, argues for an ‘eco-socialism’. Elsewhere we’ve discussed George Monbiot’s argument with someone making the case that only anarcho-syndicalism can save the planet. The UK conservatives have made localism a big part of their environmental agenda. The centrality of environmentalism to these groups’ ideas speaks most loudly about the collapse of the left/right categories. Wall’s socialism needs to be prefixed by ‘eco’. The Tories can’t make a case for conservatism outside of the context of environmental sustainability. The anarcho-syndicalist cannot appeal for comrades to take up class war without invoking the spectre of ecological collapse. So do left and right really influence the debate, or are they now powerless to? We think they are powerless. In many respects, this accounts for environmentalism’s ascendancy.

    You are right to say that the categories are incomplete. But our intention was not to provide an exhaustive taxonomy of the debate and its players, but to sketch out what we felt were the decisive lines across which arguments are made. We think people who believe that ‘climate change is real and is happening and is a problem’ can have more in common with someone who doesn’t, but that the false categories that divide the political argument according to matters of scientific ‘belief’ distort the debate. We (us, the Editors) can agree with people who think that climate change is real, but we can’t agree with people who put the environment at the centre of their political ideas.

    Barry – ‘, this article presents the case as a dichotomy, something of an unsupportable position, I would suggest’.

    The characterisation of the debate is necessarily a dichotomy, or there wouldn’t be a debate. We felt that the fundamental difference was not ‘is the planet heating up due to our emissions’ but how people felt about whether this demanded special forms of politics.

    Lee – ‘environmentalism is not a coherent ideology but a ragbag of often contradictory prejudices and impulses’

    We’re not attempting to characterise environmentalism here, but the debate. We make the same argument as James Heartfield (though us no way near as well as him) that environmentalism is indeed a rag-bag. But there are patterns within the arguments made by people within that group. Some make eco-socialist arguments; others make arguments about the market delivering the solution. But both prefix their political arguments with ‘eco’ in some sense.

    For too long, people have been influenced by the idea that scientific opinion characterises the political debate. And environmentalists have hidden their political and ethical ideas behind ‘the science’. Both of these things need to be challenged.

  5. Stevo

    By “the debate” do you mean the debate that you in particular are trying to have? There are lots of debates, across lots of different lines. Some of them, you’ve discouraged people debating here in the past. (The left/right correlation, for example.) Others wouldn’t be relevant to the sort of things you talk about here. (Like the heavily scientific ones, for example.) But the argument between catastrophic and beneficial warming, or that between scepticism and denial (and of what), can be just as fundamental.

    It is one of the characteristics of politics to try to simplify issues down to bold dichotomies, the art being to draw the boundaries to your rhetorical advantage. It’s one of the reasons why politics makes such a mess of things so often. Professional politicians, though, are not blind to the fact that they’re doing it. Is there a particular reason why you think highlighting the (anti-)eco-activist vs eco-uninvolved distinction is helpful? Do the people who are not interested in the debate constitute a “side”? Assuming we accept the analysis, what do you propose to do with it?

    If your aim is not so much to understand which labels are important but to actually eliminate some of the labels, I don’t think it will succeed. The labels are generally determined by the content and structure of the wider debate, not just the one in these pages. One cannot unite disparate positions by merging or erasing their labels.

    I don’t think that’s what you intended, but I’m not sure what you did intend. The way to oppose polarisation is to shatter the simplistic categories into their fragments and continua, not to replace them all with yet another polarity.

  6. Editors

    Interesting. Yes, there are lots of debates to be had. And yes, we are more interested in some than others. We tend to be less interested in the ‘heavily scientific’ debates that you refer to, for example. That’s because our intention is to reclaim the politics in these debates. As we’ve said many times, political arguments are hidden behind ‘scientific’ ones. And the warmer-denier polarisation plays to that.

    The ‘denier’ label dominates discussions about climate change and what to do about it. To the extent that scientists who raise objections to ‘the consensus’ also get labelled as such. It is a label that has been imposed on dissenters – scientific and political alike – by the environmental orthodoxy. And it’s a label that serves to close down wider debates and scientific scrutiny.

    We think our taxonomy is more useful in that it does not conflate the political and the scientific. Indeed, a randomly selected scientist – even a climate scientist – might sit in any one of our four categories. Our taxonomy is not about the science, but about politics.

    We are not trying to unite disparate positions, merely to suggest that existing disparate positions are not described by conventional labels, and that we think our framework permits a better understanding of those positions. As for what we propose to do with it, we hadn’t got that far. It was a passing thought that we tossed out there for discussion.

    We’re not sure where you’ve got the idea that we’ve discouraged any debates here. We’ve engaged fully with the Left-Right issue you mention and with commenters who disagree with us. Disagreement is surely very different to discouragement.

  7. Alex Cull

    I’d agree more or less with other commenters, e.g., Luis and Stevo, who have highlighted the sheer complexity and multi-dimensionality of this debate. I’d also emphasise the psychological axis – fear and pessimism (“We’re trashing the planet!”) vs self-confidence and optimism. But I think this is a brave initial attempt to make some sense of it all.

    The only other thing I’d add is wonder at the way the debate has become so polarised. Being a quiet and in many ways conventional sort of person, it has been a bit of a shock to be called an “evil denier” on several occasions. Strange times we live in.

  8. Editors

    Alex, the framework we have offered does not rule out any multi-dimensionality. Debate can still happen within and between categories. Fear and pessimism can still operate within the categories if you want it to. We just think that it is not as decisive. We’re more interested in ‘the politics of fear’ than the fear experienced by people, because what is ultimately important to the political debate is not what is experienced as such, but how that experience is articulated as argument. If you really want to put it somewhere, fear is less likely to be expressed within the interested-Orthodox category than within the Interested-Orthodox.

    Fear and the politics of fear doubtless both relate to each other in many and subtle ways, but the chicken and egg debate must rest, we think, on the conclusion that the politics is prior. To look at catastrophic environmentalism as the aggregate of widespread but spontaneous feelings is to put the debate on its head. Eco-catastrophism makes people pessimistic because it is so bloody gloomy, as well as gives an opportunity to articulate feelings of pessimism. But pessimism does not necessarily make eco-catastrophism happen. By itself, pessimism is unarticulated… Why is a person pessimistic? Is it because of a painful childhood experience? Is it because of some chemical imbalance in their brain? Is it because their partner no longer loves them? Or is it because they heard Mark Lynas whinging about the end of the world on the TV? Perhaps they lost their job, and the Greens capture their sense of futility about contemporary capitalist society. Feelings themselves are just too broad. We can’t possibly hope to make sense of all the feelings in the world in one debate. So what we’ve said here is that these categories are better than the old lines that were drawn according to scientific opinion.

    On people calling you a ‘denier’… We’ve argued previously that the anger that Interested-Unorthodox arguments (e.g. climate-scepticism, but not exclusively) attracts in the form of claims about ‘denial’ from the likes of Monbiot are symptomatic of an inability to articulate or develop a coherent, lasting, perspective on the world. In this sense, in the actual moment of a debate, we agree that fear – very much existential – is playing out. But what we argue is that this is expressed as an attempt to find orientation by making ‘nature’ – rather than human values – central to an outlook.

  9. geoff chambers

    What makes an analysis of this kind interesting is the possibility of dynamic interpretation – of seeing how the contents of your boxes may change over time.

    For instance, there’s an obvious ebb and flow between the interested / uninterested categories due to the electoral process. On the one hand – the chattering classes, with an opinion on everything at any time; on the other, the great unwashed, the silent majority, who only engage in political debate when it’s useful, i.e. when they are allowed to vote.

    (I deliberately used disparaging terms to point up how your “objective” definitions can be a source of embarrassment to analysts on the left. It’s permissible to make ironic self-critical comments about the chattering classes; its much rarer to find comment on the apathetic masses. Spiked does a useful job here of sticking up for the rights of ordinary people to not be involved. Its a difficult thing to do without sounding condescending.

    The problem with your categories seems to me to be with the definition of “orthodox” and “unorthodox”, since the “orthodox + interested” category seems to me to be practically synonymous with the Green Party, leaving the “unorthodox + interested” category as everyone else involved in politics. Interesting, though.


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