Climate denial or climate doubt - what's in a name?

Environmental campaigners established the phrase "climate change denier" as a de facto description of anyone who disagreed with their policies, but AP has now scrapped the term from its style guide.

Australia's Lake Hume parched by drought. Image via Tim J Keegan / Flickr; used under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license. Cropped from original

Climate change denier is a very interesting and emotive term that has come under tremendous scrutiny in the past few months, culminating in September when The Associated Press dropped it from its style guide.

Whoever first came up with the phrase has seen it become part of the mainstream language used around climate change and environmental issues. It has become a weapon to throw at people and a shorthand term for anyone who opposes the environmental lobby.

I don’t want to get into the specifics of the arguments on both sides of the debate because that is not the purpose of this piece – suffice to say there is little scientific doubt about the impact of global warming and tremendous changes it is bringing around the globe.

But I do want to analyze the issue in the context of communications, branding, and reputation.

In September, noted global style guide guru AP changed its policy on the term "climate change deniers" – in fact it dropped it, as well as "climate change skeptics."

The bureau now advises journalists to use terms such as "climate change doubters" or "those who reject mainstream climate science" to describe people who don’t accept climate science or dispute the world is warming from man-made forces.

AP provides two reasons for making the change. First, it says true skeptics, who "debunk mysticism, ESP and other pseudoscience," complain non-scientists who reject mainstream climate science have usurped the phrase "skeptic." Second, those who reject climate science say the phrase denier has "the pejorative ring of Holocaust denier."

AP also seems to accept in its ruling on the issue that the reality of climate change is difficult to question: "Though some public officials and laymen and only a few climate scientists disagree, the world’s scientific organizations say that the world’s climate is changing because of the buildup of heat-trapping gases, especially carbon dioxide, from the burning of coal, oil and gas."

So how does this affect business and branding, and where are the lines drawn when it comes to which industries and clients agencies should work with?

Last month, The White House announced new commitments from companies across the US economy that are joining the American Business Act on Climate Pledge - 81 companies signed the pledge to demonstrate support for "action on climate change and the conclusion of a climate change agreement in Paris that takes a strong step forward toward a low-carbon, sustainable future."

The White House statement noted that "Climate change is a global challenge that demands a global response, and President Obama is committed to leading the fight."

The companies involved include Johnson & Johnson, Nike, AT&T, Coca-Cola, Bank of America, Procter & Gamble, Apple, Cargill, American Express, and a number of energy companies, including Berkshire Hathaway Energy and PG&E, though notably not Chevron and Exxon.

Edelman is one high-profile PR firm that has come under significant fire in recent years for its policies on working with clients campaigners say are associated with views that reject mainstream climate science (actually, they call them "climate change deniers," but I’m trying to stick to the AP’s new guidance.)

This culminated in September with the agency telling The Guardian it had decided to cut ties with groups that produce coal or work to counter climate-change action.

This was signposted last August, when CEO Richard Edelman wrote in his blog that he "recognizes the reality of climate change and accepts the science behind the claim" and that Edelman does "not accept clients that seek to deny climate change."

Edelman does still work with energy companies such as Shell, with which it has a longstanding relationship, and it positions its role with clients in the energy sector as being willing to engage and have a rational conversation, to listen to people, and engage those who are willing to participate in constructive debate.

As has been noted before in this blog, the role of the PR pro is to be an advocate, not a surrogate, and that needs to be born in mind when firms decide which clients to work with, underpinned by some strict underlying principles.

In the real world, there are few issues that are purely black or white, reality exists in shades of gray. Unfortunately, in this harsh world of 24-hour social media scrutiny and bombardment, very few debates play out like this.

People now tend to deal in poorly researched "absolutes" and instant opinions – and the likes of Donald Trump are playing into that culture (look at this week’s facile debate about Starbucks’ cups for example.)

It is within this context that the modern PR pro must operate and navigate, often quickly and always effectively. And climate change is one of the most complex of those areas.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference takes place in Paris from November 30 – you can be sure there will be much more debate about these issues and the thorny topic of climate change denial in the coming weeks.

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