Have you tried using your favourite search engine recently to locate the top climate scepticism websites? You’d think it was easy, wouldn’t you? Just type ‘climate sceptic’ and press return. After all, these things are just using word search algorithms, are they not? Except, words are not just a string of letters; they have meaning. And these search algorithms seem to be very big on meaning. So you may ask for ‘climate sceptic’ but what you are rewarded with is a long list of sites telling you all you need to know about the climate change denier. You know the sort of thing: Where do they come from? Who funds them? How to avoid them like the plague, etc.
Why should this be, I hear you ask. Well, it’s because climate change deniers are deemed to exist, but climate change sceptics are just another of those myths, like unicorns and mermaids. What self-respecting search engine is going to let you make the basic mistake of searching for something that doesn’t exist?
But where does your search engine get this idea that ‘climate sceptic’ must be a typing error? Upon what basis is it able to autocorrect you? Maybe, if this is a semantic issue, we should start by looking at the dictionary and what it has to say on the matter. In fact, let us look at a number of dictionaries, just so we get a broad feel for what we are dealing with.
You will be as you’re told
As soon as one starts looking at dictionaries, the problem immediately becomes apparent. The vast majority simply don’t contain definitions for the term ‘climate change sceptic’, and yet they can find room for ‘climate change denier’. If search engines are looking at dictionary-defined words or phrases to help them validate ‘climate change sceptic’ as a search string1, then they are faced with either returning the error message, ‘the dictionary says no’, or they can substitute a near-miss entry that is proximate to the missing string – which, strangely enough, always seems to be ‘climate change denier’. Like it or not, that is the approved term. That is the term that’s used in the English language nowadays – or it is if one believes that dictionaries have anything to do with language definition.
So, now we need to look at precisely what the dictionaries say about ‘climate change denier’. Because, let’s face up to it, lacking any defined alternative, that is what you must be. And, whilst we’re at it, let’s make full use of these dictionaries, because they don’t just define a word or phrase – for full semantic clout they give examples illustrating how they should be used in a sentence. Let us start our little investigation by looking at the dictionary that Google uses to define its terms.
Lexico is an online dictionary for English and Spanish definitions that is the brainchild of the Oxford University Press.2 It is also the one that comes up with the goods every time you ask Google for a definition. In keeping with virtually all online dictionaries, it does not have an entry for “Climate change sceptic’, but it defines ‘Climate denier’ thus:
“A person who rejects the proposition that climate change caused by human activity is occurring.”
And if you were wondering what a typical reference to such a rare and delusional creature might look like, they suggest the following example:
“He attacked climate deniers for bamboozling the public.”
Already, this isn’t looking terribly good. And things get even worse when you discover that this particular dictionary has little respect for the company you are keeping. Here is what it says about ‘Denier’:
“A person who denies something, especially someone who refuses to admit the truth of a concept or proposition that is supported by the majority of scientific or historical evidence.”
And here’s me thinking that truth required more than just a majority of evidence. Anyway, here are some of their example sentences for your delight and entertainment:
“For more than a decade now, the climate change deniers have been in retreat humbled by the thumping weight of scientific evidence against them.”
“Holocaust deniers intentionally blur the distinction between the First Amendment right to speak freely, without government restraint, and the right to publicity, an audience, and scholarly consideration.”
“Intelligent Design theorists and deniers of global warming may very well be phonies and scoundrels, but no one is going to debunk them in the classic sense.”
“Before you ask, I make distinctions among appearing on a scheduled radio program on which evolution deniers may also appear, engaging in a formal debate with evolution deniers, and actively collaborating with them.”
And, in case this dictionary’s main point has somehow managed to escape you, Lexico finishes with:
“There is no difference between them and all kinds of deniers.”
So I think it is fair to say that Lexico is unimpressed. We are not climate change sceptics, and anyone who uses this dictionary to learn about us will be told that we are phonies and scoundrels who, in keeping with all kinds of deniers, are bamboozling the public and have no right to publicity, an audience or scholarly consideration.
I demand a second opinion.
Again, there is no definition for ‘Climate change sceptic’, but there is this for ‘Climate denier’:
“A person who does not accept that climate change is happening, or does not accept that it is caused by human activity such as burning fossil fuels.”
This seems just as unsuitable as a description of your average Cliscep reader as the definition provided by Lexico. But wait, because you still have the example usages to consider:
“In her arguments against protecting the polar bear, she referenced the work of several high profile climate deniers.”
Ah that’s us! It’s well known that we all hate polar bears here at Cliscep. We are also the bastards that campaigned against ending lung cancer, don’t you know. It’s all there in that Oreskes book.
But then a teasing question is asked, courtesy of another example sentence:
“Should climate deniers be banned from expressing their opinions, on the grounds that they’re dangerously misinformed?”
Well, at least they are only asking the question, unlike Lexico. Even so, the very fact that ‘climate change sceptic’ is already banned from the Cambridge English dictionary seems to suggest that the question was rhetorical.
Still nothing for ‘Climate change sceptic’ but we do have ‘Climate denial’:
“The refusal to accept the existence or validity of climate change.”
Now I’m starting to get a little confused. Although the dictionaries appear to agree regarding the non-existence of climate change scepticism, they don’t seem to be able to agree upon the definition of climate change’s denial. The Dictionary.com definition seems particularly strange, since it alludes to an individual who doesn’t even think that climate can change. And when is climate change ever invalid? Fortunately, their example sentence suggests a way forward out of this particularly sloppy semantic mess:
“She has railed against the climate denial of her predecessor.”
The Macmillan dictionary seems to have gone down the same road as Dictionary.com. Nothing for ‘Climate change sceptic’, but this for ‘Climate denial’:
“A refusal to accept the reality of climate change.”
This definition rather raises the question as to what the reality of climate change is supposed to be. However, the picture becomes clearer when one consults the dictionary’s definition for ‘Climate change”:
“The changes that are thought to be affecting the world’s weather so that it is becoming warmer.”
So it turns out that Macmillan meant: ‘A refusal to accept the consensus thinking regarding what is affecting the world’s weather’.
So why didn’t they say that?
Oh, and before I forget, there is the example sentence to reflect upon:
“Germany’s rightwing populists are embracing climate change denial as the latest topic with which to boost their electoral support.”
I am beginning to lose the will to live, but I will soldier on if you’re prepared to stay by my side.
Nothing, of course, for ‘Climate Change sceptic’, and this for ‘Climate change denier’:
“One who denies that changes in the Earth’s climate or weather patterns are caused by human activity.”
That’s an interesting reference to ‘weather patterns’ there. I don’t suppose they would like to expand upon what they mean by a weather pattern, as opposed to a climate. Maybe in the next edition. In the meantime, we are offered no example sentence to further enlighten. That’s a shame, because I was just beginning to enjoy them. Instead, there is the statistic that ‘Climate change denier’ is in the top 26% for ‘luck-up popularity’. That can’t be all down to me can it?
As with all of the dictionaries so far, there is no room here for a definition of ‘Climate change sceptic’. Which is doubly annoying, because they found room for both ‘Climate change denial’ and ‘Climate denial’. Worse still, they have identical definitions:
“The fact of refusing to accept that climate change is happening and is caused by human behaviour.”
Note that it is the fact of refusing, rather than the act of refusing. Let us not doubt that such acts exist. Or is the point here that faction speaks louder than words?
Anyway, because there are two entries, we get to enjoy two example sentences:
“The event shed light on climate denial tactics by big polluters.”
“Climate change denial and the promotion of fossil fuels have eroded the world’s ability to hold back global warming.”
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary is yet another product from the Oxford University Press. They say of themselves:
“We share the University’s uncompromising standards, defining qualities, and belief in the transformative power of education to inspire progress and realize human potential.”
Fittingly enough, on the day I consulted their dictionary (May 25th), the word of the day was ‘influence’.
At long last we come to a dictionary that has a definition for ‘Climate sceptic’, though I wouldn’t get too excited. According to Wiktionary, a climate sceptic is:
“A person who does not believe climate change is happening or does not believe it is caused by human activity.”
Isn’t that what all the other dictionaries were calling a climate change denier? Perhaps the distinction will become clearer when we consult the same dictionary’s definition for ‘Climate denier’:
“Someone who denies that global climate change is real or, if real, that it is due to human activities.”
Sceptic? Denier? Who cares? As far as Wiktionary is concerned, they are the same thing.
No example sentences are offered, so I suppose we must be thankful for small mercies.
Apart from Wiktionary, the Collins English Dictionary is the only one I could find that recognised the existence of the lesser spotted climate change sceptic. Only this time we have something worth the printer’s ink:
“A climate sceptic is someone who does not believe that changes in the earth’s climate risk environmental catastrophe.”
All I can say is, thank f**k for the Collins English. They even provide a half decent example sentence:
“The climate sceptics demonise the greens as wanting to wreck the economy.”
Climate scepticism is a bit more complicated than that, but I have to say that Collins English are at least taking the subject seriously.
And it gets even better. Collins does not have an entry for ‘Climate denier’. Furthermore, ‘Climate denial’ is only listed as a ‘New word suggestion’, with the ‘Approval Status’ of ‘Pending Investigation’.
O joy, O rapture.
This doesn’t have an entry for either ‘Climate change sceptic’ or ‘Climate change denier’. But I just thought you’d like to see what our children’s dictionaries are telling the youngsters about how climates can change. This is the Wordsmyth definition of ‘Climate change’:
“A change in global and regional climate patterns attributed to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”
Am I being pedantic in pointing out that this is a common usage but not a strictly accurate one? Have we really reached a point of understanding that rules out even the existence of natural climate change? What was it Greta said? You are never too small to be brainwashed.
The final word
I would like to suggest that the first signs that you may be losing the ideological battle is when you can’t find your ideology in the dictionary. I am quite sure that I do exist, but I only have my word for it, because the dictionary certainly doesn’t have one! Or, at least, the word that they do have is one that I simply don’t recognise. It seems the ultimate straw man, used by the dictionaries to expunge sensible debate and replace it with smart arse vitriol that is unbecoming of a scholarly document intended to enrich and exalt the mother tongue. He who owns the dictionary owns the language by which we debate, and all the signs are that the dictionaries have joined the dark side. If it were not for the Collins English Dictionary I would be giving up now. However, I just wonder how long it will be before they too get the knock on the door from the word police. It surely can only be a matter of time.
 I’m not actually that IT ignorant. I know it isn’t as simple as a dumb algorithm just looking it up in a dictionary. I’m guessing these search engine companies have teams of people employing a vast array of lexical weaponry to ensure that the English language serves their purpose, and their purpose only.
 Unfortunately, the OED is behind a paywall and so I cannot say what their definitions are. However, given that they share a publishing house with Lexico and the Oxford Advanced Learner’s, I can hazard a guess.