Dictionary.com recently named “misinformation” the word of the year for 2018. Not a bad choice, to be sure. But the language gurus should have given some serious consideration to another word as well: denialism.
Even if it’s not the word of the year, denialism is certainly a word for our times. It lies at the center of the debate over climate change, an issue that’s finally climbing to the top of our national consciousness.
Incredibly, a significant number of people, including our president, simply deny that climate change is a problem. And this is despite stark warnings from scientists, who, we definitely should assume, know what the heck they’re talking about.
And make no mistake, the warnings are grim. In October, a United Nations panel reported that by 2040, atmospheric warming caused by emissions will spell more wildfires, coastal flooding, droughts, food shortages and poverty. In November, a U.S. government panel reported that by the end of the century, rising global temperatures will wreak havoc on the economy — affecting farms, coastlines, the fishing industry and people’s health.
It’s all a hoax?
Let’s face reality. We only get one planet.
Denial, according to the Mayo Clinic, is “a coping mechanism that gives you time to adjust to distressing situations — but staying in denial can interfere with treatment or your ability to tackle challenges.”
When it comes to climate change, we have to tackle this challenge.
This denialism dates back to the late 1980s, when then-Sen. Al Gore called a series of hearings on the warming problem. The fossil fuel industry countered with a coordinated effort to sow doubt. It included think tanks, lobbying blitzes, ads and op-eds, and even went so far as to offer scientists cash to pen articles questioning the new science, according to a 2007 Newsweek article titled “The Truth About Denial.”
If there’s any good news to be gleaned today, it’s that climate change is getting more centerpiece treatment in the news. Stories are routinely the lead on sites for major news outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, and they get significant airtime on television news.
Some outlets can do better — namely cable news, which still slots too many climate change stories behind news of the latest presidential tweet or special counsel development. And then there’s Fox News. Let’s hope it has learned a little something and doesn’t respond to the first blizzard of 2019 with a story questioning the very existence of climate change, as it has done before.
But has Fox News learned anything? Specifically, the difference between long-term climate patterns and today’s weather? Maybe not, because much of its fan base is still in denial.
President Donald Trump, leader of the fan base, has emerged as the world’s leading denier. He said point-blank that he doesn’t believe the November report from his own government, and the businessman-turned-television-star-turned-politician has issued some bizarro statements about his “natural instinct” for science. After all, his uncle was a science professor.
Same goes for Pennsylvania’s former senator, Rick Santorum, now a CNN talking head. He floated the notion on air that scientists inflate the problem to keep research funding flowing and hold onto their jobs. Is it any wonder Santorum lost that U.S. Senate seat?
Not only should climate change be a top news story, one that viewers pay close attention to, but it should be one of the first things we see when we click on the policy section of every politician’s website. It should be a leading question in polls and presidential debates. It should worry us as much as — if not more than — terrorism, illegal immigration, Russian interference and North Korea’s nuclear program.
“It’s time to sound the planetary alarm,” wrote Max Boot, a former climate change skeptic, in The Washington Post last month.
For sure, the alarm needs to be turned up louder on the right.
Writing in the New York Daily News recently, conservative pundit S.E. Cupp sought to talk some sense into her right-leaning readers. It is “willfully ignorant and negligent,” she wrote, to ignore the scientific warnings that the planet is warming due largely to human activity.
And then she turned up the volume: “But for those who would continue to parrot the president’s dim-witted, Fox-friendly sound bite that global warming is a ‘hoax,’ or intentionally confuse weather and climate while pointing to a mound of snow in your backyard, you’re now officially part of the problem.”
And don’t be surprised if your affliction is the next word of the year.
Richard Fellinger is an author, former journalist and fellow in Elizabethtown College’s Writing Wing.