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warm language

The New Climate Denial Is Based on These Six Terms

The new obstructionist approach doesn’t say global warming isn’t happening. Instead, it argues we don’t need to phase out oil and gas.

An American flag is displayed among smokestacks and lights.
Mickey Strider/Loop Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
An oil refinery at night

Climate change is “a hoax,” Donald Trump sneers, using his best wise-guy accent. This is what most people think of when they think of climate denial. And for good reason. “Climate change isn’t real” serves as the party line of the MAGA base of the GOP. In the first Republican primary debate of the 2024 election, entrepreneurial candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, perhaps gunning to become Trump’s vice presidential pick, declared that “the climate change agenda is a hoax!”

It’s absurd, at this point, to claim that climate change isn’t real: Every summer a ghastly parade of stories about deadly extreme weather marches across the news, and climate scientists can now explicitly attribute this weather to climate change. Even 70 percent of young Republicans now connect climate change to human activity. So now Republicans in swing states, titans of finance and tech, as well as coal, oil, and gas executives themselves, have started spreading a new, more subtle form of climate denial. This new denial acknowledges that climate change is real but still seeks to justify continuing the fossil fuel system.

This propaganda is spun out of six key terms that dominate the language of climate politics: alarmist, cost, growth, “India and China,” innovation, and resilience. Together these terms weave a narrative that goes something like this: “Yes, climate change is real, but calling it an existential threat is just alarmist. And, anyway, phasing out coal, oil, and gas would cost us too much. Human flourishing relies on the economic growth enabled by fossil fuels, so we need to keep using them and deal with climate change by fostering technological innovation and increasing our resilience. Besides, America should not act unilaterally on the climate crisis while emissions are rising in India and China.” This narrative is designed to encourage the incorrect and dangerous belief that the world does not need essentially to stop using fossil fuels—either because climate change won’t be that destructive or, in some versions of the story, because the world can keep using coal, oil, and gas and still halt global heating anyway.

It would be bad enough if this narrative were being repeated only on the right. But what gives fossil fuel propaganda its power over climate politics is that it’s repeated, in echoes and fragments and sometimes in its entirety, by people on both sides of the supposedly partisan climate change divide. And it’s repeated not just by fossil energy interests but also by scientists, economists, journalists, politicians, and sometimes even activists, all of whom sincerely intend to advance climate solutions. That’s because these terms and the ideas they convey are appropriated from language produced over the decades by these groups themselves. Fossil energy interests have mined the language of climate science, economics, and technology for material they can use to spread denial, extracting, twisting, and deploying words to entrap advocates into unwittingly normalizing fossil fuel disinformation. This dynamic turns fossil fuel propaganda into a bipartisan consensus, portraying it as common sense.

We can see how this dynamic plays out by looking at the word uncertainty. As the Harvard historian of science Naomi Oreskes showed in Merchants of Doubt, fossil fuel partisans created doubt about the reality of climate change by talking incessantly about scientific “uncertainty” in their public statements about global heating. And they used the word so effectively because they exploited its cultural ambiguity—a quality that arises when a word means one thing to a group of people in a particular subculture but another thing to the general public. Most people understand uncertainty to mean something like “not knowing for sure” or “not having concluded yet.” Scientists sometimes use the word in this way too, of course, but not always. When climate scientists speak of the “uncertainty” of their findings, they usually refer to the range of possible outcomes they can project with confidence. Indeed, uncertainty and confidence are actually synonyms in scientific discourse: Scientists can say either that a model produces an “uncertainty interval” or that it produces a “confidence interval.” And those intervals do not indicate “either it happens or it doesn’t.” Rather they span everything that could possibly happen, from the best- to the worst-case outcomes. So when scientists were being the most scrupulous in their communications about the climate crisis, trying to give the public a full sense of what they confidently knew at the time, they unwittingly echoed the message that there was some “uncertainty,” which people then interpreted as meaning they weren’t sure if climate change was real. In a truly fiendish act of appropriation, fossil fuel interests managed to recruit scientists into inadvertently spreading doubt.

Oil and gas interests no longer produce disinformation by manipulating the ambiguities of the word uncertainty. But they still use linguistic appropriation to shape the new, twenty-first-century denial that tells people that phasing out fossil fuels is unnecessary. Republicans in regions particularly vulnerable to climate damages often deploy the language of resilience, for example, to justify the continuance of the fossil fuel system.

The term resilience can be found at the center of climate science and policy. When in 2015 the Paris Agreement established a “global goal on adaptation,” it portrayed this goal as “strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change.” Echoing this goal in a Washington Times commentary last spring, Florida Senator Marco Rubio acknowledged that his state is “uniquely impacted by the climate,” and touted his efforts to make “improvements to Florida’s coastal resilience.” But at the same time, Rubio suggested that resilience actually requires the use of fossil fuels: “People who are serious about increasing America’s climate resilience agree that we cannot operate on solar and wind alone,” he claimed, “because in their current state, those technologies cannot supply enough power to keep our nation running.”

The truth is that solar power and storage actually maintains grid reliability in extreme weather. In both the 2022 and 2023 Texas heat waves, grid operators needed to pause fossil energy generation so that coal and gas plants could cool down; what kept the lights on and lifesaving air conditioning units humming was solar power, both generated directly and stored in batteries. And dozens of scholars at European universities and American institutions like Stanford and Princeton have modeled how to supply all of our nation’s power with 100 percent renewable energy.

Yet the word resilience is especially ripe for weaponization by fossil fuel interests because it misrepresents the climate crisis. Resilience signifies the capacity of “bouncing back and returning to a previous state after a disturbance,” as the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, put it in its 2022 report, “Climate Change: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.” But this image of “bouncing back and returning to a previous state” implies that the harms of global heating will include not overall climatic and ecological breakdown, but only pretty much what we see now: discrete extreme weather events, occasional and temporary, that will disrupt a world that is otherwise normal. It’s all too easy for fossil fuel interests to use it to suggest that our systems do not need to change; if discrete storms get bigger, they can suggest, we can just increase our resilience to them.

But if fossil fuels are not phased out and emissions virtually eliminated, extreme weather will not continue to present as Americans have known it so far—a California wildfire in July, say, followed by a Midwestern flood in August, capped by a Florida hurricane sometime in September or October. Extreme weather disasters will happen simultaneously, in multiple regions of America at once, repeatedly, and potentially before communities have recovered from the last disaster.

The 2022 floods that devastated Pakistan, killing 1,700 people and throwing millions more into poverty and homelessness, exerted so much force on the land that they caused some rivers to change their courses. The lake that gave Salt Lake City its name is drying up, due to climate change–intensified drought. If it evaporates completely, the air around it will occasionally turn poisonous: The lake bed contains high levels of arsenic, and as more of its surface becomes exposed, windstorms will carry that arsenic into the lungs of nearby residents. The metro area containing nearly 40 percent of Utah’s population could become a ghost town. Sea level rise also destroys cities permanently: Once coastlines are swallowed by the oceans, or rendered uninhabitable by saltwater encroaching from below, they will be gone effectively forever. The coral reefs that support much of the marine food chain cannot be resurrected once they’ve fallen extinct.

Permanent changes like these mean that people will need to move away from where they were living in order to find safe homes and sources of income and food. This migration is a form of adaptation not well captured by the term resilience. And even this kind of adaptation will find its limits. If the tropics become uninhabitable, where will the billions of people who live in that region actually go? As the IPCC warned in its 2022 report: “With increasing global warming, losses and damages will increase and additional human and natural systems will reach adaptation limits.” Or as the climate scientist Michael Mann has written, more bluntly: “There is no amount of resilience or adaptation that will be adequate if we fail to get off fossil fuels.”

It is this stark reality that fossil fuel propaganda is designed to obscure. And this propaganda becomes the mainstream view, even among people who believe that climate change is real, when the language of climate politics echoes back and forth across the partisan divide, creating the illusion of universal consensus. It spreads when oil and gas spokespeople accuse climate scientists of “alarmism” and climate scientists themselves try to stamp out the rhetorical excesses of activists, thereby supporting the impression we have nothing to fear. It spreads when fossil fuel interests turn to old-style cost-benefit climate models to maintain that continuing to use coal, oil, and gas is economically “optimal,” and the economist who created those models wins the Nobel Prize, even though his work fails to account for the majority of projected damages and assumes continued rates of past economic growth on literally no empirical foundation. Or when oil and gas executives promise that, despite its technological challenges and massive costs, carbon dioxide removal can decarbonize wide-scale fossil fuel use, and advocates and entrepreneurs, overpromising about the potential of these technologies in order to drive investment, unwittingly legitimize industry P.R. It is through such reverberations, filtered through the news media, that fossil fuel propaganda becomes something like the commonsense position.

But let’s be clear. Both the International Energy Agency and the IPCC have stated unequivocally that in order to achieve net-zero emissions in time to halt global heating at a relatively safe level, the development of new oil and gas fields must cease immediately. Both have also stated, unequivocally, that to have even a 50–50 chance to halt global heating at the Paris target of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, existing fossil energy infrastructure must be retired before the end of its expected lifetime.

The year 2100 may seem like a long time away, but it isn’t. My own son was born in 2010. His life will play out across this century, when the world will either halt global heating at a manageable level or unravel. All this is no longer about “future generations” but the families we have in our homes today. As the IPCC said in its 2023 report: “Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.”

To secure a livable future, one thing we will need to do is dismantle and reframe the terms dominating the language of climate politics so that they focus on the phaseout of coal, oil, and methane. This is a key element of the political work needed now. Of course, talking alone won’t halt global warming. But, as they say on the right, ideas have consequences. Insofar as words shape ideas and ideas influence actions, we will need to transform the language of climate politics just as we need to transform the more material ways our politics supports the fossil fuel economy. We will need to speak with the rhetorical strategies of our opponents in mind so we can stop echoing their language and normalizing their propaganda.

There is no reason to normalize the false beliefs of the fossil fuel economy; to proceed as if the world could not be otherwise. The world can be otherwise. We must start talking about that world—and thereby help bring it into being.

This article is an adapted excerpt from The Language of Climate Politics: Fossil-Fuel Propaganda and How to Fight It.