Labeling opinions in the climate debate: a critical review

Labels play an important role in opinion formation, helping to actively construct perceptions and reality, and place individuals into context with others. As a highly complex issue, climate change invites a range of different opinions and dialogs about its causes, impacts, and action required. However, the polarized labels used in the climate change debate, such as skeptic or alarmist, are both reflecting and helping to frame the debate as antagonistic and combative. This paper critically reviews the literature on climate opinion labels, and the efforts taken within an academic context to categorize differences, create new taxonomies of more detailed sub‐labels, or create or argue for the use of new labels such as denier or contrarian. By drawing on research on typologies of climate opinions, problems with labeling constructs and discussions around context and the implications for science‐policy dialog, we argue that climate labels, both as constructed in the academic literature, and as applied in science and policy debates, are serving to isolate, exclude, ignore, and dismiss claims‐makers of all types from constructive dialog. It suggests that context has been inadequately considered by the literature and that an emphasis on labels is accentuating division and diverting attention away from a focus on underlying motivations, which may be more conducive toward increasing public understanding and encouraging communication across this polarized debate.

WIREs Clim Change 2015, 6: 239-254. doi: 10.1002/wcc.332