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expert reaction to changes to guardian style guide on reporting of climate change

Reactions to changes in The Guardian style guide on the reporting of climate change.


Prof Joanna D. Haigh, FRS, Emeritus Professor of Atmospheric Physics said:

 If humans continue to push greenhouse gases into the atmosphere we will end up with a catastrophe.  The uncertainties (outlined below by Professor Tim Palmer below) will just determine whether it comes sooner or later.”


Prof Mike Hulme, Professor of Human Geography, University of Cambridge, said:

“I’m neutral about global heating/warming, but can see the argument that ‘global heating’ is scientifically more accurate.  On the other points however, this is nothing about ‘scientific accuracy’, but all about interpretation and ideology (in the correct sense of the word): Emergencies are declared, politically, they are never discovered scientifically.  Can you imagine the ‘Intergovernmental Panel on the Climate Emergency’ conducting a scientific—as opposed to a political–assessment?   On labelling, we’ve been here too many times before.  See the very sensible letter O’Neill and Boykoff published in PNAS in 2010 on the matter (also the longer 2015 article in WIREs)*.”


Prof Myles Allen, Professor of Geosystem Science, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, said:

“If we burn all available fossil fuels we will still end up with catastrophic warming even if we are lucky and the response turns out at the low end. But it will take longer to get there, and you could argue that the children out school-striking won’t be so stupid to just carry on emitting as temperatures gradually rise. Which points a much more important uncertainty than the climate response in determining future warming, which is how long it will take to reduce global CO2 emissions to zero. Every year we are not even trying to reduce emissions is another 40 billion tonnes of CO2 dumped into the atmosphere that we are blithely committing future generations to scrub out again at an unknown (but inordinate) cost. Climate change is more of a scandal than an emergency – or, more accurate still, a festering injustice.”


Prof Richard Betts, Met Office Fellow, Head of Climate Impacts Research and Chair in Climate Impacts, University of Exeter, said:

  1. “Global warming” vs. “global heating”?

“I think Global Heating describes the process – changing the Earth’s energy balance. It implies attribution.

“Global warming (the rise in temperature) is the consequence of global heating.

“So, both are OK, it depends exactly what you mean.

  1. “Climate Emergency / crisis / breakdown” vs. “climate change”

“In my view, “Climate emergency” and “climate crisis” are a matter of opinion, not science.  They are to do with how people & society view climate change and whether / how to respond.  Individuals will have personal views on these but they are not scientific terms.

“Climate breakdown” seems more like an attempt at a scientific term, but it implies a judgement on what an “unbroken” climate is.  Scientifically I don’t think there such a thing though.  There are ranges of climate conditions to which humans are adapted, and we will obviously be in big trouble if the climate moves out of those ranges, but that’s still not really the same as the climate “breaking down”.

“I will continue to use “climate change” to describe by field of scientific study.  I am happy to provide scientific input to discussions about societal responses, some of which may be framed as a “climate emergency / crisis” although those definitions are subjective not scientific.

  1. “climate denier” vs “sceptic”.

“Personally, I prefer to avoid name-calling.  I am more comfortable with describing people as being “in denial” which is subtly different – it is labelled the behaviour not the person, which is usually much more helpful.  See my blog post from years ago.

“However, I note that the Guardian’s style guide is for journalists not scientists.  They have different motivations and ways of working, so what a scientist is happy or not happy to use may not be applicable anyway, unless the journalist is a science or environment correspondent discussing scientific results.”


Prof Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London (UCL) said:

“We have a decade to change how humanity abuses the Planet. The climate and environmental emergency declared by the UK Parliament is real. The language we use to discuss the greatest challenge facing humanity must reflect the urgency and the importance. The Guardian new editorial guidelines show a clear understanding the world has changed and the zeitgeist generated by Extinction Rebellion, and the climate school strikes. 

“The Guardian is right they are climate deniers, it is global heating and we are in a climate and environmental crisis. Using the correct terms will help everyone understand the challenges we all face and may be, just maybe, we can save the planet by the middle of the century.”


Prof Tim Palmer, Royal Society Research Professor in Climate Physics, University of Oxford *, said:

“The fact of the matter is that models predict a range of values for future global warming. Certainly the upper range can legitimately be called catastrophic. However, if cloud feedbacks (the most uncertain of all the potential amplifiers) turn out to be largely negative, then climate change will not be a catastrophe. Such predictions are within the ensemble of model-generated outcomes. Cloud feedback is a big uncertainty in our understanding of climate change. 

“Policy is based on risk – taking action to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change. That is of course a rational course of action. But supporting such policy does not imply you believe that climate change will be catastrophic. 

“The position of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (the leading climate sceptic think tank in the UK) is that climate change will be “lukewarm”. This is definitely not the same as denial. To call someone a denier because he or she does not believe that climate change will be catastrophic would be an awful misrepresentation and it seems to me that the paper could open itself up to legal challenges.”

“My view – see the lecture video – is that one should be just as critical of those that say climate change “will” be catastrophic, as those who say it will be “lukewarm”, or indeed say it is all a big hoax. None of these positions is scientifically sound

“Climate prediction science is fundamentally based on probabilistic forecasts – these underpin the quantification of risk. This may not seem very sexy for a newspaper. However, it is vital that science is seen as an honest dispassionate disinterested broker in this debate.”


Prof Chris Rapley, Professor of Climate science at University College London (UCL), and former head of BAS, said:

“We could argue endlessly about ‘climate disruption’ or ‘climate destabilisation’ as alternatives to ‘climate change’ and the language they have decided to adopt.

“But the most controversial recommendation is the use off ‘denier’ to replace sceptic.

“There is a strong argument that the use of ‘denier’ is divisive (partly because those who are the target have successfully associated it with holocaust denial and hence tagged it as pejorative and insulting).

“Finding common ground with that group is hard enough – in some cases impossible – but using an alternative description can help. 

“Options are ‘contrarian’ or ‘dismisser’, which seem to be less likely to trigger offence and division.”


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