It’s a fantastic time for verbal abuse in American politics. Donald Trump loves a schoolyard nickname, insulting everyone from “Crazy Bernie” Sanders to “Little Marco” Rubio. In turn, the president’s opponents, and sometimes his allies, have called him a moron, a motherfucker and mocked his tiny hands.
But is there a way of using name-calling, not just to insult, but to introduce a new political idea. It seemed like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was doing that this week when she used the term “climate delayer” to call out those dragging their feet on climate change.
Ocasio-Cortez used the term to describe Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was filmed telling a bunch of children that when it comes to the looming apocalypse, she knows better than they do, because she has spent a long time in the Senate not fixing the problem. While they called for immediate action on the Green New Deal, she argued that change wasn’t going to come anytime soon. After all, when it comes to averting a global catastrophe on an unprecedented scale, endangering hundreds of millions and fundamentally altering the human experience, you don’t want to rush into things.
The clip went viral. In the ensuing days, Ocasio-Cortez warned on Instagram and Twitter of the threat of “climate delayers”: people who appear to accept that something needs to be done about climate change, but don’t seem to grasp its urgency. These people, she pointed out, aren’t much better than people who deny climate change exists.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Climate delayers aren’t much better than climate deniers. With either one if they get their way, we’re toast.
The term isn’t entirely new. “Global warming delayer” appeared on sites like ThinkProgress more than a decade ago; it appeared in the Guardian at least as far back as 2011. And out of context, it sounds like a badge of honor. A climate denier denies climate change, so a climate delayer … delays it? Like by buying a Prius?
But that’s getting into the weeds: we should celebrate the phrase’s emergence in mainstream political debate. Trump’s political success has proven that a label can be as effective as a thousand nuanced arguments. Sure, “Delayin’ Feinstein” might not have quite the same ring as “Lyin’ Ted”, but it’s getting there. And given the scale of the issue, we badly need an arsenal of labels for people standing in the way of climate progress.
Labels for people who reject the scientific evidence of climate change have a tortured history. A debate has raged as to whether “climate denier” or “climate skeptic” should be used to describe such people, the latter term aiming to soothe the egos of officials who just aren’t quite sure they can believe basically every scientist.
Scientists who consider themselves genuine skeptics – in the sense of seeking “scientific inquiry, critical investigation and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims” – didn’t like the term “skeptics” for people who rejected expertise; they wanted to call them deniers, according to the Associated Press, purveyors of one of journalism’s leading style guides.
But those “deniers”, understandably, didn’t like the language’s resemblance to Holocaust denial. So in 2015, the AP put forward another option, “climate doubters”, advising writers to ditch “deniers” and “skeptics” entirely.
The Guardian’s own style guide takes a different view: “The OED defines a sceptic as ‘a seeker of the truth; an inquirer who has not yet arrived at definite conclusions’. Most so-called ‘climate change sceptics’, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, deny that climate change is happening, or is caused by human activity, so denier is a more accurate term.”
On top of all that, there are “climate contrarians”, who make it their business to fight the scientific consensus – “often with substantial financial support from fossil fuels industry organizations and conservative thinktanks,” as summarized in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
And yet none of these labels have managed to target a fundamental obstacle to climate change action: powerful people who profess to understand climate change, yet are curiously immobile on the issue. Perhaps the popularization of “delayer” will finally put the pressure on. When it comes to politically productive name-calling, it’s a lot snappier to dismiss someone as a “climate delayer” than to chastise them as a “person who apparently believes the science but is unwilling to acknowledge the urgency of the situation”.
It’s worth noting in all this that the very phrase “climate change” is mired in labelling warfare. As anyone who has seen the movie Vice knows, the Republican pollster Frank Luntz encouraged the George W Bush administration to use the phrase “climate change” rather than “global warming”. Yale researchers recount a secret memo in which he pointed out that a focus group participant felt “climate change ‘sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale’,” whereas “global warming has catastrophic connotations”. Perhaps if we’d all stuck with “global warming” – or even tried “global heating” – concern would have grown faster.
Luntz knows messaging: he turned the estate tax into the “death tax” and health reform into a “government takeover” of healthcare. Fortunately in Ocasio-Cortez, it seems the left has a messaging expert of its own. And whether denier or delayer, she points out, “if they get their way, we’re toast”.