Most of the time, when we talk about the shifting Overton window, it seems like it’s an inexorable shift rightward, towards more and more extreme language. Gun control is something serious politicians can’t discuss any more, even after the latest massacre of innocents. Ideas that Ronald Reagan embraced now lie to the left of the mainstream discourse. Feminism and conservation are now bad words. Here and there, though, language takes a more progressive turn. Marriage equality is no longer an odd turn of phrase used by activists – at the end of 2013 not only is a word that people understand (even if they don’t use it), it’s also a concept that isn’t shocking to the mainstream. Another such word is climate change denial.
Wikipedia is always a good place to gauge how widely controversial language is accepted. Go back to 2003 and their intelligent design article was firmly in the hands of people who were trying to present it as a real scientific theory. That changed after the Kitzmiller decision in late 2005, but it still took years before it could be called what it was – repackaged creationism – openly in the article. Similarly, if you go back to 2009 the term ‘climate change denial’ was presented as a slur, an attack on people, and people were going to great lengths to distinguish ‘skepticism’ from denial. Even I had my doubts as to whether it was really a term that could really pass muster in Wikipedia (given their policy on ‘biographies of living people’). Four years later, it’s no longer an odd linguistic construction that people need to have explained – it may not dominate mainstream thought, but it’s a phrase you can use in class without losing people.
Across the board, the scientific endeavour is under assault, both from the right and (sadly) from the left. Groups dedicated to climate change denial rake in almost a billion dollars a year. But slowly, people are becoming aware of this. The scope of the campaign may still shock people, but broadly speaking they’re becoming aware of the role that these groups have played in shaping the message.
In general, denialism is a phenomenon that finds fertile ground when people feel disconnected from ‘the powers that be’. By casting themselves as grassroots organisation, the “climate change counter-movement” groups have gained traction against scientists (who are distant, unknown people). As these groups are gradually unmasked as corporate front groups, it becomes harder for the press to treat them as one of two equal sides in a debate, and people may realise that it’s not grassroots fighting out of touch academia, it’s large corporations throwing their weight around. Now, the underdog is the scientist, and rather than being an approachable ‘everyman’, the climate change counter-movement campaigner is now an equally distant corporate entity. So maybe, just maybe, there’s reason to be a little bit more hopeful today.