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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

I faced a good bit of criticism for the piece I wrote Thursday about America’s polarized climate and energy debate, and most of it centered around particular words I used.

What I heard: Arguments mostly from left-leaning people that I misused the term “far left,” and also perpetuated the idea of false equivalency by putting people calling for urgent climate action on the same level as people who don’t acknowledge the issue at all.

Let’s unpack this.

About “far left” and “far right”

I consider far right and far left as guide posts to show where on a spectrum of politics and policies people fall, and in this case it’s about energy and climate at the federal level. I realize that in the age of President Trump and a polarized America, these words carry a lot more weight than they do by mere definitional standards.

One clear contrast: Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who lost the 2016 Democratic presidential primary to the more centrist Hillary Clinton, is on the far left. They both acknowledge climate change is a serious and urgent problem, but they differ on the policies to address it. Sanders' focus on a total shift to renewables, for example, puts him well to the left of policies Clinton has pushed.

Urging a transition to 100% renewables isn’t a position shared widely across the Democratic and progressive movements. Only a small handful of Democratic senators back a bill doing just that, for example. That’s why I used the word “far left” to describe the organizers who hosted an event with Sanders Wednesday night calling for a fast transition off fossil fuels entirely.

The far right embodies conservatives, including currently elected congressional Republicans and many in the fossil-fuel industry, who do not publicly acknowledge climate change is a real problem.

Republican Sen. James Inhofe from Oklahoma, one of the most vocal politicians rejecting mainstream climate change science, is on the far right, along with Trump.

About false equivalency

The basic idea behind this claim is that I’m saying people calling for urgent climate action with policies like a 100% renewables transition are on the same level as people who don’t acknowledge the science. This is not my intention.

Republicans and conservative groups that don’t acknowledge the science should bear the brunt of the criticism because they aren’t even admitting there’s a problem, which puts them out of step with most of the rest of the world.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t totally separate issues on the left that deserve scrutiny about how to go about addressing climate change.

There is no scientific question about whether human activity is driving Earth’s temperature up. There is a raging political debate where science inevitably enters. As a reporter, I try to consistently state the consensus of climate science while covering the political debate.

What’s next

My next Harder Line column on Monday is going to delve more into the semantics on these dicey topics. Stay tuned.

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