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The Rise of “Kinder, Gentler” Climate-Change Deniers

Bret Stephens might seem reasonable compared to conspiracy theorists, but his stealth denial is far more damaging.

Flickr/Topher McCulloch

Bret Stephens, the neoconservative columnist recently poached from The Wall Street Journal by The New York Times, made a big show of appearing reasonable in his debut op-ed last week,Climate of Complete Certainty.” His point, he writes, “isn’t to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences.” Rather, it’s to condemn the prevailing certainty that climate change will prove catastrophic and that immediate action is warranted: “Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.”

Stephens’s column is also a (very) thinly veiled attack on liberal elites, which, given the rise of Bernie Sanders, is perhaps the most reasonable political opinion a mainstream media columnist could have in 2017. Stephens compares the certainty of environmentalists to the certainty of Hillary Clinton supporters last year, and positions himself as a populist advocate for the common man. He writes that “ordinary citizens also have a right to be skeptical of an overweening scientism,” adding, “Perhaps if there were less certitude about our climate future, more Americans would be interested in having a reasoned conversation about it.”

But the main reason Stephens’s column may seem reasonable—at least to the “ordinary citizens” he hopes to reach—is because it avoids obvious absurdity. He doesn’t argue that the mere existence of cold weather disproves global warming trends. He doesn’t claim that global warming is a “hoax” invented by the Chinese. He doesn’t say that climate change can’t exist because God would never allow us to be so powerful. He’s simply asking questions.

Stephens even insists he’s trying to help solve climate change. “[O]ne point of the column was to help the climate-advocacy community improve the quality of its persuasion,” he told CNN’s Dylan Byers. In response to comments from Times readers, Stephens called for more climate research and investment, in contrast to President Donald Trump’s efforts to gut science funding: “We should continue to invest in fundamental climate research and promising clean-tech, and we should redouble our investments in proven non-carbon energy sources, particularly next-gen nuclear power.”

But it is the apparent reasonableness of Stephens’s arguments that makes them even more dangerous than those of snowball-wielders like Senator James Inhofe. What Stephens is doing is still a form of climate-change denial, just stealthier. And his faux-evenhandedness has earned him a major platform from which to push bad-faith, misleading interpretations of the science, providing intellectually lazy excuses for America to keep kicking the can down the road while the planet slowly burns up.

Stephens’s arguments against climate-change alarmism has been around long enough to earn a name: “Lukewarmism.” Lukewarmers are conservatives who acknowledge that humans are warming the planet, but “they’re not convinced there’s a substantial risk that future warming could be large or its impacts severe, or that strong mitigation policies are desirable,” as the Guardian defined them. The climate scientist Michael Mann wrote about this “new breed” of denier in his 2016 book, The Madhouse Effect:

The most insidious form of climate change denial, by some measure, is denial of the seriousness of the threat and the monumental nature of the effort required if we are to avert dangerous climate change. As outright denial of the scientific evidence becomes ever less credible, a new breed of climate change denier, a kinder, gentler sort of denier, has appeared on the scene to exploit the new niche that is emerging in the world of climate change contrarianism.

As Vox’s David Roberts explained in a Twitter rant this week, conservatives have always opposed liberals’ proposals for addressing climate change: international agreements, federal regulations, taxpayer-funded investments, etc. Conservatives argued against these policies by simply claiming the problem wasn’t real. But as the science on climate change has firmed up, “open denialism has become gauche, just a little too crude,” Roberts wrote.

Enter the “lukewarmers,” whose arguments still originate from the same ideological position—that the government shouldn’t try to solve the climate crisis, or at least not try too hard—but appear to be based on sound science. Except they’re not.

Stephens’s column, for instance, explicitly ignores the range of uncertainty within climate science. “Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” he writes, “knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities.” He’s right that it’s “indisputable,” but wrong that this increase is “modest.” His dismissal of the rest as “a matter of probabilities” ignores that these probabilities aren’t wild guesses; they’re informed by decades—nay, centuries—of data and research. Moreover, most models predict average temperature increases that will cause a significant rise in sea level, increased heatwaves, droughts, and wildfires, and generally more extreme weather events—all of which could lead to widespread species die-offs and economic turmoil. There are some models that predict less dire scenarios, but others predict much, much worse.

Stephens has no patience for such nuance. “We live in a world in which data convey authority,” he complains. “But authority has a way of descending to certitude, and certitude begets hubris.” No wonder the above statistic about the planet’s warming is the only one in his column. Instead, he spends his precious inches taking issue with those who believe that climate change requires immediate, forceful action—while not being bothered, apparently, by those who believe we shouldn’t take any action at all. Accepting the reality of climate change is not, after all, the same thing as arguing against climate-change denial. Stephens writes that “we respond to the inherent uncertainties of data by adding more data without revisiting our assumptions, creating an impression of certainty that can be lulling, misleading and often dangerous.” He doesn’t not grant that climate change itself is dangerous.

This is a form of climate-change denial: It denies the need for action, which is, like climate science, based on overwhelming evidence. Slate’s Susan Matthews takes it a step further: Stephens’ is not denying climate science per se; he’s denying the reliability of the whole scientific process. Stephens does not call a single fact into question throughout his piece,” she writes. “Instead, he’s telling his readers that their decision not to trust the entire institution of science that supports the theory of climate change might actually be reasonable.... Trust nothing, he urges, for nothing deserves trust.” John Cook, a professor at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication who has studied public perception of climate change extensively, believes this type of denial is especially dangerous because it pretends to be balanced—thereby confusing people into apathy. “When you throw conflicting pieces of information at people, they don’t know what to believe, so they stop believing in anything,” he told me.

Lukewarmism is on the rise. The Danish climate contrarian Bjorn Lomborg has gained notoriety in conservative circles for his “skeptical environmentalist” approach, in which he argues that climate change is real but not urgent, and therefore it’s useless to do anything to stop it. “Lomborg’s arguments often have a veneer of credibility,” Mann wrote in The Madhouse Effect, “but scratch the surface, and you witness a sleight of hand, where climate projections are lowballed; climate change impacts, damages, and costs are underestimated.” The Oakland-based Breakthrough Institute routinely engages in similar arguments. The Guardian points to commentator Matt Ridley and the scientist Nic Lewis as examples of lukewarmists. So is Oren Cass, the domestic policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, who argues in the latest issue of National Review that “Climate apocalypticism ignores the science.”

But with Stephens arrival at the Times, lukewarmism has reached new heights. Stephens, who used to deny climate change, has found that acting slightly more reasonable on the subject has earned him a coveted perch at the paper of the record. Conservatives are rejoicing. National Review called Stephens’s debut a “perfectly reasonable column” that only “amounted to friendly strategic advice” for the left. The column may have sounded reasonable, but it wasn’t based on scientific reason. There’s a difference—and the fate of our planet depends on it.