May 2, 2017

Denying Climate Denial

(I posted this on Medium yesterday. It's basically part 2 to the other piece a few days ago about the NY Times op-ed on climate science. This piece has gone a bit viral. Check out the commentary if you want a nearly perfect assortment of the tried-and-true "arguments" against action. Scientists faked the data. CO2 is good for plants. Calling out denial is no way to win people over -- you hurt their feelings. Don't tread on me and tell me what to do. Solar and wind have a large carbon footprint also. And on and on. I started to answer some, but lost steam. If you have a chance, maybe some of you, my loyal readers, can answer some of the people on Medium.)

The dust-up over the climate change op-ed from the New York Times’ newest columnist, Bret Stephens, has been educational.

If you missed it, the Times hired Stephens away from the Wall Street Journal recently. In Stephens’ opening column, he asks for “reasoned discussion” on climate change. As I wrote a few days ago, he basically makes two straw man arguments: everyone supporting climate action is too certain on the science (and science is never 100%), and it’s too expensive to do something. Both are wrong, but it’s the nature of “denial” that I want to talk about.

In the aftermath of the column, many people took to social media to yell at the Times and talk about canceling their subscriptions. The reaction of many in media, particularly those working at the Times, was fascinating.

The paper’s Deputy Washington Editor, Jonathan Weisman, accused multiple people on Twitter of “not reading the article.” His more nuanced point was that Stephens didn’t deny the existence of climate change.


But defining denial as only outright denial of the science is a narrow definition indeed. Denial has evolved, and it’s even more dangerous now. To demonstrate what I mean, let me take the discussion out of the climate realm for the moment.

Imagine your doctor tells you that you have dangerously high cholesterol and blocked arteries. She says you may drop dead soon. [Note: Based on comments/questions, I should clarify here. By “doctor”, I mean the entire medical establishment. So you’ve gotten a second opinion and actually 100 opinions and 97 say the same thing].

You might have four basic reactions based on two dimensions, belief (or doubt) in the basic facts/science, and whether you commit to action or delay.


1) Doubt AND inaction (simplistic denial): You say, “I don’t think the evidence is real — it’s a hoax.”

2) Acceptance but Inaction: “Yes, it’s happening, but I don’t think aggressive action is warranted yet. It may disrupt my life too much.”

3) Doubt but Action: “I’m not sure the doctor is right. But I’ll take the healthier path because the risk is too high, and it’s better for me anyway.”

4) Acceptance AND action: “I believe the doctor and the science and I think it’s urgent. So I’m dramatically changing my behavior, and doing it now.”

If option 1 seems silly to you — you’re having trouble climbing stairs without wheezing, so the evidence is already there — you’ve got three options left. You may choose path 4, where you realize that the problem is real and change your behavior accordingly. But since outcomes are all that matter, path 3 is nearly as good. Regardless of why, you could eat healthier, exercise more, and take a statin. You might see that the behavior change has many additional benefits — you feel better all the time, live longer, and be able to do more with your life.

But it’s path 2 — acknowledging the issue, but arguing for more discussion and delay — that must drive doctors crazy.

Denying that we need to act aggressively and immediately is still denial. And it’s really dangerous.

So back to climate change. For many years, the mainstream of climate denial took path 1 — and, at least on Twitter, our president is still here, along with the diehard deniers like Senator Inhofe, he of the famous snowball on the Senate floor. Everyone who sees the urgency, including all major scientific bodies, all the big environmental NGOs, and leading businesses and clean tech players, are solidly in camp 4. In my experience, the majority of big business — at least in their public statements — sit in camp 3 today, taking a pragmatic approach and moving to renewable energy, for example, as it gets much cheaper (but they’re pretty far right within in bucket 3, about to tip into bucket 4 — science denial is disappearing within the business community).


Outside of Washington, D.C., group 1 is on the sidelines of any serious debate about the future of energy or commerce. It’s ludicrous to keep denying the basics here. So many doubters, like Bret Stephens, have moved into group 2 of “Reasonable” Doubters. They counsel more discussion about whether action is really necessary and worth the “cost” (ignoring and, yes, denying that it’s likely much more expensive to do nothing).

Let me be clear: denying that we need to act aggressively and immediately is still denial. And it’s really dangerous. So let’s call it climate action denial.Denial in the form of faux support for reasoned discussion is just a more nuanced technique for defending the status quo. Of course we need discussion, but about how we move forward and take carbon out of the economy — and maybe even out of the atmosphere — in the most economic way. And we need to discuss how to help those left behind as the clean economy sweeps through the world.

But the time for discussion of whether we should act fast is long gone. It’s a simple risk-reward equation and the risks are more clear than ever, as are the rewards, as the cost of building the clean economy plummets.

The new form of denial is to continue the myth that it’s way too expensive to do anything or say, “hey, what’s wrong with some debate.” It is denial to ignore literally decades of very clear and alarming science, and then argue for going slow when we have no time.

(This post first appeared at Medium.)

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On May 3, 2017 5:01 PM, Paul Stern said:

You have offered a very helpful 2x2 table that distinguishes "old-school deniers" from another group you call by various names, including "climate action deniers". You may be interested in, and may even want to point your readers to, a short paper my coauthors and I published last year in Science in which we called this view "climate change neo-skepticism" and pointed out that neo-skepticism points to an increased need for decision science and for debate about how best to address risks.
The reference is:
Science 353 (6300), 653-654. [doi: 10.1126/science.aaf6675]
Paul C. Stern, John H. Perkins, Richard E. Sparks and Robert A.Knox (August 11, 2016).

On May 3, 2017 8:10 PM, Andrew Winston said:

Thanks for the reference and work. I knew there had to be some good scholarship like yours. I was kind of winging it with my 2x2!
I've watched the evolution of denial for years, but haven't officially studied it...

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