How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

A couple of weeks ago, Bret Stephens, the new columnist for The New York Times, wrote a fairly anodyne inaugural essay about the dangers of complete certainty, particularly certainty based on data-dependent predictive modeling. “We live in a world in which data convey authority,” he writes. “But authority has a way of descending to certitude, and certitude begets hubris.” Stephens cites as examples of this hubris Hillary Clinton’s stunning upset in the November presidential election (to which big data-induced hubris appears to have contributed) and, more provocatively, climate change.

Stephens notes that much of what climate activists portray as unassailable fact actually involves a great deal of uncertainty. This is true—obvious, even: predicting the behavior of complex systems always involves uncertainties that are impossible to fully quantify, as everyone from President Obama’s Under Secretary for Science Steven E. Koonin to the authors of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report acknowledges. In a follow-up piece, Stephens uses the inherent uncertainties to argue for a small-c conservative approach to climate change: “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.”

None of this ought to be particularly controversial. It’s the kind of argument made by a well-read uncle whose policy opinions, in a mild exchange at a Memorial Day barbecue, you might politely debate for not going far enough to address the anticipated consequences of a warming climate. No hurt feelings and forgotten by the time you’re both eating rhubarb pie. And if the policy suggestions that Stephens offers could help bring thoughtful conservatives around to supporting action on climate change, they should be celebrated.

Instead, the column elicited a howl from people who were dismayed by Stephens’ “apparent reasonableness.” This reasonableness, Emily Atkin contends in a May 2 column for The New Republic, is an “even more dangerous … form of climate denial.” This use of “climate denial” might come as a surprise to readers, like me, who thought that the climate denialist label was reserved for those who believe climate change is “an ingenious plan to exert government control over everything we do,” in the words of Fox News contributor (and unabashed denialist) Steve Milloy. Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe (who infamously brought a snowball to the Senate floor to dispute climate science) and, unfortunately, President Trump are prominent examples of traditional climate denialists.

Atkin, following climate scientist Michael Mann, wants to expand the denialist definition beyond those who don’t accept the reality of a warming planet to those who “deny” the need for anything but the most aggressive approach to climate mitigation. The fact that Stephens acknowledges the climate problem and argues that we must address it is not enough. What would be satisfactory to Atkin is unclear; maybe verbally persecuting the likes of Senator Inhofe, if this befuddling sentence offers a clue: “Accepting the reality of climate change is not, after all, the same thing as arguing against climate-change denial.”

Disparaging a person like Bret Stephens who, whether by temperament, reasoned analysis, or political commitment, pursues in good faith an alternate solution to an acknowledged problem is not only juvenile and unsophisticated, it’s counterproductive. As Stephens notes in his op-ed, “Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.” Atkin’s column is a perfect instance of how climate activists obsessed with ideological purity refuse to learn this lesson, to the detriment of their important cause. Theirs is a near-religious orthodoxy that bludgeons even potential allies with charges of heresy.

I write this not to defend a New York Times columnist or to support a conservative approach to the climate problem, which I think is unlikely to avert the most severe consequences of climate change, but because Atkin includes my colleagues at the Breakthrough Institute in her overbroad definition of climate-change denial. The Oakland-based think tank is devoted to improving our approach to climate change through innovative, pragmatic policy proposals. The Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes has collaborated closely with the institute, including on a forthcoming book on climate policy. The people who work at Breakthrough have dedicated their careers to environmental causes and to finding effective ways of communicating the hazards of and potential solutions to climate change. To falsely claim that they deny the need for climate action is repugnant and indefensible.

In the case of Atkin’s column, it’s distressing to see someone with whom I’m politically sympathetic make an argument that can only hamper progress toward our shared policy objectives. But it’s a good reminder that obtuse reasoning and intellectual laziness aren’t just the habits of people with different politics than me. I’m sure there are many things about which conservative columnist Bret Stephens and I would disagree, just as Atkin might dispute some of the policy proposals offered by the Breakthrough Institute. The need to do something about the very real threat of climate change isn’t one of them.