Bret Stephens seemed to be playing it safe. True, his inaugural column at the New York Times dealt with climate change, and his past work on the topic—always skeptical and at times dismissive—was Exhibit A for those on the left who were already howling about the hire. But Stephens was offering something of an olive branch, conceding that “the modest warming of the Northern Hemisphere since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming.” These assertions are about all that the chronically overstated “97 percent” of climate scientists have reached consensus on. After getting in a few hard-to-dispute points about the counterproductive nature of hyperbole, Stephens cautioned, “None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences.”
These are significant rhetorical moves to the center, by a pundit with a history of downplaying human influence on warming and the possible severity of the consequences. If anyone was going to be up in arms, I expected the skeptics to be alarmed that, right out of the chute, Stephens was warming to his new employer’s editorial inclinations. But if skeptics had any stones at the ready, they dropped them once the liberal pillorying began.
The fact that Stephens, unlike many “Never Trumpers,” has remained a vocal critic of our 45th president apparently has gained him no leeway with the left. Climate blogger Joe Romm went full “Holocaust” on the Times and its newly employed “extreme climate denier.” (Romm is so rabid that one can do little more than note Godwin’s Law and move on.) At Slate, Susan Matthews declared Stephens’s column “textbook denialism,” but she at least is lucid enough to argue with.
Stephens’s sins apparently include offering what Matthews calls the “quite familiar” point (made by “liberal-leaning outlets too”), that “shoving the certainty of fact down people’s throats is not the way to get them to change their minds, and it’s high time we try something else.” His argument against “an overweening scientism” is convincing, Matthews grants, “because the institutions he mentions can make mistakes” and “[s]ometimes our biases do get in the way.” Well, this does sound horrible! Matthews acknowledges that “technically, he doesn’t get any facts wrong”—but this type of “denialism” is actually “all the more insidious,” precisely because “it doesn’t outright reject the facts.” OK, got it.
As I recently noted, the trailer for An Inconvenient Sequel shows Al Gore making a claim about the flooding of the 9/11 memorial that is contradicted (inconveniently) by the on-screen Al Gore of a decade ago. Gore labels himself a prophet, based on a prophecy he never uttered, and uses that creative memory to vindicate himself against naysayers who were right to say nay. Most in the mainstream press who have written up the trailer or reviewed the film have lapped up the deception. (No, Rolling Stone, Hurricane Sandy did not cause “exactly what was predicted.”) Gore receives praise for his exaggerations, while Stephens is tarred and feathered for being right in the wrong way.
Stephens’s basic call is for “less certitude about our climate future.” It is possible, as Matthews claims, that his move to the middle is just a ruse to cover his sowing of “epistemic uncertainty.” Then why not call his bluff, rather than call him names? True, uncertainty has been used as a smokescreen to slow action on everything from cigarettes to CO2. But as Mike Hulme notes in his ever more relevant Why We Disagree About Climate Change, “Certainty is the anomalous condition for humanity, not uncertainty.”
We need a dialogue in which the alternatives are better than “It’s a hoax” and forced capitulation to an illusory “consensus” about the science, impacts, policy, and priority of climate change. Currently, those who venture into the middle can expect fire from both sides, but a few do nevertheless. Kerry Emanuel (stepping in from the “consensus” side) will acknowledge problems with models and even out himself as a “small government conservative.” His MIT colleague Richard Lindzen will also occasionally buck the skeptics who lionize him by calling out their tropes—like the supposedly dastardly switch from “global warming” to “climate change,” a canard perhaps as misused on the right as “97 percent” is on the left. The Berkeley Earth Project, staffed with skeptical scientists and funded with Koch dollars, is shifting people from their initial assumptions in response to data, as good science should. Politically, a small cadre of Republicans—elder statesman George Schultz and rising star Mia Love among them—are moving beyond the GOP’s circled wagons. Religiously, Pope Francis is no small fish and Katharine Hayhoe, the Canadian climate scientist and evangelical pastor’s wife who has long lived in Texas, is a winsome nerd next door who can chat up conservative ranchers and progressive presidents alike.
Andrew Revkin, the longtime science writer at the Times whom Stephens quotes in his debut, reflects in his moving post-stroke career retrospective “My Climate Change” on the “digital sledgehammer” that hit him when he dared to describe Bjorn Lomborg’s book Cool It as occupying “the pragmatic center.” Revkin probably should not have been surprised. Lomborg, who thinks that warming is happening, significant, and manmade but questions the usefulness of global treaties, was still far enough off the “consensus” reservation to merit the evil eye and, once, a pie to the face in protest.
Stephens, whose tentative step to the center brought him a mean left-hook, may now simply retreat behind the skeptical lines. That would be a step backward for those of us who would welcome more company here in the no-man’s land of the climate war.
John Murdock teaches at the Handong International Law School and sits on the board of directors for the Earth Stewardship Alliance.