In his New York Times debut last week, conservative columnist Bret Stephens wrote that Earth's warming over the past century-plus “is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming.” Not everyone agrees.
In a Gallup poll published in March, 29 percent of U.S. adults said the rise in the planet's average temperature is primarily caused by “natural changes in the environment that are not due to human activities.” Three percent offered no opinion about the cause.
The survey result suggests that roughly 3 in 10 Americans are bigger deniers of climate change than Stephens; they don't even accept that humans are largely to blame.
Yet Stephens has been branded an “extreme climate science denier” by ThinkProgress. After Stephens's hiring by the New York Times this month, but before the publication of his first column for it, “more complaints came into the public editor's office than at any time since the election,” the paper's public editor, Liz Spayd, wrote. At least a few climate scientists say they have canceled their subscriptions to the newspaper in protest of Stephens.
The problem with this “fiery revolt,” as Spayd described it, is that the “denier” label is imprecise. It implies that Stephens rejects more science than he actually does and, as a result, makes his critics look like a bunch of exaggerating bullies.
Stephens's description of himself as a “climate agnostic” (the term he offered to HuffPost a few weeks ago) doesn't really capture his view, either. An agnostic is unwilling to commit to an opinion about something, and Stephens's writings at the Wall Street Journal and, now, at the Times indicate a strong commitment to the opinion that scientists' grim predictions about future climate change are dubious, at best.
Plus, he appears to harbor a measure of disdain for these scientists, whom he has called “spectacularly unattractive people.”
But “denier” lumps in Stephens with those who don't acknowledge that humans have contributed to the warming of Earth. He doesn't belong in that group. As the Times' editorial page editor, James Bennet, told HuffPost, “There's more than one kind of denial” — and Stephens's kind is not the most extreme.
Just for perspective: In the Gallup poll I mentioned earlier, only 71 percent of U.S. adults agreed with the statement that “most scientists believe that global warming is occurring.” Twenty-four percent said they were unsure or had no opinion, and 5 percent actually said most scientists believe that global warming is not occurring.
Think about that. We're not talking about people's own beliefs about global warming; we're talking about people's own beliefs about what most scientists believe in.
According to NASA, “Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.”
Regardless of what people choose to believe for themselves, it is an objective fact that most scientists believe in global warming. Yet some folks do not merely reject scientists' conclusions; they live in an alternate universe where scientists' conclusions are unclear or the opposite of reality.
Now that is extreme climate change denial.
Even Joe Romm, the ThinkProgress writer who described Stephens as an “extreme climate science denier,” has noted the trouble with the “denier” label. Here's what he wrote in 2011:
Over the years, I have explained why “denier” is not my preferred term. I tried to coin the terms “delayer” and “disinformer” for those who make a living spreading disinformation about climate science — and I still use the term “disinformer.” But coining terms is nearly impossible, and the fact is that almost everybody has embraced the term “deniers” — including many, many disinformers.
“Delayer” would be more applicable to Stephens, who in 2015 shared “a climate prediction for the year 2115: Liberals will still be organizing campaigns against yet another mooted social or environmental crisis. Temperatures will be about the same.”
“Disinformer” would be better, too. Stephens has a habit of using logically flawed comparisons to sow doubt about climate change projections. Election models were wrong about a Hillary Clinton victory, so climate models could be wrong, too, he argued in his first Times column. Weather forecasts are sometimes inaccurate, Stephens has noted, so why put faith in climate forecasts?
Weather and climate are separate things, of course, and predicting human behavior is rather different from predicting physics. The idea that Earth's climate is as unpredictable as the weather on a single day or the outcome of one election qualifies as disinformation.
But Romm's preferred terms have not caught on, which is too bad. “Denier” doesn't fit Stephens very well, and it makes those who try to apply it to him appear dishonest.