Denying Climate Denial

Andrew Winston
5 min readMay 1, 2017

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 in “The Straw Man Arguments of Climate Denial,” he basically makes two fake arguments: (1) everyone supporting climate action is too certain on the science (and science is never 100%), and (2) it’s too expensive to do something. Both are wrong, but it’s the nature of “denial” that I want to talk about here.

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, which many others parroted, was that Stephens didn’t deny the existence of climate change.

Technically, it’s true. In his op-ed, Stephens says, “None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences.”

But defining denial as only outright denial of the basic 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 imagine you got not just a “second opinion,” but 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.”

Andrew Winston

Adviser, author, speaker on how businesses can (profitably) solve the world's mega-challenges. Author: The Big Pivot & Green to Gold