Bret Stephens, a new columnist for The New York Times, has provoked outrage among liberals by suggesting that climate change believers tone down their rhetoric. His column is an interesting read, and provokes debate over whether or not he was intending to provoke liberal ire. Stephens presents readers with a cautionary tale about being “too certain” about things, claiming that liberals are doing themselves a disservice by insisting that the issues of climate change and global warming are 100 percent settled.
Whether Stephens believes in man-made global warming, or supports legislation to attempt to limit it, is unclear. The columnist takes great pains to insist that he is not denying climate change, but declares that the general public has a right to be skeptical of scientific certainty. These citizens, he notes, “know – as all environmentalists should – that history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power.”
Stephens does not offer any such errors, nor does he present many facts and figures at all. Aside from referencing some recent reports, the column is pretty sparse. It is also brief. Frankly, it does not seem like an article that should inspire such hand-wringing among liberal readers. Obviously, it is the fact that the article was published by a left-leaning newspaper that has spurred anger.
If Stephens was trying to kick a hornet’s nest, he did a pretty good job. He does have a good point about being overly devoted to specific data and figures: If those figures are ever disproven, critics will savage your entire argument. Indeed, conservatives are eagerly waiting for any previously-hypothesized global warming figures to fail to meet predictions. If any numbers are slightly off, politicians and lobbyists who support pollutant-rich industries will loudly declare the whole “man-made climate change thing” a sham.
Liberal politicians will be accused of pushing job-killing regulations on the back of “bad science,” and many voters will agree.
But how else can one try to persuade the public about the dangers of global warming without resorting to hard data? Skeptics will demand numbers and will not accept “soft” answers like “well, it’s getting hotter every year” and “we’re seeing more and more extreme weather events.” An example of this can be seen whenever climate change skeptics point to the fact that it’s still snowing. Snowstorms are “soft” and in no way disprove that it is getting hotter every year. To fight conservatives’ argument that every cold snap disproves global warming, liberals must point to the steadily-climbing average and record temps.
Asking climate change proponents to go easy on the numbers, as Stephens suggests, is very difficult to do. But he may have a more general point in that liberals, especially climate change believers, need to improve their “soft skills.” Recently, Democrats in the United States have gotten a bad reputation for eschewing people skills for data-driven analytics. Stephens references Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful 2016 presidential campaign, which ignored conventional wisdom, and pleas from actual campaign personnel on the ground, for computer-driven analysis that said she was headed for a guaranteed win.
Clinton and her team failed to account for the human element of the general campaign, and it cost them. Donald Trump, who went with his gut, scored a tremendous upset in the Electoral College. He knew how to read people. Trump, despite lacking political experience, knew what made voters tick.
Those who believe that legislatures need to work on minimizing global warming and man-made climate change should focus on the appealing to the general public. Instead of resorting to dense scientific language, they should highlight the harms to real people from global warming within the next century: Destroyed property, food shortages, and damage of all kinds caused by increased incidences of extreme weather and aftermath events like mudslides and water contamination.
Saying that the earth’s average temperate may increase by 3 degrees Celsius by 2100 may not shock the average voter into action, but showing rising food prices and home insurance premiums might do the trick.
By angrily leaving The New York Times and insisting that any right-of-center political views are completely unacceptable, liberals are hurting their own cause by harming their reputation. Canceling newspaper subscriptions over a single displeasing column only reinforces the damaging stereotype that liberals are hypocritical, intolerant “snowflakes” who do not know how to get along with others. It may be tempting to blast Bret Stephens as a science-denier, but opponents must be engaged rather than ignored.
When Hillary Clinton decided to ignore Donald Trump’s supposed “basket of deplorables,” it hurt her candidacy. She looked out-of-touch and, by refusing to engage with those who were unsupportive, forever closed the door on winning any meaningful right-of-center support. Those who believe in man-made climate change must try to reach those who disagree and explain to them the importance of combating pollutants. Howling that non-believers are rubes and morons will only generate permanent hostility… and the planet will continue to warm.