The world’s scientific community predicts up to two feet of sea level rise by just 2100, likely accompanied by a rising tide of climate refugees. So it’s worth dissecting how America’s dominant conservative media have swept the issue under the rug for two generations. To watch the evolution of climate change denial in action—and learn how to fight it—a great place to turn is the nation’s highest-circulation newspaper, the Wall Street Journal.
The most eminent U.S. conservative news source, the Journal’s reporters are among the best in the country, reflecting a common pattern among the business press, which is written for executives, investors, and managers who need reasonably accurate information in order to run the corporate economy. However, its op-ed page is essentially Fox News with AP English, and its long tradition of climate denial and more recently fatalism is the perfect window into what future generations are going to demand: a fucking explanation for how people were able to accept several decades of knowingly utterly wrecking the future environment, years after the science was settled.
The reality, as even the Journal recognizes, is that there has been a scientific consensus on climate change for some time. However few people have any idea what constitutes scientific consensus—broad agreement—about a phenomenon. However, climate researchers have examined this specific issue, and their findings are striking. For example, one research paper in Environmental Research Letters examined an amazing compilation of 11,944 climate-relevant paper abstracts, showing a high level of professional consensus. “Among abstracts expressing a position on [anthropogenic global warming], 97.1% endorsed the consensus positions that humans are causing global warming…we invited authors to rate their own papers…97.2% endorsed the consensus…Our analysis indicates that the number of papers rejecting the consensus on AGW is a vanishingly small proportion of the published research.”
Importantly, a fascinating research article published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences studied how the subject had become politicized. Applying an analysis algorithm to a giant number of texts discussing climate, it concluded “organizations with corporate funding were more likely to have written and disseminated texts meant to polarize the climate change issue.” More specifically, “corporate funding influences the actual thematic content of these polarization efforts,” so that rather than a non-partisan scientific subject the issue is treated like a “polarized” political issue, with corporate-driven talking points always present. The paper empirically highlights “the actual social arrangements within which large-scale scientific (mis)information is generated, and the important role private funding plays in shaping the actual ideological content of scientific information that is written and amplified.”
With this broad outline in hand of the scientific consensus on climate, as well as scientists’ own understanding of corporations muddying the water, let’s have a look at the history of the Journal’s foot-dragging on climate, remembering that this is business media–primarily capitalists talking to one another. It reveals an evolution from full denial to a heinous resigned fatalism, in the process creating right-wing tropes that became hugely widespread in reactionary media from Rush Limbaugh to South Park.
Consider the 1980s, when NASA scientist James Hansen first brought the issue to national attention with his 1988 Congressional testimony. The Journal immediately led right-wing opinion away from its traditional mostly pro-science, can-do Yankee attitude toward one of stuffing fingers in the ears. An early op-ed, “Fact and Fancy on Greenhouse Earth,” was among the first to make the now-familiar claim that the science wasn’t there yet, claiming that far more data would be needed to confirm a trend agreeing with climate change projections. And thus confidently overruling from their press offices all the professional scientists spending their lives studying the subject. It also took the particularly cheap step of calling anthropogenic change a “theory,” avoiding the fact that “theory” in science means a testable, evidence-based explanation of something, whereas people typically use the word “theory” the way scientists use “hypothesis”—an educated guess.
Another classic is a 1988 piece by Michael McCarthy informing us that climate is influenced by many complex factors—a huge surprise to professional climate scientists for sure—and claiming activists around the issue fail to realize this. But its real contribution to conservative climate denial was its suggestion that “As with many follies, some of this may result from a yen for government financing. Many climate theorists rely on such financing…and finding a way to relate one’s theories to current weather problems may be useful in getting it.” Of course, a giant proportion of all scientific research is funded directly by federal research bodies like the Pentagon’s ARPA or the National Institutes of Health, with similar public arrangements globally, but it’s a handy bludgeon for beating back meddling scientists, or should we say “climate theorists.”
Down the years the op-ed page would plumb real depths, as when a Cato fellow in 1997 inaugurated an enduring trend among science-illiterate right-wing trolls when he actively celebrated any future climate change. “Global warming…would probably benefit most Americans” since “Most Americans prefer a warmer climate to a colder one,” and anyway it might cost more of our GDP to abate emissions than the future cost to GDP from climate losses—at least when impacts are measured a certain way that of course is not how the main body of actual scientists measure them.
But maybe the most interesting climate-denial article, considering the turn the Journal would take in the 2010s, is one from 1992 dismissing a global environmental conference in Brazil by demanding far more detailed models before considering any policy action, saying that would be “The key to settling the climate change debate—short of waiting several decades to get a clear-cut reading of the global temperature trend.” Of course, scientists did refine their models over the years, which the right was not satisfied with. But after decades of this dumb right-wing opportunism, we have in fact waited the several damn decades and a quite clear climate deterioration has emerged. So how has the paper reacted to this growing scientific understanding and rising public recognition of climate change?
Simple: Denial has turned to dismissal. It’s now very difficult to be an outright climate change denier—every week brings new stories of alarming research findings, public opinion is steadily edging closer to the scientific consensus, and even ExxonMobil now publicly states that “increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere are having a warming effect.” As pure rejection of climate science has become less and less tenable, the Journal’s op-ed writers appear to be taking a different line: Climate change is happening, but it’s “affordable.” Or possibly even a good thing!
So we get headlines like “Climate Change Isn’t The End of the World,” and “Climate Change Is Affordable.” The former article was critiqued at Climate Feedback by David Easterling of NOAA’s Climatic Data Center, who called it “a very simplistic, almost naive op-ed,” some of whose assertions “such as the one about CO2 being good for plants,” demonstrating that “the authors do not know or understand how increasing CO2 is good or bad for plants, they are just repeating something they heard.”
In “Climate Change is Affordable,” journal editorial writer Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. responds to the Fourth National Climate Assessment. The assessment is clear and alarming, with separate sections documenting the impacts of climate change on health, water supplies, ecosystems, indigenous people, forests, marine resources, and international interests. Produced by hundreds of experts across over a dozen government agencies, it clearly breaks down the effects climate change will have on every different region of the United States. It is both cautious and thorough, assigning probabilities to its predicted outcomes. It makes clear that the harms of climate change will not be equally distributed among all, because “people who are already vulnerable, including lower-income and other marginalized communities, have lower capacity to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events and are expected to experience greater impacts.” How does Jenkins respond? Without linking to the report, he calls it “a poorly organized, over-lengthy piece of junk that hardly fills one with confidence in the motives of its authors.” He says that the hundreds of billions of dollars in economic costs alone (“a manageable $510 billion annually” for just the U.S.) would be “a nuisance, not armageddon.” He ignores nearly all of the report’s findings, and then tells us that “voters are skeptical of doom mongering” and growth must be prioritized above all:
In the minds of too many activists, climate really is a stalking horse for capitalism, consumerism and economic growth. They won’t be happy unless they can also stop mankind’s general quest for abundance. The new U.S. study finds that it would be especially expensive to adapt to an especially dire climate scenario. No kidding, Sherlock. But climate varies and humans do adapt. Populations and economic activities (like farming) relocate over time. Coastal communities pull back or build dikes… The biggest holdup to direct action on climate is showing that preventing these changes would be cheaper than enduring them (after factoring in scientific uncertainty). My suggestion to campaigners: Don’t lead with a carbon tax. Lead with tax reform. Nations need tax reform to restore growth and pay for their welfare states. A carbon tax—as part of a larger package of pro-growth reforms—would be the efficient, noncorrupt way to encourage human beings to do everything in a less carbon-intensive way.
Note how the rhetoric works here. There’s no actual substantive discussion of the report—Jenkins pretends it’s simply too incomprehensible to read. (Go and have a look at it yourself and see if that’s true. For a government document, it’s actually a masterpiece of clarity. He’s depending on his readers taking him at his word and not being curious enough to check whether he’s bullshitting them.) Jenkins says that whatever costs there may be are affordable, ignoring the report’s evidence that the costs will fall overwhelmingly on poor people. (Though undoubtedly climate change is affordable for Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., who will probably be fine.) And he suggests that while he is open to a carbon tax, the priority must be economic growth. He even suggests climate activists prioritize tax cuts over climate change! (Sorry, “tax reform.”)
We can actually see here a bit of why “it’s fine” or “it’s unavoidable” are the dominant attitudes toward climate change at the Journal nowadays. Jenkins says that the climate is “a stalking horse for capitalism,” from the hardened socialists at the dozen government agencies producing the Climate Assessment. He’s right in a certain sense, though: It’s very difficult to acknowledge the full scope of the climate change problem without implicating capitalism, as Naomi Klein ably demonstrates in This Changes Everything. The fact that “free market” interactions are creating a gigantic destructive externality undermines the entire idea that laissez-faire capitalism is “efficient” and good for humanity. The Journal op-ed writers have to scoff at the implications of climate science, because if they accepted them they’d need to admit capitalism was failing to provide the promised “abundance” or was doing so at the cost of future generations. So, without refuting any of the scientific reports they mention, WSJ writers say things like: “Humans do adapt. Populations relocate over time,” without answering questions like “Which populations? What does this relocation look like? Is it going to be millions of poor migrants whose foods sources have disappeared?”
Here’s another common way the WSJ dismisses climate activists: large-scale action is, of course, “not worth the cost.” Warming may be occurring, but it will only destroy a small percentage of GDP. Leftists, of course, are “ignoring economics”:
The IPCC says carbon emissions need to peak right now and fall rapidly to avert catastrophe. Models actually reveal that to achieve the 2.7-degree goal the world must stop all fossil fuel use in less than four years. Yet the International Energy Agency estimates that in 2040 fossil fuels will still meet three-quarters of world energy needs, even if the Paris agreement is fully implemented…. Trying to do more, as the IPCC urges, would be phenomenally expensive. It is important to keep things in perspective, challenging as that is given the hysterical tone of the reaction to the panel’s latest offering. In its latest full report, the IPCC estimated that in 60 years unmitigated global warming would cost the planet between 0.2% and 2% of gross domestic product. That’s simply not the end of the world.
That “not the end of the world” rhetoric is common, in editorials with titles like “Not the Climate Apocalypse.” The reasoning here, apparently, is that if something is not literally the apocalypse, and does not literally kill every person on earth, then concern about it is mere hysteria. Here again we see how the right has shifted: from “it’s not happening” to “of course it’s happening, why are you worried about it? Plenty of [wealthy] people will be left alive.” Albert O. Hirschman famously pointed out that conservative arguments are almost always of three kinds: perversity, futility, and jeopardy—Reform X is immoral, pointless, or harmful, all of which are deployed in order to maintain things precisely as they are and convince people that there’s no use trying to change them. We see all of that in Journal climate op-eds.
Meanwhile, over in the news department, you can see just how detatched the op-eds are from the reality being documented every day by the paper’s reporters. Compare Jenkins’ insistence that climate change is “affordable” with this report from August “adding up the cost of climate change in lost lives”:
An exhaustive new study focusing only on heat-related damage reaches a sobering conclusion: by the year 2099, even with economic growth and adaptation, 1.5 million more people will die each year around the world because of increased heat. Not surprisingly, wealthier places fare better: in Houston, each additional day averaging 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit), relative to a “normal” day of 20 degrees, raises the annual death rate by 0.5 per 100,000 people. In Cairo, which is as hot as Houston but only one-tenth as rich, a hot day is nearly 10 times deadlier… Mortality actually drops in temperate, rich cities such as Oslo because they experience fewer dangerously cold days, and their affluence minimizes the harm of hot days. It rises sharply in places like Mogadishu, Somalia, that, despite being used to hot days, aren’t rich enough to withstand the extremes… The toll goes beyond death. Adaptation avoids some deaths but soaks up money and effort that can’t go toward other things such as dental care and vacations. These costs ought to be factored into the effects of climate change. Regulators evaluating new safety rules routinely express human lives in dollar equivalents. The study’s authors do the opposite, expressing the costs of adaptation in death-equivalents. This raises the net impact on mortality to 35 per 100,000, or roughly 3.9 million lives.
Oh, it’s just a biannual holocaust of the poor, but GDP will remain strong!
But even though the Journal needs to fully acknowledge the facts of climate change somewhere, in order to guide investment decisions, it’s still founded on sociopathic capitalistic assumptions. Consider this remarkable bit of market analysis, arguing that “the consensus that climate change will do obvious damage to long-run stock returns is wrong.” The Journal’s James Mackintosh says that investors have come to the conclusion that climate change is going to make fossil fuels a losing proposition in the long-run, and that renewable energy is the future. But, Mackintosh says, this depends on the assumption that human societies will actually try to stop climate change. This, he says, is a dubious assumption, and actually “from a purely financial point of view, the best response is to buy stocks in companies pumping out carbon.” This is remarkable: It accepts the scientific consensus on climate change. It just argues that the best way to make a pile of money is by contributing to the further destruction of the earth rather than trying to save it. “From a purely financial point of view,” of course, this may be correct. But all we’ve learned is why a “purely financial point of view” is incompatible with the long-term survival of humanity.
Let’s finish with one of the strangest recent WSJ op-eds on climate change, “Climate Change Has Run Its Course,” in which Steven F. Hayward argues that climate change is no longer a thing:
Climate change is over. No, I’m not saying the climate will not change in the future, or that human influence on the climate is negligible. I mean simply that climate change is no longer a pre-eminent policy issue. All that remains is boilerplate rhetoric from the political class, frivolous nuisance lawsuits, and bureaucratic mandates on behalf of special-interest renewable-energy rent seekers… ‘The descent of climate change into the abyss of social-justice identity politics represents the last gasp of a cause that has lost its vitality. Climate alarm is like a car alarm—a blaring noise people are tuning out.”
So climate change is “over”—not in the sense that it isn’t happening, since of course it is. But in the sense that people don’t care, so let’s forget about it. Hayward’s article is bizarre: If it’s happening, but political action is impossible, what does that mean? There’s an implicit fatalism here, as there often is in conservative rhetoric. Hayward argues that “identity politics” has killed the possibility of doing anything about climate change, but doesn’t actually deny the problem.
What you read in Journal op-eds nowadays is no longer “It’s not happening. You’re chicken little. The science is wrong.” (Though you will still never, ever hear that fossil fuels are responsible.) Instead, today you hear a steady drumbeat of “Give up. Do nothing. It’s inevitable.” There is no mystery as to why: Capitalism is the enemy of the climate, climate change therefore implicates capitalism at its core, and the Wall Street Journal is a capitalist newspaper for people whose sole ambition is to make money, even at the expense of millions upon millions of the global poor.
This might feel like just another instance of the Right making cheap, opportunistic arguments. But when future generations of men and women trying to cope with the rising tide of death and suffering in the climate nightmare look back to our time, they won’t just blame the powerful men like Trump or Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson for their decision to doom future people. They’ll also remember the clever intellectuals who soothed the consciences of the corporate world while the future was steadily eaten.
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