Soft climate change denial (also called implicit or implicatory climate change denial) is a state of mind acknowledging the existence of global warming in the abstract while remaining, to some extent, in partial psychological or intellectual denialism about its reality or impact. It is contrasted with conventional "hard" climate change denial, which refers to explicit disavowal of the consensus on global warming's existence, causes, or effects (including its effects on human society).
Soft denial is akin to cognitive dissonance: despite understanding and accepting the scientific consensus on climate change as substantially true, a person in "soft" climate denial may behave as though the existence or severity of global warming are not fully real. A person in soft denial about global warming may neglect its urgency, miscalculate its risks, overestimate the extent of scientific uncertainty, and underestimate the extent of social change required to effectively mitigate climate change. Additionally, one may prefer inaction, postponement of climate action, or maintaining the status quo to an unreasonable degree, or may simply fail to act on the issue whatsoever due to apathy or disengagement. Even some forms of unproductive activism could be considered soft denial. More generally, soft climate denial can refer to any mild or partial climate change denial.
Michael Hoexter is credited with formalizing the definition of soft climate denial in September 2016, though the term was in use earlier. The closely related term "neoskepticism" originated a month earlier in Science Magazine. While soft climate denial generally connotes a state of mind or set of beliefs, neoskepticism describes a deliberate set of rhetorical strategies adopted by opponents of climate mitigation policy. Although neoskeptics do not deny the existence of global warming outright, they err toward the most optimistic, least disruptive projections and oppose mitigation policy as ineffective, costly, or both. Both soft climate denial and neoskepticism are relevant to the politics of global warming, the political (not scientific) global warming controversy, and the study of environmental communication. The term soft climate denial has been used to criticize political inaction on climate-related issues.
The idea of "soft" or implicit climate change denial became prominent in the mid-2010s, but variations of the same concept originated earlier. An article published by National Center for Science Education referred to "implicit" denial:
Climate change denial is most conspicuous when it is explicit, as it is in controversies over climate education. The idea of implicit (or "implicatory") denial, however, is increasingly discussed among those who study the controversies over climate change. Implicit denial occurs when people who accept the scientific community's consensus on the answers to the central questions of climate change on the intellectual level fail to come to terms with it or to translate their acceptance into action. Such people are in denial, so to speak, about climate change.
In May 2015, environmentalist Bill McKibben penned an op-ed criticizing Barack Obama's policies of approving petroleum exploration in the Arctic, expanding coal mining, and remaining indecisive on the Keystone XL pipeline. McKibben wrote:
This is not climate denial of the Republican sort, where people simply pretend the science isn't real. This is climate denial of the status quo sort, where people accept the science, and indeed make long speeches about the immorality of passing on a ruined world to our children. They just deny the meaning of the science, which is that we must keep carbon in the ground.
McKibben's use of the word "denial" was an early expansion of the term's meaning in environmental discourse to include "denial of the significance or logical consequences of a fact or problem; in this case, what advocates see as the necessary policies that flow from the dangers of global warming." In April 2016, the environmentalist organization Friends of the Earth Action accused Hillary Clinton—who was, at the time, campaigning in the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primaries—of "engaging in soft climate denial."
In 2012, Clive Hamilton published an essay 'Climate change and the soothing message of luke-warmism'. He defined luke warmists as "those who appear to accept the body of climate science but interpret it in a way that is least threatening: emphasising uncertainties, playing down dangers, and advocating a slow and cautious response. They are politically conservative and anxious about the threat to the social structure posed by the implications of climate science. Their “pragmatic” approach is therefore alluring to political leaders looking for a justification for policy minimalism." He associated Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, but also Roger A. Pielke Jr., Daniel Sarewitz, Steve Rayner, Mike Hulme and "the pre-eminent luke-warmist" Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg.
Michael Hoexter, a scholar and sustainability advocate, analyzed the phenomenon of "soft climate change denial" in a September 2016 article for the blog New Economic Perspectives and expanded on the idea in a follow-up article published the next month. Despite the term's earlier, informal usage, Hoexter has been credited with formally defining the concept. In Hoexter's terms, "soft" climate denial "means that one acknowledges in some parts of one's life that climate change is real, disastrous and happening now but in most other parts of one's life, one ignores that anthropogenic global warming is, in fact, a real existential emergency and catastrophic." According to Hoexter, "soft climate denial and the thin gruel of climate action policies that accompany it may be functioning as a 'face-saving' device to mask fundamental inertia or a deep manifest preference for inaction while continuing fossil-fueled business as usual."
Hoexter used the term to critique the inadequacy of mainstream political responses to global warming:
The most well-organized political efforts to date are generally those that choose the most indirect route to climate action, for instance divestment from fossil fuel companies or a very gradual introduction of a carbon price. It seems that the weaker the remedy proposed for addressing climate change the more organized and well-funded is the group.
He also applied the term to "more 'radical' groups" that pushed for more responsive measures, but "often either miss the mark in terms of the climate challenge facing us or wrap themselves in communication strategies and 'memes' that limit their potential influence on politics and policy." In Hoexter's view, soft denial can only be escaped through collective action, not individual action or realization.
"Neoskepticism" was coined in a policy paper published in the August 2016 issue of the journal Science. The term has substantial overlap with "soft climate change denial". Written by Paul Stern of the National Research Council and three other authors, the article makes the case that opposition to climate policy was beginning to take a "rhetorical shift away from outright skepticism": rather than denying the existence of global warming, neoskeptics instead "question the magnitude of the risks and assert that reducing them has more costs than benefits." According to the authors, the emergence of neoskepticism "heightens the need for science to inform decision making under uncertainty and to improve communication and education."
There are a range of projected changes that will result from global warming and a variety of possible mitigation policies. Disagreement over the sufficiency, viability, or desirability of a given policy is not necessarily neoskepticism. However, neoskepticism is marked by failure to appreciate the increased risks associated with delayed action. Distinguishing "rational optimism" from neoskepticism, Gavin Schmidt described the latter as a form of confirmation bias and the tendency of "always taking as gospel the lowest estimate of a plausible range." Neoskeptics err toward the least-disruptive projections and least-active policies and, as such, neglect or misapprehend the full spectrum of risks associated with global warming. They also neglect the costs associated with delay and inaction.
In his second article on the topic, Hoexter listed several beliefs or thought patterns that, in his observation, tend to contribute to soft climate denial:
According to Anne Pasek, the difficulty of comprehending the sheer scale of global warming and its effects can result in sincere (albeit ill-founded) belief that individual changes in behavior will suffice to address the problem without requiring more fundamental structural changes. In political terms, soft climate denial can stem from concerns about the economics and economic impacts of climate change, particularly the concern that strong measures to combat global warming or mitigate its impacts will seriously inhibit economic growth.
Soft climate denial has been ascribed to both liberals and conservatives, as well as proponents of market-based environmental policy instruments. It has also been used in self-criticism against tendencies toward complacency and inaction. Depending on perspective, sources may differ on whether a person engages in "soft" or "hard" denial (or neither). For example, the environmental policy of the Trump administration has been described as both "soft" and "hard" climate denial.
Rupert Read critiqued soft denial as a widespread condition of modern culture and a potentially more damaging phenomenon than open "hard" denial:
Liberalism and consumerism [...] do not practice the big lie—they don't pretend that the climate crisis is plain irreal—but their soft denial is subtle, and ultimately therefore potentially more dangerous. They pretend (as it were) that we can keep making cake together, even though the ingredients are running out and the kitchen is filling up with smoke. [...] It's absurd that at this moment in history the President of the USA [Donald Trump] is a climate-denier... and yet, he is. And perhaps the rest of us are not as profoundly different from him as we think we are; perhaps we are so vituperative against him because that allows us to tacitly deny that we are living in 'soft' denial.
In Scientific American, Robert N. Proctor and Steve Lyons criticized Bret Stephens, a conservative New York Times opinion columnist and self-described "climate agnostic", as a soft denialist. According to Proctor and Lyons:
The irony is that Stephens himself seems to presume that climate science must be understood in political terms—as part of a larger struggle between liberals and conservatives. But the reality of climate change has nothing to do with politics: it's an atmospheric fact, not a political fact. And the whole idea of needing to keep 'an open mind' to a legitimate 'controversy' is the very essence of modern 'soft' denialism.
Writing for the Post Carbon Institute, Ashik Siddique argued that all the other current opinion columnists at the Times expressed varying degrees of soft denial in their work. He analyzed the writing of Stephens's fellow conservatives (Ross Douthat and David Brooks) as well as his liberal colleagues (Maureen Dowd, David Leonhardt, Frank Bruni, Gail Collins, Charles Blow, Paul Krugman, Nicholas Kristof, Thomas Friedman, and Roger Cohen). In his view, these writers had failed to thoughtfully consider their own newspaper's reporting on the issue and were "about as irrelevant to actual policy discussions about our rapidly worsening crisis as Stephens."
Critics have argued that labels like soft denial are overly broad and counterproductive. Brian Schatz, a US Senator from Hawaii who has focused on climate change as an issue, said that the term "denial" should be reserved for those who dispute the reality, human causation, and urgency of climate change. According to Schatz, expanding the definition further would mean "throwing around the term without any precision" at a time when "actual climate denial is on the wane." Alex Trembath of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research center affiliated with ecomodernism, said the label "denier" can be unhelpful and alienating regardless of its intended target, but is especially polarizing when used to label someone who accepts the scientific consensus and expresses support for environmentalist ideas.