Bret Stephens and the Art of the Concern Troll

The dirty rhetorical trick behind the New York Times columnist’s façade of reasonableness.

Bret Stephens moderates a panel during the Christians United for Israel summit on July 13, 2015 in Washington.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Bret Stephens, the New York Times’ new resident climate change skeptic, claims in his latest piece that he’s open to the idea of a carbon tax. But those familiar with his work will not be surprised to learn that he has a concern.

Stephens’ issue, as expressed in a conversation with his liberal colleague Gail Collins that the Times published on Tuesday, is that carbon taxes are regressive. That is, they affect the poor disproportionately to the rich. This is a legitimate worry, especially for liberals—but hardly, as the conservative Stephens suggests, an insurmountable one. In fact, the very same paper he cites to support his point concludes that the policy’s regressive effects could be offset through careful recycling of its revenues. (Here’s one very appealing way to do that.)

To his marginal credit, Stephens evinces some awareness of his ignorance on this count. In the same conversation with Collins, he notes that he’s planning to meet this weekend with a Columbia University energy policy expert to gain “more information” on the topic before he writes about it yet again in the Times. (Better late than never!)

Stephens’ “opine first, ask questions later” approach to climate writing is indefensible, given the visibility of his perch at the Times and the propensity of conservative policymakers to cite his arguments as justification for their catastrophic decisions. But even more galling than his acknowledged ignorance is his unacknowledged disingenuousness. Specifically, Stephens has shown himself to be a master of concern-trolling. His stance on the carbon tax is a textbook example of this singularly obnoxious rhetorical trick, which allows him to undermine climate activists’ most basic goals even as he pretends to share them.

Concern trolling is widely misunderstood and was, for a brief period a few years back, wildly overdiagnosed by Twitter pundits as the insult du jour, much as gaslighting was in 2016. Here’s how Ana Marie Cox accurately defined the concept for Time magazine in 2006:

A more subtle beast than your standard troll, this species posts comments that appear to be sympathetic to the topic being discussed but who, in reality, wishes to sow doubt in the minds of readers.

Pretending to be sympathetic while sowing doubt: This is precisely what Stephens was doing in his first awful climate column in the Times—and he’s doing it again when he claims to be deeply troubled about the regressive effects of a carbon tax.

From the outset of his hire at the Times, Stephens has sought to portray himself as a reasonable, clearheaded skeptic on climate change: a man who accepts the basic scientific consensus but cautions against overreacting to it. This is rather at odds with his history of mocking and dismissing climate scientists and activists as victims of a “mass hysteria“ who are driven by a “totalitarian impulse“ to peddle “discredited” science. As recently as last year, he described climate change as an “imaginary enemy.”

But let’s charitably assume that his thinking has evolved, and is still in the process of evolving, as he claims. Even so, this is a person who made it clear just a month ago that he doesn’t believe climate change is likely to have severe effects, nor that we should undertake any urgent or costly action to mitigate it. So when Stephens cites a reason to oppose a carbon tax that is not simply, “I don’t think climate change merits serious policy action,” there’s good cause to be suspicious of his sincerity.

Indeed, the reason Stephens offers is laughably disingenuous. Regressive effects of taxation are, as noted above, of serious concern to many policy analysts, especially those on the left who view progressive taxation as an important countermeasure against inequality. But Stephens, the former deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal’s arch-conservative editorial page, is not among them. He is, as he acknowledges in this very same column, a “supply-sider.”

Supply-side economists don’t want a more progressive tax code. They want lower taxes, especially on the wealthy capitalists whose economic activity they view as the crucial driver of economic growth. They also tend to support spending cuts that fall disproportionately on the poor. In other words, supply-siders are in favor of making Washington’s tax and spending habits more regressive, even if those aren’t quite the terms in which they typically put it.

Viewed in that context, the motivation behind Stephens’ criticism of the carbon tax becomes clear. He doesn’t actually care that it would be regressive, but he knows that liberal Times readers will—so he shrewdly adopts this concern to justify a stance that he holds for other, less palatable reasons. It’s intellectually dishonest, and once you see it for what it is, it’s maddening.

This is only Stephens’ latest concern troll, and it’s not his finest. The real masterpiece was his infamous first column for the Times. His subtle deployment of the tactic in that piece helps to explain why some people found it far more enraging than others: The former saw the maneuver for what it was, while the latter were taken in by it.

In that column, Stephens claimed to be offering a “lesson” for “anyone who wants to advance the cause of good climate policy.” That lesson: “Claiming total certainty about the science” is counterproductive because it “creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong.” Perhaps, he concluded, “if there were less certitude about our climate future, more Americans would be interested in having a reasoned conversation about it.”

This argument belongs in the concern trolling hall of fame. Posing as someone sympathetic to “the cause of good climate policy,” Stephens professes to worry that climate activists are hurting their cause by working so zealously to convince people that the science is settled. If only they could admit that the science of climate change is unsettled and its future impacts speculative and unknowable, surely better climate policy would be at hand!

Of course, as Stephens and anyone else familiar with the history of climate policy knows, this is the polar opposite of reality. Sowing doubt about the scientific consensus has long been the deadly effective go-to strategy of polluters and big business advocates defending the status quo. That’s just what Stephens was doing here, by erecting a strawman climate community that places religious faith in the output of complex models laden with uncertainty. In fact, climate scientists understand uncertainty far better than he does, and they’re constantly questioning and refining not only their predictions but their assessments of the uncertainty embodied therein.

In his conversation with Collins, Stephens professes what feels like a genuine discomfort with the Trump administration’s use of his op-ed to defend its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Of his own column, Stephens says, “It had no business being in a policy statement of any sort,” which just might be the truest line he’s ever written. But it’s telling that Stephens is so uncomfortable with the notion that actual world-historical events might be influenced by his rhetorical noodlings. It suggests that he relishes intellectual jousting but doesn’t necessarily expect people to take his arguments to heart. He’s like the guy who spent the election writing fake pro-Trump news for money and lulz, then was appalled to realize that he might have actually helped the crazy man win.

Prior to writing his first climate column for the Times, Stephens corresponded by email with Andrew Revkin, the paper’s widely respected former environmental writer. He proceeded to distort Revkin’s arguments by quoting selectively from the parts that appeared to support his point. Revkin later posted a rebuttal to Stephens’ column in Quartz, but the majority of Times readers were left with the false impression not only that Stephens had taken the trouble to earnestly educate himself by engaging with Revkin, but that Revkin actually agreed with him.

Now Stephens tells us he’s headed up to Columbia to continue his education on climate policy. What an avid learner he is. How earnest in his quest for enlightenment. I can’t wait to read the fruits of his discussion—perhaps not only in Stephens’ next column but in the ensuing embarrassed clarifications and rebuttals from the experts whose work he misrepresents.