Climate denial in the British Medical Journal

Climate denial in several forms is common across society.
The BMJ is highlighting the need for action on the climate emergency, but an examination of published articles indicates a culture of unconscious implicatory climate denial similar to what is common elsewhere.
If The BMJ want to play its part in tackling the climate emergency, it should tighten its reviewing procedures.
For example, it could use a checklist system similar to that used for statistical methods.

Climate denial seems to be present across society [1]. So how much climate denial is there in the The British Medical Journal (The BMJ)?

Types of climate denial

When climate denial is discussed, most people think of statements such as "the climate is not changing" (i.e. denial of basic facts, which is termed literal denial [2]), or "the change in the climate is not due to mankind's burning of fossil fuels" (i.e. denial of how the facts should be interpreted, termed interpretive denial [2]). But there is a third form of denial, termed implicatory denial by Stanley Cohen [2], where it is not the facts or the interpretation of them that is denied, but the psychological, political, and moral implications of them. This last form is widespread in developed countries, in part due to lack of awareness, but also, it seems, due to unconscious evasion.

Standards needed

The moral and policy implications of the climate science and the UK's commitments via the Paris and other international agreements are as follows.

Quoting the budget calculations in 2021, Fiona Godlee (then Editor in Chief of The BMJ) called for all of us to act collectively and individually in our different spheres of influence [4].

One year later, little has changed. There is a widespread misconception in the UK that gradual decarbonisation is all that is needed. The warnings from the IPCC of the need for urgent radical change have been almost completely ignored.

Poor performance of The BMJ

The BMJ is routinely carrying articles that ignore the climate emergency.

For example, so far in 2023, it has carried

Furthermore, the 1 January 2023 issue of Doctor magazine, sent combined with the BMJ mailing carried a full-page advertisement for mediterranean holidays on its back cover.

If The BMJ carried articles stating "the climate is not changing", or "climate change is nothing to do with mankind's burning of fossil fuels", or "the IPCC is wrong - there is no climate emergency", then it would be censured and forced to retract.

But its content is implying no urgent radical action is needed.

Contribution by The BMJ

The United Nations Secretary-General has pointed out the failures of the world's governments and called for "a grassroots movement that cannot be ignored" [8].

These working in medical research are familiar with the problem of unconscious bias (hence e.g. the need for double blind assessments in clinical trials). Unconscious bias is a normal part of life, and therefore it is something to be discussed openly without shame, provided steps are taken to minimise it in decision making.

There apears to be a culture of unconscious implicatory climate denial within The BMJ.

If The BMJ wants to play its part in this movement and help in tackling the climate emergency, it should tighten its reviewing procedures. For example, it could consider a trial of a checklist similar to its statistical methods checklist [9]. This could include, for example, dropping references to net zero targets which are misleading, and focussing on cumulative emissions, CO2 budgets and whether policies comply with the UK's per capita share of the global CO2 budget for 1.5°C.


[1]Iain Walker and Zoe Leviston (2019) There are three types of climate change denier - and most of us are at least one The Conversation
[2]Stanley Cohen (2001) States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering ISBN: 978-0-745-62392-4
[3]Ian R Campbell (2021) UK's share of the global carbon budget will be used up in 3.3 years (letter) BMJ 2021;374:n2391 or at
[4]Fiona Godlee (2021) A world on the edge of climate disaster BMJ 2021;375:n2441
[5]Gareth Iacobucci (2023) How the cost of living crisis is damaging children's health BMJ 2023;380:o3064
[6]Desflurane: Use of carbon emitting anaesthetic to end in England (2023) BMJ 2023;380:p102
[7]Kathy Oxtoby (2023) Why I . . . own a vintage campervan BMJ 2023;380:p84
[8]Secretary-General's video message on the launch of the third IPCC report (Apr 2022)
[9]Checklists for statisticians BMJ 1996;312:43

First published: 28 Jan 2023
Last updated: 23 May 2023