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 . So how much climate denial is there in the The British Medical Journal (The BMJ)?
Types of climate denialWhen 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 ), 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 ). But there is a third form of denial, termed implicatory denial by Stanley Cohen , 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 neededThe moral and policy implications of the climate science and the UK's commitments via the Paris and other international agreements are as follows.
- There is a moral imperative to end the use of fossil fuels due to the unacceptable levels of climate deaths, climate refugees and environmental destruction.
- The aim is to keep global warming to 1.5°C.
- This means living within the global carbon budget of 400 billion tonnes CO2 from 2020.
- This means living within our share of the global CO2 budget of 50 tonnes CO2 per person, which in the UK runs out in 2 years at current rates 
- This means cuts in UK emissions of over 20% per year
- This means stopping fossil fuel use as soon as possible
- This means stopping leisure flying immediately, rapidly reducing car mileage (over 20% per year), a massive programme of insulation etc, restructuring food production and distribution, etc and a programme of building renewable sources of energy, i.e. a massive restructuring of society, and considerable inconvenience to many.
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 .
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 BMJThe BMJ is routinely carrying articles that ignore the climate emergency.
For example, so far in 2023, it has carried
- an article discussing "the cost of living crisis"  (featuring it on the front cover), which ignored the climate emergency
- a news report highlighting a net zero 2040 target , as if urgent radical action is not required based on living within the carbon budget.
- a full page article advocating purchase of a campervan as a leisure activity .
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 BMJThe United Nations Secretary-General has pointed out the failures of the world's governments and called for "a grassroots movement that cannot be ignored" .
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 . 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.
|||Iain Walker and Zoe Leviston (2019) There are three types of climate change denier - and most of us are at least one The Conversation https://theconversation.com/there-are-three-types-of-climate-change-denier-and-most-of-us-are-at-least-one-124574|
|||Stanley Cohen (2001) States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering ISBN: 978-0-745-62392-4|
|||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 https://www.bmj.com/content/374/bmj.n2391.full?ijkey=Hz5kDxh4kFos8jz&keytype=ref or at https://iancampbell.co.uk/files/bmj.n2391.full.pdf|
|||Fiona Godlee (2021) A world on the edge of climate disaster BMJ 2021;375:n2441 https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.n2441|
|||Gareth Iacobucci (2023) How the cost of living crisis is damaging children's health BMJ 2023;380:o3064 https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.o3064|
|||Desflurane: Use of carbon emitting anaesthetic to end in England (2023) BMJ 2023;380:p102 https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.p102|
|||Kathy Oxtoby (2023) Why I . . . own a vintage campervan BMJ 2023;380:p84 https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.p84|
|||Secretary-General's video message on the launch of the third IPCC report (Apr 2022) https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2022-04-04/secretary-generals-video-message-the-launch-of-the-third-ipcc-report-scroll-down-for-languages|
|||Checklists for statisticians BMJ 1996;312:43 https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.312.7022.43a|
First published: 28 Jan 2023
Last updated: 23 May 2023