clock menu more-arrow no yes

The New York Times should not have hired climate change bullshitter Bret Stephens

It’s time for the opinion page to take climate change as seriously as the paper’s reporters do.

Bret Stephens.
Bret Stephens.

Earlier this month, the New York Times hired conservative Bret Stephens, longtime writer for the Wall Street Journal, as a columnist for its opinion page.

It really shouldn’t have.

For one thing, though the paper defends the hire in the name of opinion diversity, Stephens is a very familiar sort of establishment conservative — a cosmopolitan, well-educated, reflexively pro-Israel war hawk (who once wrote a column on “the disease of the Arab mind”) who thinks anti-racists are the real racists but moderates on select issues to demonstrate his independence.

It is difficult to imagine a perspective more over-represented in DC political circles, at least relative to its representation in the actual conservative movement. In terms of intellectual contribution, his main credential seems to be that he has opposed Donald Trump.

It takes a particular sort of insularity to hire a pro-war, anti-Trump white guy as a contribution to diversity on the NYT editorial page.

Worse, Stephens is the kind of conservative writer who has feasted on easy shots at liberals for so long that he has let himself get lazy. Read his interview with Vox’s Jeff Stein, who actually pushed him a little. He says things like this:

I think Black Lives Matter has some really thuggish elements in it. Look — at the risk of being incredibly politically incorrect, but I guess that’s my job — I think that all lives matter. Not least black lives.

This is perfect: The delivery of a faux-profound bit of conservative conventional wisdom in tones that suggest a) no one has ever thought of it before and b) willingness to say it demonstrates a kind of tough-minded courage.

That kind of bubble blindness comes up frequently when we turn to the main reason NYT shouldn’t have hired Stephens: climate change.

Stephens has long been a standard conservative hack on climate change

Predictably, the debate about Stephens has focused on whether he is a “climate denier.” That label, which has taken on such weighty culture-war implications, is mostly symbolic and mostly a distraction. Despite what people like Stephens like to say, climate change is not a religious doctrine. Attitudes toward it need not be binary, belief or apostasy. Different people might draw different conclusions from the available information.

But just saying that doesn’t get us very far. What matters is not whether Stephens deserves a particular label, but whether he is honest, and makes good arguments, about what is an extremely important subject.

And when he discusses climate change, Stephens uses incorrect facts and terrible arguments. At a time when we desperately need a conversation about climate change more sophisticated than “is it a problem?” he makes the debate dumber.

Since the outcry that met his hiring, Stephens has tried to soften his take on climate. He told Huffington Post that he is a “climate agnostic.”

“Is the earth warming?” he asked. “That’s what the weight of scientific evidence indicates. Is it at least partially, and probably largely, a result of man-made carbon emissions? Again, that seems to be the case. Am I ‘anti-science’? Hell, no.”

As Joe Romm of Climate Progress has demonstrated, this is utterly disingenuous. Stephens called climate change a “mass hysteria phenomenon” for which “much of the science has … been discredited.” He said that people who accept climate change science are motivated in part by the “totalitarian impulse” and they worship “a religion without God.” He said “global warming is dead, nailed into its coffin one devastating disclosure, defection and re-evaluation at a time.” In a column calling climate change one of liberalism’s “imaginary enemies,” he said this:

Here’s a climate prediction for the year 2115: Liberals will still be organizing campaigns against yet another mooted social or environmental crisis. Temperatures will be about the same.

As Romm notes, the idea that temperature will be the same in 100 years is utterly ludicrous, the scientific equivalent of claiming the earth is flat.

It doesn’t sound like the words of a “climate agnostic.” It sounds like the words of a climate dope.

Before he was hired at NYT, Stephens was a source of standard-issue right-wing hackery on climate change. If he has really changed his mind on whether climate change is a “mass hysteria phenomenon,” he ought to say why.

Getting hired has not stopped Stephens from making lazy arguments

Editorial page editor James Bennet says charges of denialism against Stephens — holding him responsible for words he has written — are “terribly unfair.” So let’s give Stephens the benefit of the doubt and look only at arguments he’s made in interviews and his column since being hired. They are the kinds of arguments one finds convincing only insofar as one has never encountered a serious interlocutor.

1) People have kids.

In his interview with Stein, Stephens notes that he knows a climate activist who has had kids. If the activist really believed climate change is a potentially catastrophic problem, “presumably he wouldn’t be having children.” QED, I guess?

It’s going to blow Stephens’s mind when he finds out people have had kids during wars, famine, diseases, and droughts — catastrophic things they were right in the middle of. Did they not believe their eyes?

I too have children. I too believe that the worst-cast scenarios on climate change are genuinely catastrophic and that we are doing far too little to forestall them. Like many people know, I have grappled with what it means for my kids, sometimes painfully. I bet the activist Stephens knows has grappled with it. Stephens should have a conversation with him, it might wring a little bit of the glib out.

2) We don’t know the future for certain.

Stephens concedes that global temperatures are rising, but says to Stein:

However, does that mean the trend will continue forever? We don’t know. Does this mean we will reach the upper bounds of what climate scientists fear? We aren’t sure. There are uncertainties in all of this.

If I say, “Hey, there are uncertainties about forecasting the future,” that ought to be — in any other context — a statement of common sense. But now if you say there are uncertainties, you are akin to what’s called “a denier.”

Stephens devoted his debut column in the NYT entirely to the same banality, refuting those who claim “complete certainty” about climate change.

Who claims this? Stephens does not cite anyone. The world contains zero (0) climate scientists who have ever claimed that long-term models of climate change are certain. It’s not even a coherent notion. All models do is take an enormous set of inputs, run calculations on them, and spit out a range of possible outcomes, with probabilities attached. What would it even mean for them to be “certain”?

All any science ever provides are probabilities. Climate science is an enormous territory and within it there are wider and narrower error bars, a range of different conclusions in which scientists have varying degrees of confidence. (See climate scientist Ken Celdeira on this.)

IPCC scenarios
IPCC scenarios
(Climate Lab Book)

What introduces the most uncertainty into climate modeling is not the physical measurements and models the conservative movement spends so much time attacking. It is the human element — the difficulty of projecting social, demographic, economic, and technological changes. After all, how much damage climate change will ultimately do depends closely on how such changes play out. What will, say, natural gas cost in 2050? Obviously we don’t know.

The climate challenge just is a challenge of making consequential decisions in the face of deep uncertainty. Climate change is, in the words of EDF’s Gernot Wagner and Harvard’s Martin Weitzman, “almost uniquely global, uniquely long-term, uniquely irreversible and uniquely uncertain.” There’s a whole branch of scholarship and research on it, endless literature. I have written posts devoted to uncertainty in climate change here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Uncertainty is, in a nutshell, justification for action, not complacency.

When he reveals in his column that “much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities,” Stephens just knows that dropping such a truth bomb is going to get him in trouble. “By now I can almost hear the heads exploding,” he says.

Yes, they are exploding. But not why he thinks.

3) Other people have been wrong about other things.

In his first column for the Times, Stephens points out that the managers of Hillary Clinton’s campaign were very confident in her victory. Then they turned out to be wrong. This shows that sometimes people are confident about things and turn out to be wrong.

To make this already devastating critique of climate science even stronger, Stephens specifies that scientists have often been wrong in the past, and that science has often been used for political purposes.

This is a very common argument on the right, but again, it is banal. Of course it is true. Policy should not be made based on faddish or poorly supported science. But for that point to mean anything in this case, Stephens has to make the case that climate science is that kind of science. He has not. Nor, after decades of effort, have any of his conservative compatriots.

And climate science isn’t. It is incredibly robust. It does not depend on any one or even any dozen studies. There is what’s called “consilience” — multiple varieties and lines of evidence coming from multiple disciplines, all telling a mutually reinforcing story.

What’s more, no science of virtually any kind has ever been subjected to the intense scrutiny that climate science (and scientists) have undergone. The global scientific community’s collective climate research has undergone multiple overlapping layers of review and assessment, not to mention the constant need to defend against bad-faith attacks from political hacks.

IN FLIGHT, UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 28: Robby Mook, campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on as Jennifer Palmieri, communications director, speaks aboard the campaign plane while traveling to C
Hillary Clinton’s staff, slowly realizing they’re not doing climate science.
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Climate science is not in the same epistemological universe as the knowledge and assumptions behind a single political campaign. It is far, far stronger than that, far stronger the vast majority of theories about health and economics upon when we routinely make personal and policy decisions. Taking it seriously does not require “overweening scientism,” just a willingness to hear what science is saying, even when it is uncomfortable for one’s political priors.

Of course we are never certain about anything. Of course scientists have been wrong before. And of course climate science — especially when it tries to project damages at smaller temporal and geographic scales, like the next several decades — is filled with probabilities and uncertainties.

But when it comes to the bigger picture, we are very, very confident — 90 to 95 percent confident, which is more confident than science gets about almost anything — that human beings are causing most or all of the rapid recent rise in temperature and that the impacts are going to cause great ecological and social disruption. Climate change is not a “mass hysteria phenomenon.”

4) Nobody talks about how much to spend on climate change.

My favorite exchange in the Vox interview:

Bret Stephens

The best argument made on behalf of climate mitigation strategies is even if there’s a small chance your house catches fire, you take out insurance. That’s perfectly sensible. And you can make a perfectly sensible argument that even if we’re not 100 percent sure we’re facing a catastrophic climate future, we should take out a host of insurance policies to mitigate carbon emissions.

But then the intelligent question is: “How much are you paying for insurance?”

Jeff Stein

Are you saying we’re currently paying too much?

Bret Stephens

I’m saying that’s a question we ought to be raising.

Kudos (genuinely) to Stephens for being familiar with the insurance analogy (which traces back to Weitzman’s work on “fat-tailed uncertainties”). When I interviewed libertarian Jerry Taylor about what changed his mind on climate change, the risk-hedging argument played a big role.

But the question of how much we ought to spend as a hedge against uncertainty with enormous downside risks … has been raised. Quite a lot. Again, there’s a whole thriving area of scholarship devoted to it. There are all sorts of smart people who have thought it through from all sorts of angles and run all sorts of models.

Many studies have found that a transition to sustainable energy will be a net economic positive. If Stephens wants studies that wildly exaggerate the costs of the transition, there are a number of think tanks in the conservative world that specialize in that product.

But, yeah. The question has been raised.

5) One time somebody said something stupid or rude about climate change.

Though Stephens cites no one in his critique of people who accept climate science, there are certainly plenty of people out there — climate activists sometimes among them — who say dumb things about climate change. If you want to find someone who overstates the certainty of climate science, or is rude to climate skeptics, or violates some other bit of decorum, you usually can.

You can make the story about how some activists are too strident, or uncivil. You can make yourself the victim.

Making yourself the victim of liberal bullying is a surefire way to get yourself some sympathy and support in US political and media circles.

But what is the point? How does it advance the conversation?

Why not engage with the best, most thoughtful voices in the climate world? Why not do some research before you write so you don’t get yelled at at all?

6) Just asking questions. Why so rude?

Stephens is playing a bit part in a very, very old strategy. It goes like this:

  • Q: “We’re just asking questions.”
  • A: [questions answered]
  • Q: “We’re just asking questions.”
  • A: “Yeah, we answered those. Here’s a link.”
  • Q: “We’re just asking questions.”
  • A: “We answered the questions. A bunch of times. Please acknowledge our answers.”
  • Q: “We’re just asking questions.”
  • A: “Okay, we went back over our answers, double-checked and peer-reviewed them, compiled them in a series of reports with easy-to-read summaries, all of which we have broken down into digestible bits via various blog posts and visual aids.”
  • Q: “We’re just asking questions.”
  • A: “It’s beginning to seem like you don’t really care about this issue and are just jerking us around.”
  • Q: “Hey, we’re just asking questions! Galileo asked questions, didn’t he? Why are you being so intolerant and rude?”

Everyone who has written about climate change on the internet has gone through this ringer dozens of times. Yet relatively few people in US politics or media follow climate closely, or know much about it, so when they do tune in to these controversies, all they see is, heck, some fellas askin’ questions. That a crime?

It is a tiresome game. It’s difficult to see how NYT readers will benefit from it.

The NYT is a referee and it has made a call: bullshitting on climate is not disqualifying

In all these examples, a similar theme emerges: Stephens just doesn’t seem to have thought much about climate change. He’s enacting the rote conservative ritual of groping around for some reason, any reason, to a) justify inaction and b) blame liberals, in the process saying false things and making terrible arguments.

Editorial page editor James Bennet said this to public editor Liz Spayd:

The crux of the question is whether [Stephens’] work belongs inside our boundaries for intelligent debate, and I have no doubt that it does. I have no doubt he crosses our bar for intellectual honesty and fairness.

Let’s ponder this a moment. The question is not whether Stephens has said false and misleading things about climate change in the past. If you believe the work of NYT reporters, then yes, he has. His latest column indicates that his rethinking on the subject remains inch-deep.

The question is whether it matters — whether dismissing climate change as a “mass hysteria phenomenon” is, or ought to be, disqualifying, below any reasonable “bar for intellectual honesty and fairness.”

The line separating what’s inside and outside the bounds of reasonable debate is not fixed. We draw it together, through our decisions and actions. We push and pull on it all the time.

When a trusted institution deems a particular perspective within the bounds of reasonable debate, it carries a certain imprimatur, a signal to elites and readers alike. The same is true when those institutions exclude certain perspectives. Institutions are, whether they like to acknowledge it or not, referees in this game. They make calls about what’s in and out of bounds.

Bennet does not endorse (or even address) anything Stephens says on climate, only waves his hands, as he did to Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, that Stephens is “capturing and contributing to a vitally important debate.”

Through hiring and defending Stephens, he is signaling that bullshitting about climate change is not disqualifying from a position at the NYT. It is within acceptable mainstream bullshitting limits. Even if you dismiss climate change as a totalitarian delusion for years, as long as you’re willing to publicly acknowledge the most rudimentary science, the rest is fair game.

Make no mistake: This isn’t new. Bullshitting about climate change has never carried much censure in US media. The Washington Post ran some George Will bullshit on climate just a couple weeks ago.

This has long been the norm. Bennet just reaffirmed it.

Still, he shouldn’t have.

About canceling subscriptions

A bunch of people (at least on Twitter) have been canceling or threatening to cancel their NYT subscriptions over this.

I understand that decision and respect anybody who makes it. The only way climate bullshitting will ever carry any censure is when people kick up a fuss about it.

For my part, though, I’m not going to follow suit.

For one thing, my colleague Brad Plumer is headed to the NYT to help with their climate coverage and he alone is worth the price of a subscription.

Beyond that, the dedicated climate desk that NYT has built is already doing fantastic work, which builds on a long history of great climate change reporting at the paper.

And beyond that, for reasons I wrote about in my piece on tribal epistemology, a strong, independent media matters more now than ever. For all their sins, America’s big newspapers have done some great things these past 100 days.

It would be a shame to punish the news side for the missteps of the opinion page.

In fact, now that informed opinion has become such a robust part of the NYT and WaPo (see the Monkey Cage, the Upshot, Wonkblog, and many others), it’s unclear why the papers still reserve a section where, to “widen the range of perspectives,” they include the uninformed kind — or why anyone would want to read it.

In any case, climate change is a big deal. Getting it right, advancing the conversation past basics the rest of the world left behind decades ago, is important, more so than most other things newspapers cover. The NYT news desk is taking it seriously. The opinion page should too.