The New York Times' staggering own goal on climate change

Why did the paper of record hire a climate denier and then let him write a smarmy, illogical defense of his views?

Evidence that the Earth is warming is strong.
(Image credit: LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the weekend, The New York Times found itself in a lot of hot water over the climate change views of its new columnist, Bret Stephens. The former Wall Street Journal editor has long espoused a sort of breezy science denial-lite, so liberal Times readers (i.e. most of them) reacted with stunned disbelief that the paper would waste the most valuable op-ed space in America on not only a third boring conservative white man, but one who downplays climate change, the most important problem in the world.

Stephens reacted by making his very first effort a defensive, smarmy column, full of gaping logical holes and disastrous scientific errors, about how the left was being mean to him over climate change. Many liberals were enraged enough to cancel their subscriptions over it. It's both an excellent illustration of warped thinking about climate change, and how upper-class liberals' need for civil discourse can lead to staggering own goals.

Stephens' column is one of those classics calling for debate about something without actually debating it. Instead of outlining his disagreements with the consensus view about climate change itself, he skips directly to the meta-debate about how it's bad that people are trying to run him out of polite society for pooh-poohing an existential threat to human civilization. He bemoans over-certainty on the part of climate activists, who are supposedly wildly exaggerating the threats of climate change and the strength of climate science conclusions.

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Why doesn't Stephens dig into the details of the science? Because he is very obviously too dim or lazy to grasp the foundations of science in general or the details of climate science in particular. Just look at the central premise of his article:

Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the Northern Hemisphere since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. [The New York Times]

Stephen asserts that while he accepts the idea that the Earth is warming, and that there is some human influence there, "much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities." The purpose of his first two admissions is basically to help him evade charges of being a science denier, because the evidence that the Earth is warming is incredibly strong. Now that 2016 has blown away the record for the hottest year ever measured — and with it the preposterous denier meme that there hadn't been significant warming since 1998 — deniers have retreated to questioning secondary conclusions.

The problem here is twofold.

First, from an epistemological standpoint, the global temperature increase that Stephens professes to believe in is also a "matter of probabilities." It could be that all the temperature measurements for the last century have been mistaken. It is extraordinarily unlikely that this is the case, but it's not impossible. That's an inescapable part of any scientific conclusion, which can never be permanently certain due to limitations in its foundational assumptions. This can be seen in the IPCC report which Stephens claims to have read: It says that the global temperature increase is "virtually certain" (meaning 99-100 percent probability), while humans being the root cause is "extremely likely" (95-100 percent probability).

Second, Stephens does not even reference other things which the greens are supposedly exaggerating. Here are some conclusions which the IPCC report lists as virtually certain, should greenhouse gas emissions not be arrested: "more frequent hot and fewer cold temperature extremes over most land areas," "near-surface permafrost extent at high northern latitudes will be reduced," "global mean sea level rise will continue for many centuries beyond 2100." What exactly are people getting wrong, and how?

He doesn't say. It is beyond obvious that when it comes to climate change Stephens does not know what he is talking about. He is doing an unlettered imitation of the climate troll routine: bad faith accusations of scientific impropriety so as to set himself up as the wounded victim of left-wing intolerance. He's just so ignorant that he can't even figure out where the best point of attack would be.

But in the real world, warming is happening; it's caused by humans; and if it's not stopped, the consequences are virtually certain to be very bad — indeed, they are already happening. (Speaking of probabilities, the IPCC estimates of future harms could also be an undershoot — error bars go in both directions.)

And that brings me back to The New York Times, and the jaw-dropping business error of hiring someone like Stephens as a columnist. Defensive Times employees, like executive editor Dean Baquet, expressed bewilderment that people would refuse to "understand different views." Op-ed page editor James Bennet argued that Stephens was merely contributing to a "vitally important debate."

This is a crock.

If the Times were really committed to ideological diversity in its op-ed page, it would at a minimum hire a conservative who actually supports President Trump, and perhaps even more importantly hire someone with Bernie Sanders-style politics. (Sanders is the most popular politician in the country, yet there are more supporters of torture among columnists of our two major national newspapers than supporters of the senator.)

What we see here is that the neurotic upper-class liberal need for civil debate over important issues stops the moment we reach territory they actually care about. Trump is gauche and uncouth, and his media proxies tend to be really weird liars, while Sanders wants to jack up marginal tax rates a whole lot. A rich, glib, dumb, anti-Trump conservative, on the other hand, can give Upper East Side cocktail parties that frisson of intellectual disputation while conveniently avoiding most of the actually important questions. A little climate denial is just a niggling side detail.

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