May 12, 2017

Climate Bullshit at the New York Times

Bret Stephens
Apparently the New York Times lost a ton of subscribers for hiring the climate denier Bret Stephens (who, it should be noted, is also a bilious anti-Arab racist who supports torture). Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger wrote an email to subscribers who had canceled their subscriptions addressing the issue. He made two arguments: first, that the Times pays a lot of climate reporters. That is a fair point. Second:
Sulzberger wrote that, with so many people "talking past each other about how best to address climate change," putting different points of view on the same page will hopefully help advance solutions.
"Our editorial page editor, James Bennet, and I believe that this kind of debate, by challenging our assumptions and forcing us to think harder about our positions, sharpens all our work and benefits our readers," he wrote. "This does not mean that The Times will publish any commentary. Some points of view are not welcome, including those promoting prejudice or denying basic truths about our world. But it does mean that, in the coming years, we aim to further enrich the quality of our debate with other honest and intelligent voices, including some currently underrepresented in our pages. If you continue to read The Times, you will encounter such voices — not just as contributors, but as new staff columnists."
This is bullshit.

First, climate denial — which Stephens repeatedly espoused at the Wall Street Journal, before he retreated a bit so he could keep his job — is beyond question a viewpoint which should not be welcome on op-ed pages. Scientific consensus is as reliable a guide as there is to "basic truths about our world," and Stephens was quite recently a science denier. (Naturally, Sulzberger does not even address Stephens' anti-Arab bigotry.)

Second, while a debate about climate policy and strategies would be extremely welcome on the Times op-ed page, Stephens is not the man for the job. As I have explained in detail (and will explain further on Monday), he is neither honest nor intelligent. His very first column was about climate change, it had one scientific fact, and he got it wrong. I almost could not imagine a more humiliating start to a new columnist position.

An actual climate policy debate would tackle questions like: what are the relative strengths of various policy approaches — eg, carbon tax versus a total war on carbon? What are the most promising zero-carbon technologies, and how might they be developed faster? Should we prioritize rollout of existing tech or moonshot ideas? Given that some warming has already happened and some more is already baked in, what are the best amelioration and resilience policies? How can we accommodate climate refugees? What are the various geoengineering options, and what sort of risks do they present? Those questions intersect with politics in all manner of ways, presenting a nigh-inexhaustible vein of material for the opinion writer. (At the risk of self-flattery, I think this sort of writing actually is fairly well-suited to advancing climate policy in a way that is understandable to the lay public.)

Sulzberger's point about people "talking past each other about how best to address climate change," and the desirability of advancing solutions through debate, presupposes an agreement about climate change being a serious problem. Stephens clearly does not agree, and what's more, he very obviously does not know what the fuck he is talking about. His whole shtick is making meta-debate points so as to game centrist discourse norms and set himself up as the Open Debate Avatar without actually debating anything.

If the Times wants a real debate about climate policy in its op-ed section (as opposed to soothing centrist liberal neuroses, or a blinkered attempt to advance the realpolitik of the Times' cultural legitimacy) it will at a minimum need to hire a writer or two who understands and accepts climate science. So long as Stephens is a columnist there (no doubt being paid well into six figures), I'd say you're well justified in taking your journalism subscription dollars elsewhere.


  1. Denying a pulpit to bilious hatemongers and other rabid types should definitely be a top priority of any respectable publication. That said, I have to agree that we are 'talking past each other'. Too many opinions that are not supported or are over-simplified. That's why god gave us "letters to the Editor". Thanks for making me think harder. PS I'm not really anonymous: Pat Rauscher, 4 Corners CO

  2. "Soothing centrist liberal neuroses" is exactly right—that's basically the function the NYT Opinions page serves on climate change, as opposed to giving readers real debates about what to do about it. I went off about the cognitive dissonance their columnists keep perpetuating about the prospect of civilizational collapse:

  3. I reluctantly cancelled my subscription to the NYT this week only because of Bret Stephens' first opinion column. The discussion about climate is far too urgent to be giving even a smidgen of comfort to denialists. I emailed the NYT to assure them that the second Stephens is no longer employed by them, I will be resubscribing.