Some thoughts on Bret Stephens’ misleading climate take

Brian L Kahn
Apr 29, 2017 · 4 min read

It was the push notification that launched a thousand angry screen captures. Bret Stephens decided to use his inaugural New York Times column to talk about two topics designed for the maximum amount of scorn and hate clicks: Hillary Clinton and climate change.

Mission accomplished.

The piece was surely meant to provoke, and it does but not in the triggered snowflake sense.

It’s provocative because it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of climate change and uses a hackneyed collection of straw men and cherry picked (sorry not sorry) quotes and numbers to support a caricatured view of climate science and advocates, all couched in a veneer of faux rationality that unravels the minute you tug on any of the threads poking out. These are a few of the most egregious examples.

“Just 36 percent of Americans care ‘a great deal’ about the subject.”

The number Stephens cites comes from a October 2016 Pew survey. He points to it in an effort to prove climate scientists and advocates have failed to move the public.

What he fails to mention is that same survey found 38 percent of Americans also care somewhat about climate change. That means 74 percent of Americans care about climate change. That is a lot of Americans.

Only 8 percent don’t care at all (16 percent care a little, and Stephens can keep them for his argument in the interest of fairness). That is not many Americans.

“As Andrew Revkin wrote last year about his storied career as an environmental reporter at The Times, ‘I saw a widening gap between what scientists had been learning about global warming and what advocates were claiming as they pushed ever harder to pass climate legislation.’ The science was generally scrupulous. The boosters who claimed its authority weren’t.”

Stephens takeaway from Revkin’s 7000+ word piece on his career covering climate change is that climate advocates are the problem in the climate discussion. They’re unscrupulous. Sadly, Stephens can’t come up with a specific example of this on his own here or anywhere else in the piece.

And again, he fails to provide some crucial context. This is the sentence in the Revkin piece that comes right after.

“Mind you, there was usually a much bigger gap between the science and the views of industry supporters defending fossil fuels or fighting environmental regulations or taxes,” Revkin writes about the groups that have used the same flawed, misleading arguments Stephens is peddling in his op-ed.

“Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius) warming of the Northern Hemisphere since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming…”

The “modest” warming he refers (which was global by the way) to has caused the ocean to flood cities regularly, altered polar regions faster than expected and made the marine heat wave that bleached the Great Barrier Reef 175 times more likely.

“…much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. To say this isn’t to deny science. It’s to acknowledge it honestly.”

That’s very true. It’s why the IPCC couches its statements in likelihoods and presents a range of probabilities. It’s also why scientists love to use the famous phrase “all models are wrong but some are useful.”

No rational person is denying, disputing or covering this up.

But Stephens mentions it here with different purpose. He hints at the mother of all tired innuendos that uncertainty is a reason for inaction (or at least more discussion).

When I asked Revkin how it felt to be cited in Stephens’ piece, he told me to look at a 2004 study on uncertainty that includes this quote:

Uncertainty is the reason for acting in the near term, and that uncertainty cannot be used as a justification for doing nothing.

Stephens does not seem to understand this. He also fails to point out what is being passed off as fact or who is doing it.

“Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions.”

The shadow villains are still lurking but unidentified.

Again, it is true that climate advocates are, well, advocating for big changes to reduce carbon pollution. But it’s not for ideological reasons as Stephens insinuates.

It’s because we have a finite carbon budget. Burning through it will continue to push the world into a state different from the one that allowed civilization to thrive.

There are a lot of pathways to make sure we don’t blow through that budget, and they’re well worthy of debate where there would be fair questions about ideological intentions.

I’m pretty sure climate advocates would rather be having those discussions. But broadly advocating for cutting carbon pollution is based on sound science.

“Perhaps if there were less certitude about our climate future, more Americans would be interested in having a reasoned conversation about it.”

Perhaps if there were less certitude about smoking’s link to cancer, more Americans would be interested in having a reasoned conversation about it, too.

If there’s one thing that’s interesting about Stephens’ piece, it’s that it shows what passes for enlightened conservative thinking on climate change (at least as defined by the New York Times editorial page).

That’s not to say there isn’t enlightened conservatives thinking on climate change elsewhere — the bipartisan climate caucus, Bob Inglis’ republicEn and the libertarian-leaning Niskanen Center are but a few examples — but this is the very serious person the Times brought on board to put forward the #nevertrump, smart conservative viewpoint.

It’s not a good look so far.

Brian L Kahn

Written by

Mostly lukewarm thoughts on climate with a dash of randomness. Climate Central senior science writer, but views here are my own.

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