Bret Stephens, the New York Times columnist with a long history of conservative bad takes — the same man who decided to quit Twitter after having a fit of being called bed bug– says he has changed. In an essay for the Times opinion section published on Friday, Stephens claims a visit to Greenland changed his mind on climate change, but the particularly infuriating essay is still full of Stephens-esque bullshit, horrible design choices of the Times and bad faith climate arguments. Not much has changed, it seems.
I basically understand the appeal of this large-scale pitch. Stephens has long been publicly labeled in some climate circles as a climate denier for his professed skepticism of certain aspects of science. (Since he doesn’t necessarily deny climate science as a whole, I prefer the term used by David Roberts, formerly of Vox, for Stephens: “bullshit about climate change.”) The gist of the new essay is that after making a series of outright Holocaust denial statements in the late 2000s and mid-2010s, and after years of choosing not to listen to climate scientists who challenged by his mismanagement and questioning of science, he was invited to visit Greenland to see firsthand the impacts of climate change. The drama of melting glaciers seems to have taken its toll: at the end of the article, Stephens assures the reader that he has “new worries about climate change”. This transformation, however, does not happen in a vacuum – and I wonder if it was a real transformation.
Although it is presented as a redemptive bow for Stephens’ former skepticism, the play is filled with typical Stephens bad faith arguments that make it clear that he is still not ready to listen to climate experts. It is very clear from this article that he is not at all concerned with what science tells us about worst-case scenarios, and that he is primarily focused on combating the specific brand of left-wing climate alarmists that he – and many conservative thinkers – have decided are real, and more of a threat than warming temperatures themselves.
After acknowledging the reality of global warming and the catastrophe befalling the glacier, Stephens spends much of the article denouncing government solutions as ineffective, overly radical, unpopular and unnecessary. Instead, he tells us, the markets has to manage the changes we need. Along the way, he provides plenty of talk and misrepresentations of climate science that seem specifically designed to drive anyone who has worked on climate crazy.
A segment of obvious bad faith that caught my attention: Stephens quotes Steve Koonin, a former Obama administration official turned Favorite talking head of climate deniers, on the Greenland melt. Koonin, writes Stephens, “believes that the risks associated with melting Greenland are less the product of human-induced global warming than of the natural cycles of North Atlantic currents and temperatures, which over time have a means of regressing towards the mean”. This assertion by Koonin has been demystified several times by scientists; there is no note in the exhibit explaining that the claim is false. (We asked The Times if this passage had been verified or if the article was considering adding a disclaimer that it was scientifically inaccurate; a spokesperson told us that it “was only introduced to dispute it, not to cite it as a persuasive source,” as Stephens writes that he is “less sure” of claims like Koonin’s since his visit to Greenland. We asked The Times to clarify if there was ever had a discussion about specifically citing Koonin’s claims as false in the article; the spokesperson said they had no further response.)
One of the most intensely ironic elements of the article is that Stephens makes an entire essay without mentioning the powerful monetary forces in the United States that have prevented climate action from becoming effective. Stephens is only too eager to criticize government responses to climate change, but he fails to explain how, in the United States, at least, a carbon tax – one of the most basic climate policies – has was rejected by President Obama. after an earlier effort to implement a tax failed miserably thanks to Republican control of Congress. (It’s ironic that Stephens is writing this article after the first national climate bill the United States passed. already passed, yet the Inflation Reduction Act is not mentioned at all.)
It would be one thing if Bret published this essay in a newsletter or blog post. It would sit well with his former employers on the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page (although any acknowledgment that climate science has merit and that it are things to worry about may be too liberal, even for them). But BreHe is on staff at The New York Times, which seems determined to counter the great work that many of his other staff are producing on the climate in a misguided effort to appear bipartisan. Stephens has long excelled in the kind of whataboutism that the Times has demonstrated is not prepared to check or alter facts, and this article unfortunately illustrates that all too well.
The design of this piece – and the money and resources clearly going into it – is, frankly, quite embarrassing. From the jump, the images and layout design serve to reinforce Stephens’ claims of bad faith. “Yes, Greenland’s ice is melting…” the headline reads when the page first loads; as the user scrolls, a “BUT…” appears, like a horrible textual representation of a Mr. Gotcha. The play continues with a series of these, like a Mad Libs nonsense book:
“Yes, Greenland’s ice is melting…but we have to accept economic growth as an advantage.”
“Yes, Greenland’s ice is melting…but we need solutions that work with human nature.”
It doesn’t matter that the impacts of climate change have little to do with some of the statements made here, or that there are many policy solutions on the table that Stephens might ignore. do discuss these ideas. The charts seem to suggest that we are worrying too much about all this and that we are in danger of descending into horrible alarmism.
I sent The New York Times a series of questions about the article, including whether or not the newspaper paid for Stephens’ trip, the cost of said trip and the resources surrounding it, and what fact-checking processes were involved and whether or not any of the climatologists were involved in said fact-checking. In response, a spokesperson sent the following statement:
“The Times is strongly committed to providing in-depth, in-depth, on-the-ground reporting on the world’s most pressing and newsworthy topics. Bret’s reporting for this piece was no different. And as with all Times publications, whether from the editorial staff or opinion writers, this article has been carefully checked.
At Times Opinion, we believe that changing views is not only possible, but part of good faith and inquisitive engagement with the world. Bret’s reporting for this article was thorough and acknowledges his informed journey from previous perspectives on climate change, which are both cited in his article and linked for context.
Because this is an opinion piece, Stephens ends with a list of recommendations for how he thinks we should tackle climate change, ranging from “engaging with critics” to “being humble about the nature of the solutions”. He’s rich that he thinks he should have a seat at the climate table when he has adamantly refused to engage on this issue critically and meaningfully for years, or listen to scientists tell him. that he is not interpreting science correctly.
Maybe I’m just a bozo who spent part of his week photoshopping sexy solar panels halloween costumesand not a huge big brain like Bret, who seems convinced his advice is the best climate activists, scientists and policymakers have ever considered. If people want to think that, fine.
But many of the things Stephens writes about are nothing new to climate activists. Even the most concerned are able to recognize the enormous complexities and difficulties on the road ahead. Even the most dedicated activists are able to analyze complex issues, such as the supply of minerals for renewable technologies or the access of developing countries to energy. Climate activists aren’t demanding a complete overhaul of our energy systems because it sounds fun or cool, but rather because science Is require us to think about the worst-case scenario, which is truly monstrous.
Worrying about the climate is not the same as being unreasonable on the challenges ahead, as Stephens seems consistently determined to represent climate activists. It does, however, mean taking the science seriously and thinking about what is needed to avoid worst-case scenarios – and it’s hard to argue that the free market alone will suffice.
Despite monetary interests blocking progress, there are intelligent and meaningful conversations about climate policy, and there have been since Bret Stephens jabbered that climate change was a “phenomenon of mass hysteria.” It’s a shame he always chooses not to listen.
Updated 10/28/22 6:04 PM EST: This article has been updated with additional information from The New York Times Public Relations Department on the decision not to mark Steve Koonin’s claims as explicitly false.