The first three columns of The New York Times’ new Opinion columnist, Bret Stephens, have attempted to roil the traditional climate change discussion, resulting in the journalist being accused of everything from a sharp pragmatist to a liar-liar-pants-on-fire climate-change denier. It began with his piece “Climate of Complete Certainty,” which vaguely called into question the assurance of climate change caused by man and how seriously it should be taken. Naturally, he was met with a veritable hell storm in the comments section.
His following two articles, titled “Answering Your Climate Questions” and “Climate of Unintended Consequences,” tried to clean up the mess, ultimately pivoting around the idea that, yes, climate change is real and our fault, but governments must take caution as to how they address the issue. This involves both determining the severity of global warming as well as what percentage of resources should be allocated to the search for solutions.
His first article centers on an analogy comparing the certainty of climate change to the Clinton campaign’s fatal confidence in the election. He proposes that if something as definitive as the pre-election polling data could be wrong, could we also be wrong about climate change? Thus, the writer asserts the public’s right to climate-change skepticism.
There are several obvious problems with this comparison. First off, Clinton didn’t lose the election based solely on faulty polling data, but rather due to a variety of factors, especially her lack of a clear economic plan. Second, the amount of scientific research that confirms climate change vastly overshadows the science that went into the 2016 election.
Perhaps the strongest criticism of this argument, however, is that the only factor it poses against science is somebody’s gut instinct. Stephens never actually cites any current data against climate change (he probably couldn’t find any), proving that his so-called skepticism lacks any real base.
In response to the many that pointed this out, Stephens wrote his following two articles attempting to scrape together proof for his contentious claim. Finding the science against him, he turned to history, citing the failed “green” initiative of biofuels in the early aughts. As his articles discuss, these initiatives, which resulted in ultimately pernicious ethanol subsidies, demonstrate how good intentions can have gnarly consequences if not properly thought out. (You may note that his central argument has changed. Instead of calling into question the certainty of climate change, he is now calling into question the certainty of proposed solutions, but never mind that.)
There is nothing wrong with questioning the delusive mass agreement that brought about biofuels. Obviously, open discussion, diverging viewpoints, and foresight are always important. Stephens’ pieces have been similar in this way to an article published in The Times at the end of last year. Back in December, journalist Erica Goode wrote a long-form article on the misrepresentation of polar bears by individuals and groups such as Al Gore and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The article examines the uncertain evidence backing the claim that polar bears are disappearing due to melting sea ice and discusses how this propaganda tactic leaves the advocates of environmental protection open to attacks from the skeptical right.
The problem with Stephens is that, unlike Goode, he never extends his argument into any real-world application to help combat climate change. If Stephens really believes in man-triggered global warming, as he asserts in his articles, why is he writing these critiques? How is he helping to advance the cause of environmental reform?
He isn’t. Rather, it would appear that he is simply trying to look clever and garner attention. Despite the lofty rhetoric, Stephens’ first pieces have argued for no concrete change in how governments should combat climate change. Thus, the only true effect has been to give a stronger foothold to skeptics, like the one in the White House.
At the end of his three opinion pieces, the most concerning element of Stephens’ arguments is his callousness to the destruction of humanity, or what he refers to in passing as “planetary calamity.” Perhaps this deals with a carelessness as to whom climate change will affect most severely: tropical nations where many of the world’s poorest live.
Stephens may be right. Maybe there is a chance that global warming will not wreak its predicted havoc in the coming century. But it still could! Should we not be using every resource at our disposal to prevent the obliteration of future generations?
Stephens’ only argument against this point is that the world currently has limited resources to combat climate change and must balance these with the looming threats of world hunger and disease. The issue with this logic is that it rests on the false notion that the world’s resources are finite and are not currently distributed in a way that is skewed to the wealthy and the wasteful.
In short, The New York Times’ new column rallies solely for dissent against environmental protection policies. He gives no alternative, no policy that he advocates for, but rather just aids the skeptics. And he seems to be getting the attention he wanted.