An Open Letter to the New York Times

 

In response to Bret Stephens’ debut as an op-ed columnist. NB if you want to voice your concern about the Gray Lady employing this person, there is an online petition protesting Stephens’ appointment.

To the Editors of the New York Times

As a climate scientist, I was unnerved by your appointment of Bret Stephens as a new op-ed columnist. However, as a long-time reader of the New York Times, I decided to trust your judgment.

However, Stephens’ first column indicates that your judgment has failed, and your willingness to court controversy and indulge the anti-intellectual bias of the right wing is now an abdication of your responsibility to fact-based journalism.

Mr. Stephens is careful to couch his statements with reassurances that he believes that climate change is happening, and that it is caused primarily by humans. But this meticulous covering of his own rear end is belied by the way the rest of his column panders to the climate deniers. By initiating his argument with the failed campaign of Hillary Clinton, he implies that anyone who “trusts in numbers” is inevitably going to fail – what they must do is go with their gut, as Trump’s campaign did. However, this ignores the fact that any Clinton supporter who genuinely watched the poll numbers saw that Trump might well defy the 2:1 odds against him, and that Trump’s campaign was as cynically numbers-based as any modern candidacy, at least on the part of the handlers and campaign planners.

This political argument sets up a straw man against which the reader is implicitly supposed to then go on and think “well, those numbers guys were wrong, so these climate change numbers guys must be wrong too”. This is an entirely fallacious and misleading argument. The scientific certainty over climate changes causes and probable effects is incomparable to the uncertainty inherent to public polling and campaigning.

Atmospheric physics does not respond to poll numbers.

It is a fundamental truth that we have engaged in a grotesque experiment with our planet’s hydrological systems. Stephens’ referencing of the “sophisticated but fallible” models of climate science is meant to imply that they are wrong. Yet good scientists don’t look at a single model, they look at the weight of the evidence from several models, and then they check the value of that model against empirically tested present-day measurements. These models, as a whole, are significantly less fallible than, say, the econometric models which policy-makers use on a day to day basis to make decisions that affect the lives of 350 million ordinary Americans. Indeed, I would much prefer that economic policy were based on even bad economic models than the ideological commitment to magical thinking and tax cuts which characterizes the latest Republican effort to give money back to the rich.

Mr. Stephens is correct that acknowledging the probabilistic nature of potential climate effects is not a “denial of science”. Yet he is playing on a popular bias which misunderstands the nature of probabilities – and indeed it is this same lack of statistical sophistication which led many Democrats to believe that Clinton had a lock on the presidency. How cynical for him to rely on this common lack of perception that he earlier condemned. The predictions of climate disaster may be probabilities, in the way that everything in science is a probability, but they are as highly probable as any scientific fact. Mr. Stephens exploits the cautiousness of any good scientist, who will always openly note the flaws in their study design, to raise doubts in the non-scientific reader.

Like Mr. Stephens, I would like to have a more open conversation about the implications of climate change and the policy responses to it. But deliberately misleading columns such as this one – and in one of our nation’s most prestigious papers of record – undermine our ability to have such a conversation.

As a nation, we should have long since stopped debating whether the science compels us to take action. But thanks to anti-intellectuals such as your columnist, we have not. As a result, we are far behind other nations in preparing to face a changing climate. We are risking our economic growth even more than we are endangering our environmental health, and every day that we fail to act responsibly is a week or a month of reaping the consequences.

Moreover, the clean power sector is a major growth area for jobs – in the last year, renewable technologies began to employ more people than the coal industry does, and these jobs are safer and more geographically diverse. Fossil fuels are an antiquated mode of energy production that we still subsidize with our tax dollars, when we should be making way for the safe, clean energy jobs of the future that will make us economically healthy in the long term. Investments in climate resilience, such as those undertaken by New York City in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, save us enormous amounts of money in disaster response and relief. Preparing for climate change makes us safe and it makes us strong, but only if we start a *genuine* political debate about policy options, and stop batting back and forth over established fact. Every column like the one you just printed is a road block to this sensible, achievable goal.

Sincerely,
Dr. Erin C. Bergren
Los Angeles, CA

PS. Like a number of other climate science professionals, I will be cancelling my subscription, which I have maintained in one form or another for the past 15 years.

*** Update 4.30.2017 ***

I’d like to highlight my favorite response to Stephens’ column, from Susan Matthews at Slate, which really digs into the way that Stephens pretends at moderation but it in fact sowing epistemic uncertainty to communicate that “reasonable people can be skeptical of the consensus around climate change”. Which is, of course, not true.

There are lots of things that reasonable people can be skeptical about regarding climate change such as: will the polar ice caps melt by the end of the century? Should we spend more money on hard coastal defenses like sea walls? Will some places, like Chicago or Boston, actually experience colder and harsher winters? Is it in the national interest to spend more money on climate adaptation aid to developing countries? My answers to these questions are probably not but it could happen, no, yes, and yes, but I’m happy to debate these issues. The question I’m not willing to debate is whether the climate is changing (rapidly) and whether humans are the cause of it, which is a waste of breath and time.