New York Times Climate Denier Wakes the Eff Up

October 28, 2022

Bret Stephens writes a climate denial mea culpa in today’s New York Times.

Stephens was the reason a lot of climate scientists and citizens dropped their Times subscription a few years ago, when he was hired on as an opinion writer with a decided taste for reality denial. This is the media’s idea of “diversity of opinion”, see? You want people who are willing to write false disinformation on your pages to show that you’re “open minded”. Or something.

Nevertheless, we’re going to need everyone, even insufferable assholes, so great.
Longish article, excerpts here.

Bret Stephens in the New York Times:

For anyone who has entertained doubts about the warming of the planet, a trip to Greenland serves as a bracing corrective. Flying low over the vast ice sheet that covers most of the island, I immediately noticed large ponds of cerulean meltwater and dozens of fast-flowing streams rushing through gullies of white ice and sometimes disappearing into vertical ice caverns thousands of feet deep. Such lakes, scientists report, have become far more common over the last two decades, occurring earlier in the year at higher elevations. Last year, it even rained at the highest point of the ice sheet, some 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle. That’s a first since record keeping began in the 1980s.

And then there’s the testimony of the market.

In the coastal town of Ilulissat, I had dinner with Bo Møller Stensgaard, a geologist and the C.E.O. of Bluejay Mining, which plans to mine for copper, nickel, cobalt, zinc and ilmenite.

The receding of the ice sheet has opened additional land for exploration, Stensgaard said, and warmer weather has lengthened the season when ships can travel to the island without the risk of being frozen in. “I can put people in the field longer,” he added,

Having spent long months in tents doing geological fieldwork, he sees the transformation not just as an entrepreneur.

“I’ve seen glaciers disappear completely,” he said. “I’ve seen starving polar bears because of disappearing sea ice. These are personally disturbing changes.”

But, since the minerals he hopes to mine are critical for any future green-energy transition, climate change is creating opportunities in Greenland to address the reason it is melting.

FOR YEARS, I saw myself not as a global-warming denier (a loaded term with its tendentious echo of Holocaust denial) but rather as an agnostic on the causes of climate change and a scoffer at the idea that it was a catastrophic threat to the future of humanity.

It’s not that I was unalterably opposed to the idea that, by pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, modern civilization was contributing to the warming by 1 degree Celsius and the inches of sea-level rise the planet had experienced since the dawn of the industrial age. It’s that the severity of the threat seemed to me wildly exaggerated and that the proposed cures all smacked of old-fashioned statism mixed with new-age religion.

Hadn’t we repeatedly lived through previous alarms about other, allegedly imminent, environmental catastrophes that didn’t come to pass, like the belief, widespread in the 1970s, that overpopulation would inevitably lead to mass starvation? And if the Green Revolution had spared us from that Malthusian nightmare, why should we not have confidence that human ingenuity wouldn’t also prevent the parade of horribles that climate change was supposed to bring about?

I had other doubts, too. It seemed hubristic, or worse, to make multitrillion-dollar policy bets based on computer models trying to forecast climate patterns decades into the future. Climate activists kept promoting policies based on technologies that were either far from mature (solar energy) or sometimes actively harmful (biofuels).

That was my frame of mind when, in April 2017, I wrote my first column for The Times, “Climate of Complete Certainty.” The blowback was intense. Climate scientists denounced me in open letters; petitions were circulated demanding that I be fired. The response mainly hardened my conviction that climate activists were guilty of precisely what I charged them with: intellectual self-certainty that is often a prescription for disaster.

Among the signatories of one petition was an oceanographer, John Englander, who runs an educational and advocacy group, theRising Seas Institute. Two years later, on a visit to New York, he wrote me out of the blue and asked to meet. Unlike most of my detractors, his note was so cordial that it seemed churlish to say no. We met the next day.

Englander is a trim, affable and eloquent man of 72 who once ran the Cousteau Society and reminds me of a bearded Patrick Stewart, albeit with an American accent. His pitch was simple: The coastline we have taken for granted for thousands of years of human history changed rapidly in the past on account of natural forces — and would soon be changing rapidly and disastrously by man-made ones. A trip to Greenland, which holds one-eighth of the world’s ice on land (most of the rest is in Antarctica) would show me just how drastic those changes have been. Would I join him?

Again, it seemed churlish to say no (though the pandemic would delay my trip by two years). More to the point, if my main objection to the climate activists was my impression of their overweening certitude, didn’t it behoove me to check my own? Where — except in the risk of changing my mind — was the harm in testing my views?

In Copenhagen before my departure for Greenland, I chatted with Liam Colgan, a Canadian research climatologist with the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. “We haven’t had a good positive mass balance year since the late 1990s,” he told me in a follow-on email when I asked him to explain the data for me. The losses can vary sharply by year. The annualized average over the past 30 years, he added, is 170 gigatons per year. That’s the equivalent of about 5,400 tons of ice loss per second. That “suggests that Greenland ice loss has been tracking the I.P.P.C. worse-case, highest-carbon-emission scenario.” (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the U.N. body that assesses climate change.)

Still, it’s hard to forecast with any precision what that means. “Anyone who says they know what the sea level is going to be in 2100 is giving you an educated guess,” said NASA’s Willis. “The fact is, we’re seeing these big ice sheets melt for the first time in history, and we don’t really know how fast they can go.”

His own educated guess: “By 2100, we are probably looking at more than a foot or two and hopefully less than seven or eight feet. But we are struggling to figure out just how fast the ice sheets can melt. So the upper end of range is still not well known.”

Englander isn’t at all sanguine. The average rate at which sea level is rising around the world, he estimates, has more than tripled over the past three decades, to five millimeters a year from 1.5 millimeters. That may still seem minute, yet as the world learned during the pandemic, exponential increases have a way of hitting hard.

“When something is on a straight line or a smooth curve, you can plot its trajectory,” Englander said. “But sea level, like earthquakes and mudslides, is something that happens irregularly and can change rather quickly and surprise us. The point is, you can no longer predict the future by the recent past.”

A few years ago, I would have found voices like Koonin’s and Pielke’s persuasive. Now I’m less sure. What intervened was a pandemic.

Just as I had once scoffed at the idea of climate doom, I had also, for almost identical reasons, dismissed predictions of another catastrophic global pandemic on a par with the 1918-20 influenza outbreak. After all, hadn’t we pushed through previous alarms involving Ebola, SARS, MERS and vCJD (mad cow disease) without immense loss of life? Hadn’t virology, epidemiology, public hygiene, drug development and medicine all come a long way since the end of World War I, rendering comparisons with past pandemics mostly moot?

That’s what I thought until the spring of 2020, when, along with everyone else, I experienced how swiftly and implacably nature can overwhelm even the richest and most technologically advanced societies. It was a lesson in the sort of intellectual humility I recommended for others and began to realize I could use more of myself.

(above, still clinging to closely held tenets of conservative ideology)

The problem with our civilization isn’t overconfidence. It’s polarization, paralysis and a profound lack of trust in all institutions, including the scientific one (another pandemic-era lesson). Devising effective climate policies begins with recognizing the reality of the social and political landscape in which all policy operates. Some thoughts on how we might do better:

1) Engagement with critics is vital. Insults and stridency are never good tools of persuasion, and trying to cow or censor climate skeptics into silence rarely works. Englander got a lot further with me by saying, “Let’s talk,” than by signing a letter saying, in effect, “Shut up.” I too might have spared myself the outraged reception to my first column if it hadn’t been preceded by the name-calling of my old columns — such as when I called climate activists “a caste of spectacularly unattractive people pretending to an obscure form of knowledge that promises to make the seas retreat and the winds abate.”

2) Separate facts from predictions and predictions from policy. Global warming is a fact. So is the human contribution to it. So are observed increases in temperature and sea levels. So are continued increases if we continue to do more of the same. But the rate of those increases is difficult to predict even with the most sophisticated computer modeling. The scientific establishment would do more to enhance trust if it communicated what it isn’t sure of — like the relation between climate change and specific extreme weather events — as much as what it is. It would enhance it even further if climate scientists did not use the authority of their field to push for policies whose economic, political and social implications they might not fully understand.

3) Don’t allow climate to become a mainly left-of-center concern. One reason the topic of climate has become so anathema to many conservatives is that so many of the proposed solutions have the flavor, and often the price tag, of old-fashioned statism. But climate is a universally shared good and ought to be a truly common interest. Conservatives can do a lot more to develop their own set of realistic policy prescriptions (for instance, expedited permitting and tax breaks for next-generation nuclear energy). But first, many of them have to be brought around, as I was this year, about the need for action.


8 Responses to “New York Times Climate Denier Wakes the Eff Up”

  1. mbrysonb Says:

    ARghh. of course the only response he mentions is more nuclear power. How could he not have noticed the costs and risks of building and managing nuclear power and managing the resulting waste? If he admits to being wrong about climate change (after years of knee-jerk hostility towards people alarmed about climate change because he didn’t like the cut of their jib), why not at least consider solar, wind and geothermal and storage? I think he still hasn’t shaken off his own bad attitude.

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    “Engagement with critics is vital.”Engagement with ineducable people is a waste of time. It’s 20-bloody-22 and he’s only now accepting the science now that we’ve already broken the jet stream, we’re bleaching out most of the world’s coral habitats, and crop failures are becoming more frequent.

    Informing the ignorant is one thing, but going up against the thought processes of people who are emotionally or culturally or materially* linked to their established thinking is a one-way ticket to frustration. The idea that facts will influence someone whose opinion is based on culture and not reality has been shown over and over to be insufficient, and if there is a change of thought, it usually depends on some sort of emotional connection.

    *Per Sinclair Lewis, it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.

  3. ubrew12 Says:

    “Yes, Greenland is melting… but Capitalism is Great!”
    “Yes, Greenland is melting… but climate activists be Weird!”
    “Yes, Greenland is melting… but Germany should have KNOWN Putin would invade Ukraine!”
    “Yes, Greenland is melting… but Wind and Solar suck!”

    That’s what I got out of Bret Stephens overlong attempt at a ‘Mea Culpa’.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Capitalism is powerful, but too many people reify the “invisible hand of the market” as a conscious and, worse, a moral force.

      It’s like gravity, in that you have to take it into account in the system, including taking advantage of it when it’s useful (flush toilet design, hydropower, building structure, etc.), and being resilient against its relentless nature.

  4. jimbills Says:

    Great comments above. It’s because most people (there are a handful of exceptions) don’t think truly rationally when internally (or especially externally) debating issues. They start from the firm belief that their own position and its attendant biases is the correct one, then they rationalize for that position and away from conflicting positions. This is just human nature for most people most of the time. It takes overwhelming evidence for even a slight acceptance of a conflicting position, but even then the person will retain many of the other former biases.

    Intelligence has nothing to do with it. If anything, a very intelligent person is even more able to rationalize away the conflicting position and build ‘evidence’ for their own position.

    I think it’s really more about personality traits. A person has to be able to accept they might be wrong – a wiser person than that is willing to accept they might be wrong much of the time. But, certain personalities are completely unable to do this. Education in critical thinking when young could help some in individual cases, but I’m not sure how much of our current schooling emphasizes it.

    Stephens is wise enough to be willing to accept he might be wrong in one way, but not wise enough to be willing to accept he might be wrong in many ways.

    • jimbills Says:

      And the funny not-so-funny thing is that most conservatives will just take Stephens’ piece as evidence that he’s been perverted by the liberal NYT.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Education in critical thinking when young could help some in individual cases, but I’m not sure how much of our current schooling emphasizes it.

      As I’ve ranted before, I think we need to go upstream of critical thinking and start by teaching kids as young as they can understand it how the human brain works, with special emphasis on self-delusion, malleability of memory, and how much pre-processing a sound or image gets (e.g., the basis for optical, auditory and cognitive illusions) before we “perceive” it. The importance of critical thinking falls out of that.

  5. Mark Says:

    It’s going to take conservatives to convince conservatives. I hope Stephens recognizes that the task is more on his shoulders than changing the messaging that is already out there.

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