NY Times Op-Ed Writer Bret Stephens Ignites A Climate Change Firestorm

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The world changed on Tueday, November 8, 2016. That’s the day a gleefully uncurious man named Donald Trump — a man who brags he doesn’t read books and is proud of that fact — became the 45th president of the United States. Trump supporters savored their victory. At long last, they had a chance to shut up those lily-livered Eastern liberals who sneer down their patrician noses at ordinary folks. They were tired of being laughed at by Jon Stewart and John Oliver and dozens of other social commentators from Dan Rather to Bill Maher to Al Franken. Many of them cheered when Trump said climate change was a Chinese hoax designed to crash the American economy.

koch brothers and climate change

It was a gut wrenching reality check for lots of people, especially for those of us who patronize websites like CleanTechnica. Suddenly, the fossil fuel free future we thought was just over the horizon was receding into the distance, as Trump threatened to take an ax to the EPA and reinvigorate the moribund US coal industry so his close personal friend Robert Murray could afford to buy a new pickup truck.

How could this happen? Where did we go wrong? Suddenly we realized there were a whole lot of people in America who love Vladimir Putin. They believe that human beings and dinosaurs once roamed the earth together, that the earth was created precisely 3000 years ago, and that vaccinations are a plot fomented by space aliens to enslave the human race.

The vaunted liberal media started asking whether they should reinvent themselves to appeal to the race-baiting, immigrant-hating, science-bashing blowhards that had made Breitbart and other alt-right websites so popular. If fake news was the new currency, shouldn’t they join the party? After all, eyeballs are what sell newspapers. It can’t be good business to ignore a significant portion of the market, can it?

The New York Times, which now bills itself as the purveyor of “truth,” decided perhaps it had too much of a liberal bias, so it went out and secured the services of a former Wall Street Journal editorial writer named Bret Stephens. Last weekend, Stephens published his first op-ed piece, which proceeded to question all the hysteria about climate change. Stephens referred to the rising temperatures being recorded around the world as “mild warming.” His thesis was that people who are true believers about climate change — like the vast majority of climate scientists — are susceptible to too much groupthink and too little critical analysis.


The blowback was immediate and fierce. Famed oceanographer Stefan Rahmstorf tweeted that he was cancelling his subscription to the Times. He accused Stephens of cherry picking his data to buttress his argument, a charge that Stephens hotly denies. Many other people prominent in the climate change movement said they were cancelling their subscriptions, too.

That led Liz Spayd, the public editor at the Times, to take a look at the maelstrom created by Stephen’s article. For his part, Stephens was anything but conciliatory. “The first column was meant to recognize our fallibility,” he told Spayd. “When I quoted the old Jew of Galicia, about someone who’s 55 percent right, that meant me. I am far from infallible, and I screw up all the time. I’m not offering my comments as statements of absolute truth. What I’m trying to do is offer statements about issues that matter in hopes that they approximate the truth. Just as I want to persuade readers, I understand that they might end up persuading me.”

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

“Let’s all be open minded,” is the message Stephens wants to deliver. And there are reasons why being skeptical about climate science may be a good thing. Dudley Field Malone is credited with saying, “I never learned anything from a man who agreed with me.” Putting aside the sexism embedded in his remark, slamming our minds shut to anything said by a climate change denier may not be a good long term policy.

Stephens point is that data can mislead us. He references the polls that showed Hillary Clinton sweeping to an easy victory as proof that data, taken all by itself, can lead us astray. The difference is that polling data is far from an exact science. Evidence that the polar ice caps are thinning, the permafrost in Siberia is melting, and the temperature of the oceans is rising is not an opinion. It is documented fact and is no more subject to debate than saying the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

That is like saying 2 plus 2 equals 4 is just an opinion, one that should be the subject of critical examination. It is equivalent to saying the heliotropic theory which suggests the earth and planets revolve around the sun should be challenged. The Trump administration proposes to ban NASA from assisting in scientific measurements of the earth’s atmosphere to detect things like global temperatures and polar ice cap melting. Following that logic, it should also prohibit the space agency from photographing the sun, the planets, and the stars to keep mankind from discovering even more about the cosmos and how it works.

The Fly In The Ointment

Stephens’ protestations of innocence might be persuasive except for one thing — he uses some of the code words employed by the fossil fuel industry to shield itself from climate science. Stephens ended his first op-ed piece with this: “What’s missing is an understanding of the harm that can be done when “do ­something” impulses and eco­cure boosterism become turbocharged by government power and subsidized business.”

“I’m not for a second suggesting that we shouldn’t continue to pursue and increase fundamental research and investment in clean tech, at least if we can do it without having the government pick winners and losers. A majority of Americans favor that, on a bipartisan basis. There’s room for agreement, or at least productive disagreement — and compromise. The lessons are legion but, more often than not, unlearned. We need to make policy choices based less on moral self­ regard and more on attention to real ­world results.”

Picking Winners And Losers

Do some of those phrases sound familiar? “Government should not pick winners and losers” has been part of conservative policy since the days of Ronnie Rayguns. It is an indispensable part of the “small government” mantra that says all government action is bad and all regulations stifle free enterprise and shrink employment. It is mentioned frequently in such conservative mouthpiece organizations as the American Spectator and Breitbart. Loosely translated, the argument is that powerful lobbying interests have spent millions to buy the loyalty of certain government representatives and they don’t want anyone to upset their carefully crafted influence peddling scheme.

Last year, Koch Industries announced a $10,000,000 slush fund to buy media attention favorable to fossil fuel interests. Within weeks, digital and print media were filled with articles singing the same tune — government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers. Those articles didn’t just appear in fringe publications. They showed up in Forbes and Fortune, revealing just how pervasive the influence of the fossil fuel interests really is and how easy it is to spread disinformation for the right price.

Please Don’t Give Our Subsidies To Them

The Koch Brothers and their confreres are bitterly opposed to any government subsidies for renewable energy. Conversely, the fossil fuel crowd has never met a subsidy for oil, natural gas, or coal they didn’t like. The level playing field they say they want is so tilted in their favor that no one else could possibly compete. That’s what they mean when they say government should not pick winners and losers.

The movie Gasland makes it clear how the fossil fuel industry shoved special legislation through Congress that exempts fracking companies from the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and protects fracking companies from having to disclose what toxic chemicals they are injecting into the soil to release the oil and gas trapped in shale deposit below. Known as the “Haliburton rule,” it was passed at the specific request of Dick Cheney before he ascended to the vice presidency.

Is there anyone who thinks that is not an example of government picking a winners and losers? The winners are the fracking companies. The losers are the people of America. That is why Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, calls the fossil fuel industry the biggest danger to humanity extant in the world today.

Fossil fuel apologists blithely assert they are opposed to all government subsidies, without ever including the $5 trillion a year in direct and indirect subsidies the International Monetary Fund says the industry receives every year. They say chutzpah is when a child murders his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan. By that definition, the fossil fuel industry has enough chutzpah for every man, woman, and child on earth.

Critical Analysis Is Good. Being A Mouthpiece Is Bad

Stephens makes a good point when he says he just wants people to bring a healthy skepticism to the climate change. We should all learn to hear what others are saying, even if we disagree with the message. But the words he chooses belie his protestations of innocent intent and reveal him as just another media whore doing the bidding of his handlers.

Source: The New York Times

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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