Posted on Categories Discover Magazine
In his first piece as an op ed columnist for the N.Y. Times, Bret Stephens rightly decries hyperbole in discussion about climate change. Then he makes seemingly reasonable arguments that turn out to be asinine.
My reaction? Yawn. It’s quite doubtful that he will move the needle of public opinion on climate policy in the United States beyond the noise of natural variability. And I’m pretty darn sure that what he says in his superficially seductive but ultimately silly column will have no impact whatsoever on policy. In that arena, we’ve really got much bigger problems than Bret Stephens.
So I was going to leave it at that, until I started reading reactions on Twitter and elsewhere by some scientists. One renowned and highly respected climate scientist, Stefan Rahmstorf, Professor of Physics of the Oceans at Potsdam University, wrote an excellent letter to the New York Times. Excellent, but for one major issue, in my opinion: He also scored an own-goal by publicly saying he was cancelling his subscription to the Times.
Why do I say an “own-goal”? Keep reading. But first, an excerpt of some of the really good things Ramstorf said:
My heroes are Copernicus, Galilei and Kepler, who sought the scientific truth based on observational evidence and defended it against the powerful authority of the church in Rome, at great personal cost.
Had the New York Times existed then – would you have seen it as part of your mission to insult and denigrate these scientists, as Stephens has done with climate scientists?
Make no mistake about it, Stephens did just that with straw man arguments, and ridiculous statements about the state of climate science.
He started out with a deceptively reasonable argument:
Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong.
But here’s the thing: As Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at Stanford University points out in a response posted to his blog:
Bret Stephens’ opinion piece, titled “Climate of Complete Certainty”, is attacking a straw man. No working scientist claims 100% certainty about anything.
Science is the process of falsification. Hypotheses that have withstood a large number of attempts at falsification, and that are consistent with a large body of established theory that has also resisted falsification, are widely regarded as true (e.g., the Earth is approximately spherical). Many hypotheses of modern climate science fall into this category.
Putting aside the fact that some scientists do actually claim 100 percent certainty on some things, I think Caldeira is spot on here.
To be fair to Stephens, he does acknowledge that humans are altering the planet — just barely. All he’ll say is that the 1.5 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature in the Northern Hemisphere since 1880 is “indisputable.” (I guess this means that in his lexicon, “indisputable” does not mean “certain.”) He also acknowledges the “human influence on that warming.” But then he says this:
…much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future.
Does anyone who just read those words fail to understand that projections about the future involve probabilities, not certain fact? If so, please raise your hand.
Uhm, hold ’em up higher, I don’t see any hands…
Moving right along… Stephens is saying that a modest human impact on Northern Hemisphere temperature is certain, but everything else is just probabilities. And the implication is that since fallible models and simulations are what tell us about those probabilities, then we’re not justified in acting to mitigate climate change — because, obviously, the models produce only a cloudy picture of the future.
Do I have to make an argument for why we humans routinely act to reduce exposure to possible future risks, even when we don’t know for sure what the future will bring?
Okay, I will…
If you own a home, would you refuse to buy fire insurance because you’re not really sure that your home will burn down?
Among other tools, models help insurance companies get a handle on the risks of homes burning down, and what they should charge for insurance. By definition, the output of these models is probabilistic and involves uncertainty. Yet does that mean insurance companies have no clue what might happen and what they should charge?
Moreover, models aren’t the only thing we rely on when deciding that its sensible to buy fire insurance. Folks living in a forested area might take note of the fact that in the past, those forests burned. Multiple times. The past is telling them that even if there’s no guarantee that the forest will burn again and send their homes up in flames, maybe fire insurance would be a good idea.
In fact, it’s not just computer models that have helped scientists zero in on a reasonably probable picture of a future with unabated emissions of carbon dioxide and continued warming. In fact, we already are observing that some forests are burning, literally and figuratively.
Here’s the headline on one story about that: Climate Change Blamed for Half of Increased Forest Fire Danger. The story is based on recent research, and it appears to be solidly reported.
It was published in the New York Times. Woops.
More figuratively, the U.S. coastline isn’t burning, but it’s already experiencing dramatic impacts from sea level rise, as this story documents in great detail: Flooding of Coast, Caused by Global Warming, Has Already Begun
Yes. It was published in that climate-change-denying publication called the New York Times…
Will this sea level rise just magically stop, as for all I know Bret Stephens believes? Paleoclimatology — the study of ancient climates — tells us no. Of course, the past is not a perfect guide to the future. But it does give us more data on which to build projections of what the future will probably look like.
I’ve asked James White, a colleague of mine at the University of Colorado, about this numerous times. He’s a paleoclimatologist, and director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. He points out that in Earth’s past, when CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere stood at about 400 parts per million — we’re at ~410ppm today — sea level stood 15 meters higher. That’s 50 feet.
The graphic at the top of this post (courtesy of a Climate Central interactive feature that you can find here), shows what New York City would look like with “just” 29 feet of sea level rise. The Hudson River would not quite be lapping at the lobby entrance Stephens presumably uses to access his office at the N.Y. Times. But it’s pretty close. And a full 50 feet would swamp it.
You might be wondering why sea level hasn’t already come up that far. The reason is very simple: It’s not just the atmosphere that warms thanks to the heat-trapping nature of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (a matter of simple physics understood since the 1800s, by the way). In fact, the oceans have absorbed 90 percent of the heat that has been building up in the climate system. Moreover, it takes much more heat to warm one liter of water than it does to warm the same volume of air.
So despite absorbing huge amounts of energy, the oceans warm slowly. This is analogous to turning up the thermostat in your home, White says:
We turn the thermostat up to 68, but the house hasn’t warmed up yet. Give it time, it will. When it does, the ramifications — the changes we expect under a warmer world — will happen. From a weather point of view, that’s hard to predict. But sea level rise is easy to predict.
Easy to predict precisely because the past helps provide a picture of what to expect, according to White:
A single degree of temperature rise has been equal to about 20 meters of sea level rise on average, given the record of the past 40 million years.
Luckily, since the temperature of the oceans rises slowly, so does sea level. And that means we have time to adapt to the changes already in the pipeline. And also to take out some insurance to prevent even more dramatic changes that models and the past are telling us are likely coming a century or two down the road if we do nothing.
Notice, I didn’t say any of this is certain. And it’s not just based on “fallible” computer models.
Okay, I never intended to write any of this. Because really, who cares about what Bret Stephens has to say? It’s just one uninformed column amidst fairly good coverage of climate change at the New York Times.
But Stefan Ramstorf didn’t feel that way, and he’s absolutely entitled to that opinion. But my opinion is that cancelling his subscription in a highly public manner seems unproductive — an emotional, not a sensible response.
I’m a passionate believer in what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote about speech in a 1927 decision:
To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.
In other words, the antidote to false speech is more speech — truth-telling — not less speech.
The N.Y. Times publishes something like 230 items each and every day (stories, graphics, blog posts, etc.). And especially lately, it has generally been speaking truth to power. Numerous columns by Bret Stephens will not change that. And the needle of public opinion on climate change will not even twitch.
The real problem we face isn’t a columnist expressing an opinion, however asinine it might be. The real problem is exertion of abusive power by an administration that is hiding factual information on climate change and even telling lies to advance a cynical, and even venal, agenda. (Sorry, but this is commentary, not a news story, and that’s my honest opinion.)
This situation is being well covered by Times. So I think what I said in the headline on this story is not really over the top. Publicly cancelling subscriptions because of one stupid column really is an example of some scientists cutting their noses (by cutting off their access to solid, rigorously reported information), and thereby spiting our faces — citizens who need access to good reporting in order to make better decisions in future elections.
I think this kind of response also is like an own goal — a soccer team accidentally kicking the ball into its own net. That’s because initiating campaigns to punish the Times plays right into the false claims of climate change deniers who say most scientists are rigid ideologues opposed to free speech.
I wrote that on Twitter this afternoon, and someone replied:
…’deniers’ will twist almost anything, so worrying abt own goals can be counterproductive
Would soccer players say this abt kicking ball into their own net?: ‘Why worry about it since the other team will still do anything to win?’
On Twitter, people have been using the hashtag #ShowYourCancellation to excoriate the Times. Here’s a particularly odious example, and to be fair, not representative of most (but nonetheless, a very big own-goal):
Cancelled my sub to @nytimes bc of Bret Stephens, climate change denier. I won’t be around for the Holocaust denier. #ShowYourCancellation
— Amy Robillard (@AmyERobillard) April 29, 2017
Here’s a more representative example:
@owillis Damn, now what will I do? Oh yeah, read Twitter. #showyourcancellation pic.twitter.com/TOyZFQAVSa
— MyKidsMom (@MyKidsMomBB8) April 29, 2017
Twitter? Good luck with that…
Just to be clear: I greatly respect Stefan Rahmstorf, and will defend his right to free speech — whatever he says (as long as it’s not crying fire in a crowded theater) — passionately.
I also greatly respect climate scientist Michael Mann, who Tweeted that he cancelled his subscription not due to Stephens’ silly column, but because of the “Public editor’s offensive response” to the uproar it created it.
You can find that response here: Seeking More Voices, Even if Some Don’t Want to Hear Them.
Some of it made me roll my eyes. But I didn’t find it offensive. And it concluded on just the right note. The public editor of the Times, Liz Spayd, says that while reporting for her column, she sought the perspective of Lynn Nottage, a Pulitzer-winning playwright. Spayd describes Nottage as “a breakthrough talent when it comes to crossing into red-state territory and bringing back its humanity…” And this was Nottage’s “advice on listening to what you may not want to hear”:
“I like to replace judgment with curiosity . . . You tell me your story. I’m going to listen without interruption, and then decide what I think
I listened without interruption to what Stephens had to say. And I decided it was asinine. But my response wasn’t to cancel my subscription to the Times. Even though the paper does make bone-headed moves like hiring Bret Stephens, on balance, they perform a valuable public service. And really, it’s not even close.
My response was to write this column. More speech. Not less.