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Climate Hustle

NY Times’ Stephens can’t see the elephant in the room on climate change

Posted on 16 May 2017 by dana1981

There was tremendous outcry when the New York Times hired opinion columnist Bret Stephens, who has a long history of making misinformed comments about climate change. Stephens didn’t assuage those fears when he devoted his first column to punching hippies, absurdly suggesting that our lack of progress on climate policy is a result of greens being too mean to climate deniers.

Stephens lamentably stayed on the subject of climate change in his second and third Times columns as well. In those pieces, he used corn-based ethanol subsidies as an example of where climate policy has gone wrong:

So let’s talk about ethanol and other biofuels, a subject some climate-change activists might prefer to forget. In 2007, George W. Bush used his State of the Union speech to call for huge increases in the production of renewable and alternative fuels such as ethanol. Democrats were firmly on board, and President Barack Obama pursued a largely similar course in his first years in office.

This is a clear case of cherry picking. There are hundreds of examples of climate policies with varying degrees of effectiveness; why focus on just one? Many environmental groups and “climate-change activists” have long opposed corn-based ethanol subsidies, as Stephens himself noted. Politicians of both political parties supported those subsidies because they were popular in corn-growing Midwestern states. It had little if anything to do with climate efficacy. So why blame “climate-change activists” for these politically-motivated subsidies?

For his next misleading argument, Stephens shifted to German electricity costs:

The country is producing record levels of energy from wind and solar power, but emissions are almost exactly what they were in 2009. Meanwhile, German households pay nearly the highest electricity bills in Europe, all for what amounts to an illusion of ecological virtue.

Stephens’ comparison to 2009 is another example of blatant cherry picking. German carbon emissions that year were particularly low, due in part to the global recession. The long-term trend is unmistakable.

It’s also odd that Stephens criticized Germany for its electricity bills, given that the report he referenced shows they’re a bit lower than what Americans pay. The difference is that while German electricity rates are 3.3 times higher than Americans’, their electricity consumption is 3.4 times lower. In other words, German policies have been successful in cutting the nation’s carbon pollution while still keeping their electricity bills a bit lower than Americans’. 

The country is far from perfect – they still rely on coal for a significant amount of that electricity generation – but from a climate policy perspective, Germany is mostly a success story. America’s per-person carbon pollution is nearly twice as high as Germany’s.

Although his columns are riddled with these sorts of misleading cherry picks, worse yet is that Stephens’ arguments are red herrings, distracting from the elephant in the room.

On American climate policy, the GOP is the problem

Stephens’ columns worry that America will jump on the bandwagon of any feel-good climate policy. If only we lived in a world where that were a legitimate concern. In reality, the Trump administration is taking every possible step to undo all American climate policies. They’re considering withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement because they believe it won’t allow America to increase its carbon pollution.

The administration has effectively declared war on the Earth’s climate and our future well-being. Noam Chomsky has called the Republican Party the most dangerous organization in human history because of its climate denial and policy obstruction.

Stephens’ focus on corn-based ethanol is like a cancer patient worrying about a hangnail. Certainly, all parties should debate the best and most effective policies to address climate change. We’ve been pleading with Republicans for years to engage in that debate. Democrats have proposed all sorts of different policy solutions - government regulations, free market cap and trade systems (a Republican invention), small government revenue-neutral carbon taxes - you name it. They’re not the problem.

There are a few GOP climate leaders

Fortunately, some prominent Republicans have stepped up to engage in the climate policy debate. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham authored past climate legislation. 19 House Republicans have joined the Climate Solutions Caucus, 12 of whom just introduced The Climate Solutions Commission Act that would establish a commission to recommend economically viable climate policies. And a group of Republican elder statesmen on the Climate Leadership Council met with the White House to recommend support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

However, while deserving of great praise and encouragement for their efforts, these climate realist Republican Party leaders are in the minority.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 19:

  1. The continual thesis that German electrical prices are punishingly high because of the role of renewables does not stand up to examination very well. You cannot just compare the retail price of a KWh because that includes taxes and VAT. The taxes vary with the volume, and there are also often fixed or variable charges for network access affecting the price. Without a detailed comparison that breaks down all charges no apples:apples comparison is possible, and that includes comparisons to neighbouring countries.

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  2. Is Stephens deliberately cherry picking 2009, knowing its deceptive? Or is Stephens is so badly educated he can't even interpret trends in a simple graph? It has to be one or the other, but either demonstrate he is not fit to be an editor of an environmental science column in the media.

    Maybe Trump is right, the NY Times print fake news. A prime example would be Brett Stephens with his deceptions and ignorance on emissions and warming trends.

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  3. At least Germany are making an effort, and achieving some level of success. The trend is in the right direction and costs are no higher than America, so criticism is nit picking and misses the big picture. Instead of rubbishing Germany, Stephens could be a whole lot more supportive and maybe some constructive criticism rather than making deceptive criticisms.

    It's also a classic bait and switch. Criticise Germany to take the focus of Americas problems, and Trumps pathetic attitude to climate change. Stephens is obviously another Trump lackey.

    But Just looking at Germanys progress on reducing emissions in the graph in the Guardian, there's not much progress with cars, in fact none. I would have thought they would have embraced electric cars by now, and had some incentive scheme.

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  4. I'm not defending Stephens but he was hired for NYT "Opinion". It's kind of like what people do about Trump, trying to insert reason, logic, and evidence where these concepts are inappropriate. If you remember that Stephens is a sort of disciple of Bjorn Lomborg, and makes his living as a soi-disant conservative commentator, you can avoid the pitfalls and trying to figure out why the stupid. It's just stupid, you can leave it at that.

    So many people I respect have gone the "unsubscribe" route that I hesitate to condemn the all or nothing approach. Unfortunately, it has not had the desired effect of correcting the error, but rather amplified it. Meanwhile they've hired Brad Plumer and have a large group of good reporters. All the attention paid to Stephens seems to feed the beast, making him better clickbait that if we really ignored him.

    It's an ongoing problem with the commentariat, how to find a way to effectively communicate about facts without feeding the monster of falsehood.

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  5. Stephens made some of his bones opposing Trump, and has had two recent articles making that clear. When he's not on the topic of climate, he's not nearly as bad. He is absolutely not a Trump "lackey" though the accusation that he is a climate obscurantist has considerable merit, and whether you're a Trumpian or Kochian is largely a distinction without a difference these days.

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  6. Susan Anderson @4,  

    I agree alternative opinions are healthy. I dont mind quite so much  if Stephens is one opinion out of a range of opinions. Ideally I look for media like a newspaper that have a range of views, or it just becomes a closed bubble, and actually a bit boring.

    But the article's on this website on Bret Stephens have created the impression with me that Bret Stephens takes a lead opinion writing role, which would worry me. The articles on SS have not really spelled out whether the NY Times have a range of opinions.

    But putting that aside, there's simply no excuse for blatant cherrypicking of information or getting basic facts wrong, or being generally misleading, and in my "opinion" Stephen's is guilty of all three. I'm sick of this whether he's an opinion writer or news writer.

    You can be critical and/ or supportive of climate science without all that garbage. It's not opinion writing, its deceit! Yeah we have come to expect this from some conservatives, but it's not good enough.

    And Stephens has expressed equally misleading views on various subjects in addition to climate change. He comes across to me as a fairly extreme libertarian. 

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  7. nigelgj, I don't dispute the awfulness of the Stephens hire or his opinions, and I consider the insidiousness of Lomborgianism more dangerous than outright denial in some ways. But it is important to be accurate and the word "lackey" is classic early Iron Curtainspeak as well as incorrect in Stephens' case. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/10/opinion/comey-firing-donald-trump.html and https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/12/opinion/how-trump-may-save-the-republic.html

    My other point, which is advanced with humility, I hope, is that the broad focus on him, though negative, actually promotes his "brand" where a studied lack of interest in his dishonesty would, in my humble opinion, have been more effective.

    In addition, the NYT, as I said, has several fine climate reporters and they get a whole lot less attention than this mess. This eagerness to condemn and isolate with the "pure" ensures that the united Republicans will overcome fractious Democrats for the foreseeable future. Republicans aren't boycotting Fox and Breitbart. Science deniers are not so choosy about the tools they use.

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    Moderator Response:

    Links fixed. Use the Link tool in the comment editor to create these yourself.

  8. Ref: Susan Anderson & Nijelj discussion

    Most often I agree whole-heartedly with Ms Anderson; this time I agree half-heartedly. Yes, NYT has several fine climate reporters, and they deserve far more attention and respect than they get.w to be paranoid while living and working in Mexico for several years. Paranoia is a survival techdnique, not an illness. Being pretty thoroly mexicuted, I see the hiring of Stephens as a ploy to make NYT look "fair and balanced" on the climate issue, for revenue's sake. (Regrettably, my name for people thus selected violates the valued standards for commenting.)

    Reality is worse. The NYT commentariat's "liberalism" is shallow. There was an article recently about "Dreamer" students at the University of California at Merced: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/03/education/edlife/daca-undocumented-university-of-california-merced-fiat-lux-scholars.html which aroused very hostile reactions from a commentariat that not so long before had been sympathetic to deportees who were upstanding members of their communities. Why the difference? The dreamers were taking university slots and scholarships that the commenters crave for their own kids.

    An uncomfortably large number of members in my famously "liberal" parish insist on believing my kids (who are now 50-somethings) got great scholarships only because they are racially mixed. Same thing: the not-like-us people are getting goodies rightfully ours. And this is neither "conservative" nor "liberal" — it is merely bigotry.

    Gotta get off this "Climate is a right/left divide" thing. Courteously protest Stephens for his climate mendacity. A granddaughter of mine marched in her local Climate protest with a picket sign: "God said, Let 1+1=2. And it still his." Denial of this is not a matter of opinion. It is a lie, a dangerous lie.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Link fixed. You might like to take a moment to reread your comment before submitting to reduce typos. It makes it easier for others to read.

  9. Typo. Sorry: it should be

    God said, Let 1+1=2. And it still is.

    "Benign essential tremor" is not so benign.

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  10. I think it's important not to be drawn into arguments about the economics of CO2 reduction, which is always a frontrunner in the denialists' agenda.There are two completely different - although (obviously) intertwined issues:1) Is AGW a reality? Will it a serious threat?2) If so, how can it be ameliorated? How much would that cost?If both the answers to (1) are "yes" then economic arguments are irrelevant.To my mind it's perfectly logical to accept (1) but to hold the opinion that one doesn't care. But that's rarely advanced as an argument: deniers will not accept the science in the first place.Engaging them with the pluses and minuses of the economics of preventing AGW is therefore useless and rather plays into their hands.
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  11. Aplogies - my post @ 10 was formatted OK when I wrote it but all the ASCII 13s disappeared in the post!

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  12. I only halfheartedly agree with myself. But the word "lackey" has to go, and Stephens does not support Trump. He does, however, help the enablers and that hurts the 1+1 = 2 problem.

    As to NYT commentariat, we have a much bigger presence of Trump supporters than we usedta (also Russian and other kinds of trolls, some paid). We also have an increase in hate crimes, even in the more liberal Boston area. The empowering of narrow minded selfishness across the board is very bad and feelings about immigrants are ugly. Lewis Black did a neat piece on how Canada was too busy helping our victims to take us on.

    I had a conversation about ethics recently and was reminded of the WWII poster: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do ... or do without" and during the course of the conversation realized that what's bugging me (along with a lot of other things, like the failure of education to make kids more observant and curious and less inclined to overuse electronic devices) is that we should be on a war footing about climate.

    There's no way the infotainment industry and weapons-grade marketing machine is going to let us get serious and reality until it's too late. People are right to complain that the NYT should support its "truth" campaign with actual truth. People are so horrified by Trump they can't look away. I'd have front page news every day about climate change and all its offshoots, worldwide weather, etc. Sort of like the NYT magazine that came out about the same time as the Stephens rollout, and got little attention for its stellar range and presentation.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/magazine/our-climate-future-is-actually-our-climate-present.html

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Link activated.

  13. Reminder: Stephens is a follower of Lomborg. He appears not to be numerate or have a good scientific training. He's a writer (not an editor).

    Liz Spayd, the "Public Editor" was a poor choice. She refuses to engage with the many fact-based responses she received. To these two, facts appear not to matter, and nothing appears to penetrate that armor. I have one friend whom she criticized publicly precisely because he provided a fact-based rebuttal. What do you do with people who don't want to hear it because they're so convinced they're right? (It's happening on the left too these days.) It's easier to hate/attack than to think/reason/act.

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  14. Susan Anderson @7, yes I  accept Bret Stephens is not a Trump Lackey. Your links do show he has been genuinely critical of Trump on some things. He does share other views with Trump, and maybe I jumped to conclusions out of annoyance with the man.

    I agree with your comments in post 12 about Trump, liberalism, education and hate crimes ( I don't actually like the term hate crimes as its a bit vague and pc sounding, but I assume you mean demeaning comments and actions towards moslems and other minority ethnicities. I hate this sort of thing with a vengeance). Trump and his scaredy cat, obedient, sychophantic Republican supporters (and they truly are acting like lackeys) have a lot to answer for. 

    However I dont think we can simply stay silent about people like Stephens. I know there's a risk that every word one says draws attention to the guy, and he obviously wants this, but it's even worse to say nothing, and create the impression what he says is the truth (on climate change). What the other commentators at the NY times need to do is stand up for the science of climate change, and be less reticient about it. This will take the focus off Stephens. I think Stephens is a bit of an attention seeker.

    Liberalism correctly promotes tolerance, and generally avoiding insulting comments, but sometimes this evolves into an unfortunate tendency to be overly restrained, confused and bogged down in detail and excessisve nuance. It's important to sometimes speak out simply and strongly, and call a spade a spade, and tell people they are simply wrong, but obviously back it up with solid evidence and logic. 

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  15. kids in schools and on buses, home attacks, spray painting, random stuff, real violence.  Most definitely hate crimes, and there's a lot of it. This is very OT, so I will desist, but the frequency is mindboggling.

    The other articles in that magazine (a lot) were also very fine. Thanks for activating the link.

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  16. Susan (or anyone else trying to add links to a comment):

    The way to linkify a link when writing a comment is to first select the text you want to appear in place of the link (which can just be the text of the link). Then go to the Insert tab, and choose the little chain link symbol. A window will pop up where you then enter the hyperlink/URL.

    You used to have to select some text first. It looks like the widget has been updated and now you can open the Insert Link dialog box even if you haven't. If text was preselected, the dialog box only has a field for the URL. If no text was selected, it will have both a text box and an URL box.

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  17. Susan Anderson

    Relax, lass, and enjoy the show.  I suppose I should be more concerned about the climate catastrophe heading our way, but in my cynical old age, I've found that it is easier to write off humanity, sit back, and watch the wheels come off — in slow motion.

    Despite the foregoing, in moments of weakness I still find myself firing off "e-mails to the editor" from time to time.  Recently I've had such missives on climate change published in no fewer than three different magazines.  You won't find them, though, because they're all local New Zealand magazines.  Nothing helps, of course.

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  18. Digby Scorgie,

    I just posted a comment to John Cook's most recent OP "Inoculation theory: Using misinformation to fight misinformation" that may give you reason to continue trying to be Helpful. There is a broad range of ways to be helpful locally-globally in the short-term to Infinitely long-term.

    Climate Change is probably the biggest battle front of Helpful actions. It is global, deals with very long term considerations, and requires changes that are contrary to a massive amount of incorrectly over-developed perceptions of prosperity and opportunity. And it requires changes that are undeniably contrary to the interests of many very wealthy powerful people.

    Helping on some of the other Sustainable Development Goals would undeniably be easier. But support for all of those goals is required from everyone who genuinely wants to be helpful.

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  19. OPOF @18

    Does that mean you want me to continue firing off "e-mails to the editor"?!

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