Bret Stephens Should Take His Own Advice

The New York Times columnist wants us to be aware of everyone’s ideological intentions, but he’s not.

Bret Stephens during a Christians United for Israel summit July 13, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Bret Stephens, the newly appointed conservative columnist for the New York Times, wants his readers to think critically. In his debut column, published Friday, he argues that climate science isn’t as clear-cut as advertised. Stephens quotes Andrew Revkin, a former Times environmental reporter who has written about hype and uncertainty in climate projections. But Revkin, in a series of rebuttals, takes a different view of scientific uncertainty. Revkin’s approach is broader, deeper, and wiser. It exposes the biases and limits of Stephens’ perspective.

The Stephens-Revkin conversation began on April 14, two days after Stephens, already known as a climate skeptic, joined the Times. Revkin tweeted questions to Stephens and sent him links to articles on climate uncertainty. In his column on Friday, Stephens cited Revkin’s work and implied that the two men agreed. Revkin didn’t see it that way. He responded in a Facebook post on Friday, a talk at Cornell University on Monday, and an essay in ProPublica on Tuesday.

In his column, Stephens accused environmentalists of overstating the reliability of climate models. He noted that human beings have a bad habit: “We respond to the inherent uncertainties of data by adding more data without revisiting our assumptions.” This “traduces the spirit of science,” he argued, and it creates “an impression of certainty that can be lulling, misleading and often dangerous.” In an interview with Vox, posted shortly before his column ran, Stephens proposed that stipulating uncertainty is simply “common sense.”

Stephens is right: Uncertainty is common sense in climate forecasting, and it’s inherent in data. But that’s what makes Stephens’ argument—that uncertainty about climate science is grounds to do less about climate change—vacuous. If all data are uncertain, then complaints about uncertainty in data can always be used to justify inaction. And that’s how Stephens, in his column, builds his case. He doesn’t get into the substance of climate studies. He soars above them, gliding from politics to economics to science, as he presents a universal, context-free theory that data are flawed.

Stephens argues that citizens are right to distrust environmentalists and liberal politicians. “Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions,” he writes. At no point, however, does Stephens propose scrutiny of politicians or industrialists who oppose climate legislation. He frets about the potential consequences of overstating the harm of carbon emissions— “history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power,” he observes—but he’s silent about the potential consequences of understating the harm. The ideological intentions of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, married to the power of President Trump, don’t figure in his calculus.

To bolster his case, Stephens quotes Revkin’s reporting about climate hype and uncertainty. But Revkin’s approach is very different. Revkin focuses on details in climate science, not on grand epistemic theories. He argues not that all data are uncertain or untrustworthy but that some conclusions are less certain than others, and he examines them case by case. The rate of increase in global temperatures from a given amount of carbon dioxide, for example, is debatable. The basic correlation isn’t.

Revkin, unlike Stephens, observes that uncertainties and their risks go both ways. The rate of temperature increase, for instance, might be worse than climate models have estimated. “Uncertainty is the reason for acting in the near term,” Revkin writes, “and that uncertainty cannot be used as a justification for doing nothing.” He notes that Stephens, while denouncing the “climate certitude” of environmentalists, “fails to challenge evidence-free predictions of economic calamity” by opponents of climate legislation. Revkin says he warned Stephens, in a note before Stephens’ column appeared, that the climate debate “is rife with overstatement, but it’s at both ends.” That caveat appears nowhere in Stephens’ column. Stephens confines his warnings about ideological distortion to the left. Revkin points out, gently, that this bias on Stephens’ part is itself ideological.

Stephens’ appointment to the Times op-ed page and his column on climate change infuriated many scientists and readers. Some canceled their subscriptions or demanded that he be fired. They called him a climate “denier” and said he hadn’t modified his “anti-science views” in the face of growing evidence. But if you truly understand Revkin’s message—if, like him, you put evidence before politics—you’ll acknowledge that this is no longer true. In 2008, Stephens called global warming a “mass hysteria phenomenon.” In 2009, he wrote: “The earth has registered no discernable warming in the past 10 years.” But in Friday’s Times column, he conceded that the “warming of the Northern Hemisphere since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming.” On Tuesday, Revkin noted that Stephens has “come a distance in his views.”

And he’s likely to come further. “The best argument made on behalf of climate mitigation strategies,” Stephens told Vox, is that “even if there’s a small chance your house catches fire, you take out insurance. … You can make a perfectly sensible argument that even if we’re not 100 percent sure we’re facing a catastrophic climate future, we should take out a host of insurance policies to mitigate carbon emissions.” Stephens said his argument isn’t against these policies; it’s about how much to pay for them. That’s a line of reasoning that leads, when informed by science, to many of the climate policies Revkin and others support.

So don’t give up on Stephens. He’s on the right track. He wants to think critically, and he wants to bring Times readers along. He wants us to discover our biases and blinders. I hope he succeeds. And I hope he discovers his own.