Environmentalists were rightly incensed by the first column from the New York Times’ newest op-ed columnist, Bret Stephens. The anti-Trump conservative—apparently hired in the name of ideological balance—criticized climate advocates for their intolerant attitude toward “skeptics” of the scientific consensus. He compared liberals’ (alleged) “certainty” that climate change will have serious impacts to the Clinton campaign’s misplaced confidence that she would defeat Donald Trump. On climate change, he writes, activists are guilty of “overweening scientism,” and “ordinary citizens … have a right to be skeptical.” (While Stephens professes to accept that the Earth has warmed “modestly” and that humans have influenced the trend, he has made it clear that he doubts scientists’ conclusion that climate change poses a genuine threat.)
From a strict legal standpoint, he’s correct: People have a right to be skeptical of anything they want, no matter how ignorant or destructive that skepticism may be. They have a right to be skeptical that cigarettes cause cancer, for instance, or that vaccines are safe for their children. People also have a right, it turns out, to cancel their New York Times subscriptions in protest of the paper’s politically motivated hire of a man who deploys ridiculous analogies and straw-man fallacies to shrug off a serious and imminent threat to the Earth’s habitability. After reading Stephens’ column, some environmentalists and climate scientists wasted no time in exercising that right.
It’s unclear exactly how many people canceled, in all. Without giving absolute numbers, a New York Times spokeswoman told me on Monday that the cancelers amounted to “a tiny fraction” of the paper’s subscribers. Of course, that number could yet grow.
Leaving aside the question of what people have a right to do or believe, the real question is: How ought a right-thinking environmentalist respond to a column such as Stephens’? Is canceling your Times subscription on the basis of one column “ridiculous” and “illiberal,” as some Times apologists have alleged? Or is it, on the contrary, a morally praiseworthy stand on the part of those who see Stephens’ climate “skepticism” as a thinly veiled attack on science, reason, and the future of the planet and all humanity?
I submit that the answer could be either one, depending on the groundwork you apply to your moral calculus. Hear me out.
On some level, Times apologists are right that boycotting the paper over a single opinion column is misguided. The paper’s newsroom has often been a leader in reporting on climate change, and it employs other columnists who take both the science and its implications seriously. While the Times is far from perfect, it is on the whole a bulwark of fact-based discourse in a time when that’s under threat on multiple fronts. Pull your support from the Times, and in some small way you’re undermining one of the pillars of American journalism.
Less persuasive were those who framed the Stephens blowback as an instance of “liberal intolerance,” as Bloomberg View’s Joe Nocera put it, or even, in Times National Editor Marc Lacey’s view, an attack on “free speech.” Other Times higher-ups, including editorial page editor James Bennet (who hired Stephens), defended the column on the grounds that readers need to be open to opposing views. These arguments fall apart when you consider the nearly infinite variety of “opposing views” that the Times and other outlets choose not to publish every day, on the grounds that they lack sufficient merit. Stephens’ first column should have fallen into that category—not because it challenges the paper’s readers, but because it misinforms and misleads them. The esteemed Times environmental reporter whose work Stephens leaned on and linked to in the column was quick to reject Stephens’ analysis. Literally the only piece of actual climate science he cited in the piece was factually wrong. (The paper published a correction on Monday.)
The question at hand, then, is not one of free speech, nor even whether Stephens’ position is “outside the bounds of reasonable discussion,” as Bennet put it. It’s whether the Times was wrong to bestow its most prominent opinion platform to a climate “skeptic” who blithely downplays, with zero evidence, an entire body of scientific research that he clearly doesn’t understand.
To those familiar with climate science and its predictions, it seems clear that the answer to that question is: Yes, the Times was wrong to make Stephens one of its top voices on such a critical issue. But does that really override all the good work its other journalists do, including in reporting on climate change and its effects? (The Times just this weekend announced a new partnership with the New Orleans Times-Picayune to report on “the causes and potentially catastrophic effects of coastal erosion and sea level rise along the Louisiana coast.” That’s just one of many examples of the paper’s evident commitment to the topic.)
There is a branch of ethics, known as Kantian ethics, that evaluates an act’s morality in part by examining the coherence of the principle underlying it. Deciding exactly how to formulate that principle is often a challenge. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the principle on which people are canceling their Times subscriptions is that one should not support a publication that promotes a viewpoint they find dangerous or repugnant.
Unfortunately, the universal application of this principle would defund practically every media outlet in the country. No major journalistic enterprise, no matter how well-intentioned, can get it right all the time. Stephens’ column was, if anything, more measured than much of what Washington Post columnist George Will has written on climate change over the years. In fact, a study last year by the liberal media watchdog outfit Media Matters identified the Times as the only major national paper that had avoided publishing “climate denial” in its opinion pages. It seems, in this view, that readers might need to give the media a little leeway, lest we be left without any newspapers at all.
Realistically, though, not everyone is going to cancel their Times subscription. At any rate, it’s highly unlikely. (But yes, Bret Stephens, it’s theoretically possible!) And that’s where a more pragmatic branch of ethical thought, utilitarianism, comes into play. Given that the Times is likely to survive regardless, a utilitarian environmentalist might fairly reckon that canceling their subscription—and tweeting about it—is the most effective way to make their voice heard on a topic they feel strongly about, even if the underlying principle isn’t totally consistent. Sure, they can write letters or lodge gripes online. But a wave of cancellations sends a stronger message to the paper’s top editors—and to the public at large—than a wave of idle criticism.
The fact that canceling strikes some people as an extreme response to a column about climate change is just the point: It speaks to just how seriously activists take the media’s portrayal of climate science. In this view, the cancellations represent a well-considered bid by readers to force the Times and other media outlets to think twice before publishing lazy exercises in doubt-sowing or climate apathy. Bennet thinks such exercises fall within “the bounds of reasonable discussion”; the cancelers are trying to force him to reconsider. (The rest of us climate-concerned readers can even cheer these limited cancellations, much in the way we might not punch a Nazi ourselves, but are happy to see one get punched.)
Publicly, the Times’ honchos appear to be circling the wagons. But privately, it’s hard to imagine the prospect of more cancellations won’t at least enter their mind the next time they decide to publish something similar. Besides, as long as these readers really are utilitarians and not Kantians, there’s nothing to stop them from quietly resubscribing in a month or two.