Stephens / NYT / Climate Change

October 31, 2022

Stephens / NYT / Climate Change

Stephens / NYT / Climate Change

Bret Stephens

I am a Sunday NYT subscriber. The paper arrives early, in its blue bag. It sits on the sidewalk for days, usually. Next stop? Atop the doghouse on what might be called the front porch.* Etc. My point? If I didn’t have to get a paper copy to access the online paper, I’d pass. Not my thing, simply!

Until October 28, 2022. I saw Yes, Greenland’s Ice Is Melting by Bret Stephens, went to print it out to read it – long – and saw lots of art. I decided to wait until Sunday and make a rare newsprint date. And I am glad I did.

Mr. Stephens shares his conservative perspective at the Times, but he seems like a decent egg, even from my Lefty perspective. He gets on with Gail Collins and they offer up a hilarious back and forth that shames the Jane Curtin / Dan Ackroyd takeoff on Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick’s Point-Counterpoint. He dislikes Donald Trump, too!

Mr. Stephens got a lot of “real estate” for his piece: 1, and 4-7 of the Opinion section of the Sunday Times, where the magazine labels itself The Climate Issue. Mr. Stephens deserves our thanks for a finely written essay and, more importantly, for writing unequivocally as follows:

For years, I saw myself not as a global warning denier (a loaded term with its tendentious echo of Holocaust denial) but rather as an agnostic on the cause of climate change and a scoff at the idea that it was a catastrophic threat to the future of humanity.

Mr. Stephens owns his earlier position and acknowledges that he’s learned much in the past few years. (Credit John Englander for reaching out to Mr. Stephens decently after his initial NYT column, titled Climate of Complete Certainty, more than five years ago.)

Mr. Stephen’s lengthy work deserves your attention. Kudos to him for rethinking his position on a central issue. He deserves acclaim, too, for showing up to get the information we should expect Times’ columnist to have when they opine about important matters. (Read the article and be impressed by the effort.)

The rest of this post focuses on Mr. Stephens’ nine “thoughts on how we might do better.” Here goes:

Engagement with critics is vital. But, Mr. Stephens, please acknowledge the fact that those who did not believe humans affected climate change made conversation nigh on impossible. (A decent man who will, long after I am gone, move up on the Presidential Historian rankings (George H.W. Bush), called Senator Albert Gore (D-Tenn.) Ozone Man, and he wasn’t being nice.) The Right used whatever it could to make a hash of what was real but not quite ready for prime time. President Bush was exceedingly civil and kind, as compared with others.

Separate facts from predictions and predictions from policy. Absolutely, again. But scientists always deal in uncertainty. Can any scientist say with absolute certainty that the Big Bang explains our origins, as opposed to dinosaurs hanging out just beyond the stable in Bethlehem where Mary begat Jesus? No, but that does not validate creationism or anything else that some people want to advance as reality. Scientists act modestly, but it’s up to us – the populace – to appreciate the difference between core uncertainty and not being sure about what the future holds. To date, science wins the battle regarding climate change. Not off by much, mostly, and the misses often reflect underestimating the speed and severity of the problems.

Don’t allow climate to become a mainly left-of-center concern. People I know, mostly left-of-center, don’t feel the need to own climate change. Like, say, Rs who acted like only they had the right to express themselves after 9/11. We need everybody pulling their oars on this one!

Be honest about the nature of the challenge. I have a 13-week-old grandchild, so I worry about the future. But I worry about today, too. Streets in Miami Beach flood frequently. Poor island nations struggle now, even though their lifestyles have almost nothing to do with causing the problem. And tying southwestern drought and the likelihood that Lake Mead / Hoover Dam is due to climate change takes little effort. (Proof? No. Coincidence? Unlikely.) Mr. Stephens, you’re right about early action costing less and reducing risk, but early action should have occurred decades ago. It’s not early just because you’ve arrived.

Be humble about the nature of the solutions. Yep!

Begin solving problems our great-grandchildren will face. A lot of living will occur in the next 30 years, while the world awaits the great-grandchild I will likely never know. So, while we need to focus on the future, we must act now, too. Mr. Stephens, your observations about discouraging economic activity where flooding and sea level rise occur make tons of sense. Unfortunately, property rights and libertarian thinking drives our judiciary and our politics. Raising flood insurance prices makes sense, but when disaster strikes, Congress writes a check, we all pay, and we continue to incentivize poor decisions.

Stop viewing economic growth as a problem. I don’t know anyone who sees economic growth, per se, as an issue. People I know worry about a growth v. environment dichotomy that justifies growth over everything else. Reality? We have missed huge opportunities to earn trillions on the shift away from fossil fuels. Windmills – the ones Dick Cheney made light of – don’t solve the problem completely, but an entrepreneurial, “can do” perspective 20 years ago would have us in a better place, and richer for it.

One more thing here. Markets can do much to solve climate issues. But not without governmental assistance. Twenty years ago, it made little sense to go solar, as it cost much more than fossil fuel electricity. Time and incentives changed the dynamic, and markets work better in that sector because government got involved. Ditto for natural gas v. coal. Here, let’s not forget, either, that Donald Trump wanted to use the government to backslide us back to coal, because he’s … . [Fill in the blank. We try to avoid obscenities here.]

Get serious about the environmental trade-offs that come with clean energy. Yep again!

A problem for the future is, by its very nature, a moral one. Absolutely!

Welcome to the cause, Mr. Stephens!


*We call the front porch Jail. If I am going out and Max stays home, weather permitting, he stays in the area, between the locked front door and bottom to top wrought iron wall and gate.

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