NY Times climate-misinformer tells Houston: You’ve ‘never been safer’

Bret Stephens downplays Americans' justified fear of worsening superstorms and climate change.

CREDIT: Tom Toles. Reprinted with permission.
CREDIT: Tom Toles. Reprinted with permission.

Once again, the New York Times has let columnist Bret Stephens publish unfact-checked nonsense on climate change and falsely smear environmentalists.

Stephens, who has been widely criticized for spreading misinformation on climate change, tells Houstonians and indeed all Americans that “the paradox of our time is that the part of the world that has never been safer from the vagaries of nature seems never to have been more terrified of them.”

Not only is the first part of this statement false — straight out denial of the ever-worsening extreme weather driven by climate change — the second half is cold comfort to those suffering through the ongoing disaster left in the wake of Harvey’s off-the charts precipitation. 

“The TRUE paradox of our time,” climatologist Mike Mann told ThinkProgress in an email, “is that peddlers of anti-scientific nonsense like Brett Stephens are granted such a prominent forum as the New York Times editorial page for promoting their dangerous disinformation.” Mann is author with cartoonist Tom Toles of the book, The Madhouse Effect.

Stephens latest piece of nonsense, “Hurricanes, Climate and the Capitalist Offset,” is riddled with smears, strawmen, misleading statements and falsehoods. Here are just a few.

“Climate activists often claim that unchecked economic growth and the things that go with [sic] are principal causes of environmental destruction. In reality, growth is the great offset.” False. climate activists do not “often claim that unchecked economic growth” is a “principal” cause of environmental destruction. Climate activists have made clear unchecked carbon pollution is the principal cause of climate destruction.

The entire point of climate action is to avoid the enormous threat to the economy (and to humanity) posed by climate change — by using low-carbon strategies that would have little noticeable impact on long-term growth. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reviewed the literature on the subject and concluded in 2014 the annual growth loss to preserve a livable climate is 0.06 percent.  So we’re talking annual growth of, say 2.24 percent rather than 2.30 percent to save billions and billions of people from needless suffering for decades if not centuries. And that doesn’t even take into account the immense cost of continually dealing with climate-related disasters, including future Harveys.

Stephens’ writes about “Nature’s furies — hurricanes, earthquakes, landslides, droughts, infectious diseases, you name it” without even pointing out the indisputable physics of how climate change makes some of those worse, particularly hurricanes and droughts (and infectious diseases).

Bizarrely, he then writes, “Rich countries tend to experience, and measure, the costs of such disasters primarily in terms of money.” As deputy editorial page editor for Rupert Murdoch’s deeply conservative, climate-denying Wall Street Journal, perhaps Stephens knows the “price of everything but the value of nothing.”

The people of Houston and the Gulf Coast whose homes have been destroyed by flooding do not “experience, and measure, the costs of such disasters primarily in terms of money.” My brother lost his home in Hurricane Katrina, and anyone who has lost their home knows its value is immeasurable.

At least 39 people have been killed in the Texas floods. Officials expect the death toll to rise as responders continue to search for survivors.

But Stephens wants us to think things aren’t so bad, so he quotes long-discredited analysis by Roger Pielke Jr., down-playing the cost of climate disasters. In 2014, climate scientists Mann and Kevin Trenberth debunked a piece Pielke wrote using these very same arguments — for Nate Silver’s website FiveThirtyEight. “He is demonstrably wrong and misleads,” Mann told ThinkProgress at the time.

Yet even though Stephens knows that scientists refute Pielke’s analysis, he adds this ridiculous parenthetical: “(Pielke is yet another victim of the climate lobby’s hyperactive smear machine, but that doesn’t make his data any less valid).” Another victim? Presumably Stephens is referring to himself because for him “climate lobby smear” is the same as “climate scientists debunk” — and scientists have certainly debunked Stephens’ previous posts on climate.

Stephens links to Pielke’s op-ed in — where else? — the Wall Street Journal, where Pielke claims he was “attacked by thought police in journalism,” including by Foreign Policy, the Guardian, and the New York Times itself. Both Pielke and Stephens omit the key detail behind his firing: Pielke sent intimidating emails to Trenberth and Mann, as HuffPost reported. Trenberth said Pielke “was very accusatory and threatened me if I did not respond.” Mann called it a “thinly veiled” threat of legal action, and FiveThirtyEight ultimately apologized for running the original piece. 

So, Stephens doesn’t use the best sources to make his argument. He quotes an irrelevant statistic that Harvey “is only one of four Category 4 or 5 hurricanes to make landfall in the United States since 1970,” which is half the rate of the early decades.

Except it is well known that the Category rating at landfall is not the best scientific measure for how much damage a hurricane does. After all, Katrina was not a category 4 or 5 at landfall. And Sandy wasn’t a hurricane at all when it struck New Jersey and New York. And they are the two most destructive hurricanes in U.S. history (at least before Harvey).

Then Stephens asserts of this imaginary hurricane drought, “Make of that what you will, but remember that fear is often a function of unfamiliarity.” What is he saying? That people are irrationally afraid of superstorms?

Remember, this is Stephens’ central point: “The paradox of our time is that the part of the world that has never been safer from the vagaries of nature seems never to have been more terrified of them.”

Except today, many of the “vagaries of nature” are being juiced into monster superstorms by carbon pollution and climate change. And being terrified by what is happening is not irrational. It is prudent. Indeed, it is because the nations of the world are justifiably terrified by what is to come — which science makes clear is much worse than what we are seeing now — that they unanimously agreed to leave most fossil fuels in the ground and keep total global warming to well below 2°C.

If we keep listening to Stephens and his ilk, if we keep downplaying the threat, then we are headed towards levels of warming that will make 1000-year superstorms like Harvey and Sandy the new norm and create worse superstorms we can’t even imagine today.