Readers turning to The New York Times opinion pages this weekend may have left feeling confused about the urgency of climate change and where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) stands on the issue.
The main thrust of the op-ed written by columnist Bret Stephens is to argue that Pelosi has an “incrementalist approach to climate” in order to falsely argue that this proves she doesn’t believe in the dire predictions of climate science. And within this, Stephens spreads confusion about the urgency of the science on climate change and proposed plans to ambitiously tackle the global issue, like the Green New Deal which calls for rapid decarbonization of the economy within a decade.
It all begins with the headline: “Is Nancy Pelosi a Climate Skeptic?”
To the contrary, the speaker has been one of the strongest advocates of both climate science and aggressive climate action of any political leader in U.S. history. Indeed, she actually shepherded a very strong climate bill through the House in 2009.
And in fact, the cynical nature of this misleading headline — most likely designed for clicks — becomes apparent in the very opening sentence of the article, which immediately answers the question: “Is Nancy Pelosi a climate skeptic? Of course not — and I would know.”
For context, the hyperlink Stephens includes goes to an EcoWatch article explaining that the Times hired Stephens in 2017 even though he was a well-known denier of climate science — and that Stephens’s very first piece in the new job was riddled with climate misinformation.
The key point here, however, is that The New York Times knows Pelosi is not a climate skeptic and yet it still poses the question in in the headline.
What makes this so inexcusable is that the vast majority of readers never get past the headline for the vast majority of stories — something that newspapers know very well, as demonstrated by a 2014 Washington Post story headlined, “Americans read headlines. And not much else.”
This issue is exacerbated by social media, where headlines are spread through tweets, Facebook posts, and Google searches. All of this means that vastly more people will only see the headline — and potentially be completely misled by it — than will ever read the full article.
This is par for the course for Stephens, who was most recently deputy editorial page editor for Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal — the opinion section under Stephens was known for being deeply conservative and denying the science on climate change.
The confusion in Stephens’ latest piece continues with his second falsehood, which downplays Pelosi’s distinguished history of supporting strong climate action.
Two weeks ago, Pelosi expressed some concern about the Green New Deal to Politico; “It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive,” Pelosi said. “The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it right?”
From that one comment, Stephens proceeds to define what he believes Pelosi’s climate policies are:
Higher mileage standards, more subsidies for wind and solar, signing the Paris climate deal? Those are the sorts of policies Nancy Pelosi believes in, and would happily endorse if stars align under a future Democratic president.
But this misses one very ambitious policy championed by Pelosi: the American Clean Energy Security (ACES) Act, also referred to as the Waxman-Markey bill. This was by far the biggest piece of climate legislation ever to pass the House, in large part due to Pelosi shepherding it through a decade ago.
The bill would have accelerated the clean energy transition to the point that total U.S. carbon pollution in 2050 would be 80 percent lower than 2005 levels. It died in the Senate, however, thanks to lockstep Republican opposition and a massive lobbying and disinformation campaign from the fossil fuel industry.
But it would have fueled a transition to a carbon-free power grid and a massive investment in energy efficiency — similar to goals under the Green New Deal, but starting 10 years ago.
Later in the op-ed, Stephens also characterizes Pelosi’s actions on climate change as an “incrementalist approach.” However, her support for the Waxman-Markey bill would suggest anything but an incrementalist approach.
This brings us to the third point of contention. The elements of the Green New Deal — and Pelosi’s views of those elements — are misstated by Stephens. He writes:
But obtaining 100 percent of America’s power needs through renewable energy, “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States” to meet “maximal” efficiency standards, and dealing with the issue of cow flatulence by reducing meat consumption, as the Green New Deal proposes? Fuhgeddaboudit.
In reality the Green New Deal resolution introduced this month by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) is silent on the entire subject of meat consumption and cows. Yes, there was a “frequently asked questions” document that was briefly posted on Ocasio-Cortez’s website that mentioned the issue, but it was very quickly taken down, and her team has since worked to distance itself from that messaging document.
The actual resolution says only that the goal of slashing carbon pollution over the next decade should be achieved by “working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible.”
Stephens provides no evidence that Pelosi has ever indicated that she does not support the goal of a 100 percent clean power grid, a very strong push on efficiency, or a big effort to cut greenhouse gases from the agricultural sector.
The fourth misleading falsehood contained in the op-ed column comes in the very next paragraph, when Stephens writes rhetorically: “if climate change is a potentially humanity-wrecking event, why shouldn’t we treat it as an alien-invasion equivalent?
Climate change is a “potentially humanity-wrecking event” — there is no “if” about it. That’s simply what the science from the Trump administration’s own scientists says we get with the president’s anti-climate policies: wide-spread Dust Bowls, 9°F warming over most of the country, sea level rise of up to 8 feet by century’s end and so on.
Stephens also writes: “Let’s assume the most dire predictions are right and we don’t have a moment to lose in substantially decarbonizing the global economy….”
But what Stephens labels as the “most dire predictions” is in fact a report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in October and approved by every major nation in the world. In reality, since the IPCC has to get essentially unanimous agreement from both scientists and governments before finally publishing its findings, its conclusions are often seen to be quite cautious as opposed to alarmist.
So we don’t have to “assume” anything. The need for urgent action is based on what all serious climate scientists say, which is something that the Times’ own reporting has made clear — but that Stephens continues to deny in his column for the paper. (Intriguingly, the day after Stephens’ column was published another op-ed in the Times entitled “Time to Panic” explored the need for urgent action based on what science has told us.)
Finally, Stephens asks “should we think of climate change roughly the same way we think about global poverty — a serious problem we can work patiently to solve without resorting to extreme measures?”
The answer is no. However, the two are increasingly related — something the Green New Deal acknowledges. Both climate change and poverty are urgent, and both affect the real lives of hundreds of millions of people today.
But failure to understand and listen to the overwhelming science and slash carbon pollution over the next decade — and then to keep doing so until we get to zero in a few decades — will mean irreversible and ever worsening misery for billions of people with those in poverty suffering the most.
And as long as the New York Time keeps running false and misleading headlines and columns, they will be undermining whatever success their news room might have on improving that understanding.