NY Times’ new hire is still writing about climate, still doesn’t know what he’s talking about

Why does the paper keep running Bret Stephens’ error-riddled columns without fact check?

CREDIT: Department of Energy
CREDIT: Department of Energy

On Monday, the New York Times published a second error-riddled collection of misinformation by its new columnist, “climate change bullshitter Bret Stephens,” as Vox aptly describes him.

In his new piece, “Answering your climate questions,” Stephens makes several false and misleading claims, relying mostly on right-wing talking points that are years out of date.

Stephens has become a “disinformer,” as the Washington Post puts it, because he uses “logically flawed comparisons to sow doubt about climate change projections.” He also ignores or mischarcterizes the global clean energy revolution.

After hiring Stephens, the Times promised to apply the “same standards for fairness and accuracy” to opinion pieces that the paper did to news stories.

Yet they clearly didn’t fact-check this new piece — even though the first piece was so deeply flawed that Times reporters and news editors quickly started slamming it on Twitter, and the paper actually had to print a correction after the piece was widely criticized for its many blunders.

But any thought that this would be a serious effort by Stephens and the Times to respond to the myriad serious questions that were raised — and errors that were identified — in his original piece vanishes when you read the first line of the online question Stephens cherry-picked to answer first:

You rightfully questioned the ideological rigidity of progressives who sanctimoniously dismiss ANY legitimate questioning of climate change research.

As ThinkProgress and other outlets have pointed out, Stephens provides zero examples in his original piece (and this one) of progressives who dismiss “any” questioning of the research.

Allowing Stephens to repeat his unproven and false smear of progressives — rather than having him respond to the legitimate criticisms of that claim — flies in the face of the paper’s promises to be the antidote to fake news.

Stephens goes on to argue that the solutions to the climate problem are unaffordable and could do more harm than good:

For yet another example of what I mean, consider Germany’s “energy revolution,” an incredibly ambitious bid by Angela Merkel’s government to wean itself from fossil fuels. An in-depth report in Der Spiegel (admittedly from 2013) notes some of the effects.

Yes, he cites a four-year-old news article to defend his attack on renewable energy. A few days earlier, Stephens told Vox, “my wife is German, so I know something about German energy policy.” He then proceeded to falsely assert “Germany is dirtier in terms of carbon emissions than it was at the beginning of this” revolution “15 years ago.”

According to the 2013 article he cites:

“German consumers already pay the highest electricity prices in Europe. But because the government is failing to get the costs of its new energy policy under control, rising prices are already on the horizon. Electricity is becoming a luxury good in Germany, and one of the country’s most important future-oriented projects is acutely at risk.”

Seems pretty damning for renewables advocates.

Stephens urges people to “read the article” — but it’s unclear whether he took his own advice. The article states that “in the near future, an average three-person household will spend about €90 a month for electricity.” At the 2013 exchange rate, that is a monthly bill of $118.

As the U.S. Energy Information Administration, reported a couple years ago, in this country, “the average residential monthly electric bill was $110.21 in 2013.” Stephens seems unaware that Germany is a leader in promoting energy efficiency, so while it does have high electricity prices, its bills, as you can see, aren’t much different from ours.

I’m not saying the German energy transition didn’t have cost issues. But since the Der Spiegel article was written, Germany decided to switch to auctions for renewables, which most other countries use to keep costs low.

And the larger point here is that Germany was doing the world a big favor by investing in renewables when they were more expensive. That helped bring down the cost curve (see top chart). As a result, solar is now cheaper than new coal in India, for instance.

Slide from Keynote speech at Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) Summit by BNEF chair Michael Liebreich, April 25, 201
Slide from Keynote speech at Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) Summit by BNEF chair Michael Liebreich, April 25, 201

The reality of the clean energy revolution utterly demolishes Stephens’ central argument that we can’t afford climate action.

In response to one question about whether we should cut carbon pollution as an insurance policy, Stephens writes:

Homeowners will buy fire insurance, but they’ll also weigh the price in light of their overall needs. We need to hedge against prospective risks. We need to provide for current needs. The climate-advocacy community sometimes conveys the impression that all of this is not just necessary, but relatively straightforward and affordable. I wish it were that simple.

So Stephens asserts that mitigating climate change is not “relatively straightforward and affordable,” just as he did in his original piece — the same piece where Stephens directly cites and accepts the final 2014 Synthesis report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

That assessment by top experts of the scientific and economic literature on climate change and solutions — which is signed off on in its entirety by the world’s major governments — concluded the annual growth loss to preserve a livable climate is 0.06 percent (relative to a baseline annual growth rate of 1.6 to 3 percent). So saving billions and billions of people from needless suffering for decades, if not centuries, would mean an annual growth of, say, 2.24 percent rather than 2.30 percent.

But Stephens isn’t merely denying these findings. He is claiming that action would actually be counterproductive.

He says we need a “serious debate” about “whether we have the tools right now to make a switch to less carbon-intensive energy sources in a way that doesn’t impose its own set of grave and unanticipated economic and environmental problems.”

Well, the leading experts and governments of the world had that debate after reviewing all of the literature, and the result was the 2014 IPCC Synthesis report (which doesn’t even incorporate the latest reductions in clean energy costs).

While Stephens implies he’s read that report, he seems unaware that its overwhelming conclusion is that action is not costly (especially compared to inaction) and that the adverse risks don’t compare to those of climate change.

Here is the key finding:

Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts globally (high confidence). Mitigation involves some level of co-benefits and of risks due to adverse side-effects, but these risks do not involve the same possibility of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts as risks from climate change, increasing the benefits from near-term mitigation efforts.

So Stephens’ entire argument rejecting serious climate action is bunk.

Indeed, when answering a question about his (erroneous) claim that climate action requires “abrupt and expensive changes” and whether it would have been a good idea to start cutting carbon pollution earlier, he writes, “on the contrary, it would have been more abrupt and expensive had we started earlier.”

Yes, Stephens’ editors actually let him claim that starting to take action on climate change earlier would have been “more abrupt and expensive” than ignoring climate scientists for the last quarter century.

For the record, way back in 2011, the International Energy Agency explained that “delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

There is just too much bunk in this new piece to debunk.

Whether you consider Stephens a climate change bullshitter or disinformer, the point is the same. The New York Times made a huge blunder hiring him, and every piece they publish by him just confirms that point and further undermines their reputation.