Cognitive Dissonance on Climate: The NY Times Op-Ed page has been terrible long before Bret Stephens
An very useful in-depth article by Ashik Siddique (Digital organizer with The Climate Mobilization) on the New York Times’ dealings with climate change & its opinion writers from medium.com, which I permit myself to reproduce here:
In recent weeks, the New York Times Op-Ed page has faced intense furor over its hiring of climate “lukewarmer” Bret Stephens. His specious arguments, and those of the NYT editors attempting to defend him, have been thoroughly dismantled. (See Joe Romm at ThinkProgress, Ryan Cooper at The Week, David Roberts at Vox, Emily Atkin at the New Republic, and a slew of climate scientists.)
Suffice it to say that, at a time when our president openly denies that climate change is real, let alone the most consequential challenge we face, the NYT screwed up by hiring yet another columnist to cast doubt on the scientific consensus that immediate action is necessary to avoid the collapse of human civilization.
But Bret Stephens is just the latest and most egregious offender. Almost to a man (and only two women), the 11 recurring columnists seem unable to integrate the New York Times’ own climate reporting into their political worldviews. This makes them about as irrelevant to actual policy discussions about our rapidly worsening crisis as Stephens.
While touting ideological diversity, the Times opinions page is in fact “awash in out-of-touch, mediocre columnists who are badly out of sync with the era in which we live,” as Sarah Jones wrote in the New Republic. Together, they co-create the complacent liberal elite fantasy that we can wait for gradual action against a growing emergency, and embody the cognitive dissonance about climate change in the mainstream American media imagination. They fail to consider the possibility that dangerous impacts of global warming may happen sooner than they think — or how that might change what’s considered a reasonable response to it.
If your views on climate action are mostly shaped by skimming the Times op-ed page, you know plenty about Republicans’ willful ignorance, intransigence, and sociopathy on climate action.
But you might not have seen many of the increasingly stark details of what preeminent climate scientists now suggest is possible — for example, that without rapid decarbonization, we may actually be facing sea level rise of multiple meters in the next 50 years, not just one meter by 2100.
You may not know that we’re probably on track to cross the “danger” threshold of 2°C average global warming in just 20 years, not decades longer, as commonly assumed.
You might never have heard that if we can only count on using proven technologies, the world must reach net zero emissions within a decade for a very strong chance of avoiding climate catastrophe. The longer we put it off, the more unpredictable (and likely awful) the consequences.
That means a whole-society mobilization of the economy on the scale of the American effort during World War II. It’s quite a bit more aggressive than the fuzzy optimism you get from Paul Krugman or Nicholas Kristof that economic growth can continue safely for decades without drastic changes, just with more solar panels and wind turbines. It’s certainly more direct than platitudes like “climate change is real!” and “we should do…something!,” which are about as much as you’re ever likely to get from Gail Collins or Frank Bruni. It won’t be easy, to put it mildly. But it’s necessary, and at this point the main responsibility of principled people is to work to somehow make the necessary possible, through whatever means available to them.
To different degrees, all the recurring columnists are entrenched so deeply in the narrow band of neoliberal thinking that has dominated mainstream American discourse over the past four decades that they are unable to absorb information that rubs the wrong way against a lifetime of received biases about political economy. They can’t or won’t seriously engage with the dire implications of climate science by considering how to build a politics beyond gradualist, market-based solutions. The result is that, instead of really educating readers about what should be done, they rhetorically teach them how to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem while effectively teaching them how to ignore it in order to preserve the status quo.
It’s no surprise that Stephens’ fellow right-wingers on the Opinions page are resistant to climate action that appropriately matches physical reality.
Ross Douthat, who elsewhere espouses devout Catholic morality (10/28/14), found tortured reasons to doubt Pope Francis’ magisterial encyclical on climate change, “Laudato Si’,” which wholly endorses “the radical change which present circumstances require” (6/20/15). After a long-winded explanation of why he and other self-proclaimed “reform conservatives” are ok with doing essentially nothing against climate change, not even bothering to figure out a market-based solution, Douthat at least admitted that “we could be badly wrong, in which case we’ll deserve to be judged harshly for misplacing priorities in the face of real perils, real threats” (6/24/14). They probably are, and if we’re stuck with their nonexistent plans, they will. Douthat, the baby of the Opinions page at only 37 years old, might even live to see 4°C global warming by 2060, a Mad Max future that’s “incompatible with an organized global community” and likely “beyond adaptation.”
David Brooks, even more relentlessly prone to moralizing on the individual level, dismissed the all-encompassing morality of “Laudato Si’” by arguing, essentially, that greed is good (6/23/15). Ideologically unable to entertain much deviation from market fundamentalism, Brooks asserted that all comprehensive climate approaches are “economically suicidal” (6/5/13) — notwithstanding that at this point, anything short of a comprehensive approach is actually suicidal, as Pope Francis suggested. To his credit, Brooks has admitted that market-based carbon reduction schemes are unlikely to reduce emissions fast enough to affect the global climate, and rightfully criticizes the Paris Agreement for being too gradualist and noncommittal (12/1/15). Unlike Douthat, he advocates government-funded support for some useful innovations: CO2 removal from the atmosphere, battery and smart-grid research, more efficient renewable energy transmission, increased vegetation. But his role for government stops short of actually deploying clean energy technology and carbon-negative methods we already have at the scale and speed necessary to transform our systems, and making sure everyone has access. He also touts gas fracking as a CO2-reducing solution, ignoring that it spews the even more potent greenhouse gas methane. At least he doesn’t deny the need for some kind of climate action. But one would hope that someone who spends so much recurring column space going on about the crises of Western civilization (4/21/17) might acknowledge the global crisis of climate change as such.
While the conservative columnists evade aggressive climate action, the liberals on the page shrink from acknowledging what’s actually necessary, or entertaining what kind of politics might make it possible. As Naomi Klein suggests in her groundbreaking book This Changes Everything, liberals, too timid to build their politics around the disruptive climate policies that could actually be effective, are in some ways less engaged with the reality of global warming than climate deniers on the right, who overreact and tar them as alarmists anyway.
It’s easy to react against the “hard” climate denial that has infected ideological conservatives — all the columnists do so regularly, and it’s certainly necessary to keep hammering home how farcical and deadly it is for the Republican Party to hold the United States hostage to their ignorance and greed. But that’s just one problem.
Like many liberals, every current liberal NYT columnist remains stuck in various states of “soft” climate denial, which policy analyst Michael Hoexter defines as acknowledging that climate change is real and threatening, then responding with hand-wringing or embracing ineffectual solutions that fail to decisively meet the threat.
Maureen Dowd only mentions climate change in passing, most often in personality-driven quips in narratives about politicians (5/13/14). David Leonhardt brings up climate change to point out Republican ineptitude (9/29/16), then suggests that we do something/anything short of calling for what’s actually necessary (4/21/17).
In “Dear Millennials, We’re Sorry” (6/7/14), Frank Bruni wrote a generational apology to anyone who intends to survive beyond midcentury, in which he accepts future catastrophe as nearly inevitable because of congressional spending patterns. While Bruni gets credit for pushing back on the millennial-bashing so common among the complacent baby boomers among his Op-Ed peers, this feels fairly inadequate given how little space he uses in his columns to imagine a politics that might not leave those younger than him with a scorched Earth. In this column, his sanctimony is belied by the lazy way he pits millennials’ material interests against “entitlements” of the elderly, like Social Security. It’s a pity he’s unable to imagine tax increases, or cuts to bloated military and defense spending, to reverse the excesses of the generation currently in power. At least he admitted that President Obama’s climate policy was insufficient.
In a representative column (10/3/14), Gail Collins cleverly describes the real impacts of global warming in Alaska, calls out Republican denial, and chides Democratic Senator Mark Begich for being forthright about terrible climate effects, but dodgy about what to do about it — this could well describe Collins herself, who tends to limit her advocacy to narrowly constrained policies like raising the gas tax (1/21/15).
Collins is also responsible for milquetoast banter in the one-on-one “The Conversation” columns with conservatives, including fellow columnist David Brooks, and another Brooks, Arthur C. of the American Enterprise Institute, a fossil fuel industry-funded think tank with a long history of promoting misinformation about climate science. Predictably, global warming doesn’t come up often, and Collins doesn’t push it. When it once did (6/5/13), she tried gently prodding David Brooks to admit that greenhouse gases are a serious threat to future generations — he deflected by saying that healthcare costs are a bigger threat (!), that all comprehensive climate approaches are “economically suicidal” and that he preferred to wait until a “better scientific solution” magically presents itself, and made an incredibly lame joke about dumping cottage cheese into the oceans to soak up carbon dioxide (!). Collins, unable to muster the confidence to push back on his ridiculous, morally bankrupt train of thought, just admits despair.
Charles Blow comes closest on the Opinions page to articulating an effective climate politics. In 2008 he endorsed a “coordinated war against climate change” (5/31/08), and over the years lamented about voter apathy to the reality that we’re “spiraling toward cataclysmic, irreversible climate change” (4/10/14), celebrated the rising wave of activism since the later Obama years (12/8/14), and last year called for a “war for global jobs” to counteract global warming and preempt terrorism (3/24/16). More recently he celebrated the “power of disruption” against the Trump administration, and suggested how the resistance might grow into a muscular progressive politics (2/13/17). The Opinions page could benefit from much more frequent exploration of the realities of grassroots activism, and more engagement with specifics about what a “war on climate” would actually entail. It’s also worth noting that Blow is one of the youngest columnists, and the only person of color — it doesn’t seem incidental that he’s most in tune with the kind of politics we need, and highlights why readers would benefit from greater diversity among the NYT’s columnists.
Paul Krugman often acknowledges that climate change is the most important issue facing America and the world, happy to admit that “climate change could be really, truly, civilization-ending bad” (5/2/17), and calls to put it front and center in popular media (10/7/16). But he insists that it can be solved by gradual, market-based solutions, merely reducing emissions over many decades. Obama’s climate policies were enough (2/29/16). The Paris Agreement is fine (12/14/15). Nothing about actually reaching zero emissions, or a timeframe for it — certainly not a timeframe in line with the strongest risk avoidance.
Krugman insists that tackling climate change will be cheap (for civilizational survival, so what if it’s not?), and can actually fuel “green” economic growth as we know it (David Roberts, 10/8/14) — contrary to the conclusions of physical scientists. Krugman deflected criticism that accused him of being oblivious to the limits to growth, an idea which seems to have borne out unsettlingly well since introduced in the 1970s, by asserting that the concept was “demolished so effectively” 40 years ago by his old mentor, the economist William Nordhaus (10/7/14). Krugman’s argument was systematically dismantled by Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute (with no subsequent acknowledgment by Krugman), but his association with Nordhaus is telling.
Nordhaus, notably responsible for entrenching the dangerously high goal of 2°C as an upper limit for “acceptable” global warming decades ago, also popularized gradualist market-based policies, like a modest carbon tax, as the “sensible” solution. Krugman doesn’t appear to have acknowledged Nordhaus’ admission earlier this year that he’d been underestimating the negative effects of climate change all along. But too little too late: in the same breath, Nordhaus also shifted neatly from decades of advising gradualism to resignation about the inevitability of devastating global warming, concluding that it’s now too late to do anything about it — real change is too hard.
Another liberal columnist, Nicholas Kristof, laudably uses his space to focus on the fact that in much of the world, climate change is already devastating — in drought-stricken Madagascar and elsewhere, children are starving and dying (1/6/17). But when it comes to solutions, won’t somebody please think of the markets? Kristof can suggest only sticking with the Paris Agreement and President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, as well as putting a price on carbon and investing in renewable energy R&D — all of which put off the goal of reaching zero emissions by decades, during which time climate change may well become globally catastrophic and begin irreversibly accelerating, harming ever more women and children for the humanitarian Kristof to try saving.
His critics may be surprised to find that Thomas L. Friedman is the current columnist who has in the past taken the technicalities of aggressive climate action most seriously. In his 2011 column “The Earth is Full,” Friedman accepts former Greenpeace director Paul Gilding’s call for a rapid WWII-scale economic mobilization to reach zero emissions — though his spin is basically accelerationist, assuming that economic and ecological forces will keep intensifying until they crash in converging crises, forcing drastic action as things fall apart. The mobilization will apparently just happen, with nothing said about the role of mass political action in making it possible, or likely—perhaps the world’s taxi drivers will whisper it into being. In “We Are All Noah Now” (9/7/16), Friedman also advocates conservationist E.O. Wilson’s radical “Half Earth” proposal to set aside half the planet’s surface for wildlife conservation in order to reverse the sixth mass extinction that’s currently underway. However, Friedman also shows incredible cognitive dissonance as a leading proponent of corporate trade deals and unrestricted global capitalism — forces that clearly drive up greenhouse gas emissions — suggesting that he’s unable to absorb the full implications of climate reality.
Similarly, Roger Cohen writes often about the politics of global climate impacts, like the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and Australia’s avoidant response to the loss of its incredible national treasure (5/26/16), but is a relentless cheerleader for trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (6/2/16), failing to acknowledge environmentalists’ serious concerns that such deals are disastrous for climate change.
Cohen also appears to confuse the personal with the political — on 4/7/16he published “The Politics of Me”, a column about millennial consumer habits that’s written so inexactly in the voice of a young hipster who reduces environmental politics to personal consumption that it’s hard to gauge whether it’s meant to be sincere or satirical, and what Cohen is actually advocating. Is the point that millennials are obsessed with consuming products ethically, while delusionally believing systemic political change is unnecessary? That’s rich, coming from a baby boomer who came of age with the most narcissistically consumption-driven generation in history, to a generation that voted overwhelmingly for systemic political change in 2016 and increasingly identifies itself as anti-capitalist.
The constant here: a fundamentalism about how markets should function, and a refusal to expand one’s sense of political possibility to accommodate moral necessity. The risk here is that well-meaning liberals keep advocating political solutions that don’t have a chance of meeting the unforgiving demands of physics, and risk backlash from the masses as harmful climate impacts keep intensifying and the purported solutions don’t meaningfully improve their lives.
It’s worth mentioning that until he left in 2015, the NYT Opinions page had a thoughtful and consistent proponent of serious climate action in Mark Bittman, who specialized in food, nutrition, and agricultural systems, but often expanded to systemic economic and political analyses. Bittman didn’t just catalog the horrors of climate change and ocean acidification — he also regularly looked to American history for examples of sustainable behaviors worth reviving today, like victory gardens during WWII (8/1/08). He was direct in his critiques: in “Let’s Reject the Inevitable” (9/16/14), he explicitly named neoliberalism as the central problem, and called out hopelessness, defeatism, and ineffectual Obama-style compromises, as well as blind faith in technology, as barriers to real action. He didn’t minimize his justice and morality-based worldview: in “Is It Bad Enough Yet?” (12/13/14) he displayed a clear perspective of overlapping and intertwined systemic issues, and the potential for grassroots social movements to shift the political landscape to address them. He had the wherewithal to ask big questions like “What is the Purpose of Society?” (2/11/15), and to actually conclude that politics can move us to an economy based on human rights and universal well-being, not just business and profits.
In one of his later columns, Bittman even asked Why Not Utopia?(3/20/15), suggesting big ideas to combat economic inequality and apocalyptic climate change like universal basic income, decentralized energy systems, worker ownership, and shorter workweeks. He even declared confidently that “in the long run we know that we’ll make the transition from capitalism to some less destructive and hopefully more just system. Why not begin that transition now?” It’s hard to imagine any of the current columnists conceding this point, which underscores the need for voices willing to expand the range of acceptable views on the most urgent and complex issues we face.
This isn’t to say that all the current columnists are wrong, exactly. It’s worth debating whether and how our current political and economic relations can continue if we try to seriously address climate change. But the only sides of the debate consistently represented are the ones that just can’t imagine things changing much from the way they’ve always been, accelerating carbon curves be damned.
Climate change is an incredibly complex problem, and a platform as far-reaching as the NYT should represent all kinds of perspectives on it to reach different people. It’s negligent not to regularly include voices grounded in a strong understanding of the implications of climate science, which are genuinely alarming. While their Op-Ed page often does publish one-off columns from respected scientists, environmentalists, and writers who get it, there’s nothing like the space that marquee columnists get to address a built-in audience.
In an article suggesting a new approach to climate journalism at the NYT, writer Alex Steffen offered suggestions that apply even more to the Op-Ed page: serving readers who are already highly informed about climate change by focusing on real solutions to reach zero emissions, and providing honest, fresh perspectives.
There are plenty of smart, thoughtful writers who can write with clarity and conviction about climate change from different angles and intersections with other urgent issues, without the generational blinkers that the present slate of NYT opinionators might end up taking to the grave. In our current political media landscape, those writers necessarily tend politically left, simply because they’re not ideologically blinded by right-wing economics to the possibility of appropriately radical collective action. (Some suggestions: Naomi Klein, Rebecca Solnit, Bill McKibben, David Roberts, Jeet Heer, Kate Aronoff, Ryan Cooper, Sarah Jaffe, Jedediah Purdy, Emily Atkin, Rebecca Leber.)
In the Trump era, the New York Times is explicitly branding itself as a trustworthy provider of the truth. Yet its opinion writers and editors keep avoiding climate truth, preferring to remain firmly embedded in modes of thinking that are under assault by physical reality. Worse still, they seem to be doubling down on their increasing irrelevance by insisting that actually, their readers are wrong.
At a time when Donald Trump seems likely to set American climate progress back even further by pulling out of the Paris Agreement and dismantling the EPA, and Democrats struggle to articulate a political alternative that addresses the real needs of Americans, it’s more critical than ever for citizens to be informed of the real stakes.
Will the NYT adjust, or keep hunkering down in ideological delusions? If the paper of record keeps choosing not to publish writers who reflect the reality that’s increasingly obvious to much of its readership, it’s totally reasonable to expect that those readers will just… not read the columns. They’ll find better sources.
Given the extreme urgency and civilizational risk of climate change, America’s most influential opinions page has a responsibility to help the public understand how to deal appropriately and defend themselves against the grave danger we all face. They should be opining about climate change pretty much all the time, and from a variety of perspectives based on observable reality. But when the recurring columnists do, their thoughts almost always fall well short of any understanding based in physical science and any basic sense of justice. In the long run, readers suffer for that failure.