The temperature of the climate change debate among elite opinion journalists and their readers rose by roughly .85 degrees Celsius last week with the publication of Bret Stephens’ first column for the New York Times. A Pulitzer Prize winner brought over from the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, Stephens made his debut with “Climate of Complete Certainty,” a piece that danced the border between belief and disbelief in climate science in a way that seemed almost designed to elicit outrage. The column was quickly denounced by several prominent climate scientists, including Ken Caldeira and Michael Mann, who announced they were cancelling their Times subscriptions. Over at Vox, a site dedicated to explaining the news to millennials (and others, of course), Dave Roberts explained his view on the column in question ever so clearly underneath this subtle headline: “The New York Times should not have hired climate change bullshitter Bret Stephens.”
Perennial Times competitor The Washington Post found Stephens’ column interesting enough to publish four pieces on it, by my count, including media columnist Erik Wemple’s timidly headlined piece, “New York Times editor pens weak, vague response to critics of Bret Stephens’s op-ed on climate change.” Wemple called the Stephens column “a dreadfully argued piece contending that … well, the point is buried in false starts, bogus reasoning, and imprecise writing.”
Take that, Pulitzer winner.
(Here is the weak, vague response Wemple says he received from Times editorial page editor James Bennet, for those of you who wonder just how weak and vague it actually could have been: “If all of our columnists and all of our contributors and all of our editorials agreed all of the time, we wouldn’t be promoting the free exchange of ideas, and we wouldn’t be serving our readers very well. The crux of the matter here is whether the questions Bret’s raising and the positions he’s taking are outside the bounds of reasonable discussion. I don’t think a fair reading of his column remotely supports that conclusion—quite the opposite, actually. He’s capturing and contributing to a vitally important debate, and engaging that debate directly helps each of us clarify what we think. We’re already getting some spirited and constructive responses, and I’m looking forward to reflecting those views in our pages, too.”)
The furor over the Stephens column of course also heated up social media, where other Times newsmen charged to support Stephens, “taking to Twitter to implore readers against (sic) canceling their subscriptions.” And the Times’ letters to the editor page was quickly filled with comment.
And then, of course, there’s the perfect parody of the Stephens piece, crafted by the incomparable Alexandra Petri: “An atmosphere of doubtlessnessness.”
Overall, the response to the Stephens column—which was not, to my way of thinking, particularly persuasive and represented, after all, just one person’s opinion—seemed so vehement and searing, one would’ve thought a president had disappeared a trove of Environmental Protection Agency climate data. Or appointed a climate change denier as head of the agency assigned to enforce climate change regulations. Or called climate change a Chinese hoax.
Or some other unimaginable thing.
The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent nonprofit organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.