The New York Times has done some stellar reporting on climate change, and it's poised to do more thanks to its recent creation of a dedicated climate team. See, for instance, its impressive ongoing series on how climate change is affecting major cities, and another recent multimedia series on the melting of Antarctica.
But the paper has made serious missteps in recent days and weeks, some of which have bolstered the White House's case for climate denial and for dropping out of the Paris climate agreement.
Here are four problems that deserve to be called out:
1. Letting Bret Stephens spread climate denial, which was seized on by Scott Pruitt
The New York Times hired conservative climate denier Bret Stephens as an op-ed columnist in April, and his first column was a factually compromised and misleading attack on climate science. Its publication provoked widespread condemnation of the Times and Stephens in late April.
Then the column got a new round of attention late last week, in the wake of President Donald Trump's controversial decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris agreement. On June 2, the day after Trump's announcement, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt defended the move from the podium in the White House briefing room, and cited Stephens' column to make the case that climate science is unsettled:
I don't know if you saw this article or not, but the "Climate of Complete Certainty" by Bret Stephens that was in The New York Times talked about—and I'll just read a quote, because I thought it was a very important quote from this article. "Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the IPCC knows that, while the modest 0.85 degrees Celsius warming of the earth that has occurred since 1880, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That's especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. To say this isn't to deny science. Isn't (sic) to acknowledge it honestly."
Pruitt actually misquoted the column, omitting Stephens' acknowledgement that there has been "indisputable ... human influence" on the warming of the earth since 1880. But nonetheless, Pruitt left the impression that The New York Times supported his fringe views.
As Media Matters senior fellow Matt Gertz put it, "It's a disaster for a paper that sold itself to readers as a bulwark against the new president, then turned around and hired a prominent climate change skeptic."
2. Ignoring the fact that Pruitt seized on Stephens' climate denial
In an article about Trump's views on climate change, New York Times reporter Peter Baker noted that Pruitt had questioned climate science during his remarks at the White House, but Baker neglected to mention that the EPA chief had used a New York Times column as a main piece of supporting evidence for his claims.
3. Publishing a misleading story on small-business owners' views on Paris, which was seized on by Pruitt
On June 2, The New York Times published an article by Landon Thomas Jr. titled "Small Businesses Cheer 'New Sheriff in Town' After Climate Pact Exit." Thomas claimed, "While multinational corporations such as Disney, Goldman Sachs and IBM have opposed the president's decision to walk away from the international climate agreement, many small companies around the country were cheering him on, embracing the choice as a tough-minded business move that made good on Mr. Trump's commitment to put America's commercial interests first."
The article ignored the fact that hundreds of small businesses had publicly called for remaining in the Paris agreement, and it quoted no small-business owners who supported the deal. Small-business supporters weren't that hard to find, even in red states. NPR's Morning Edition featured one, Fhebe Lane, who runs a store in a conservative Texas coal town. A Trump voter, Lane said she was concerned about the climate getting hotter and thought limiting emissions was a good idea.
Thomas' article also drew criticism for quoting some of the same pro-Trump voices he had cited in a previous piece, as Media Matters has noted. Boston Globe writer Michael Cohen pointed out that the article was "remarkably similar" to a piece Thomas wrote three months earlier; Cohen and others noted that the same two people "are quoted in both articles extolling Mr. Trump's virtues" and "their positive words about Trump are used as evidence that small business owners are behind the president."
But Pruitt, for one, liked the article. He quoted it during an appearance on ABC's This Week on June 4:
Even The New York Times had an article, I think, within the last couple of days that talked about small business celebrating, euphoria, with respect to the president's decision.
4. Blaming the Democrats alongside the Koch brothers for GOP climate denial
New York Times reporters Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton published a mostly well-reported article on widespread Republican refusal to accept climate science. But the story contained a ridiculous claim that "Democratic hubris" was partly to blame:
The Republican Party's fast journey from debating how to combat human-caused climate change to arguing that it does not exist is a story of big political money, Democratic hubris in the Obama years and a partisan chasm that grew over nine years like a crack in the Antarctic shelf, favoring extreme positions and uncompromising rhetoric over cooperation and conciliation.
it's a measure of asymmetric polarization in US politics that acting on climate change becomes "Democratic hubris" https://t.co/qKBCXIKnHt— John Harwood (@John Harwood)1496584093.0
Talking Points Memo Editor Josh Marshall characterized the "Democratic hubris" line as "half of what is imbecilic in contemporary political journalism":
Half of what is imbecilic in contemporary political journalism captured right here. Great job, NYT ...… https://t.co/zXLG2C5Y4e— Josh Marshall (@Josh Marshall)1496543502.0
As New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, who wrote a book on the Koch brothers, noted in a post on June 5, Republican climate denial and the rejection of the Paris agreement are clear and direct consequences of the Kochs and other rich fossil fuel barons pouring money into the political scene. "It is, perhaps, the most astounding example of influence-buying in modern American political history," she wrote.
Democrats, hubristic or not, can't claim credit for that.
Whither the Times?
"The paper has lost its way," Think Progress' Joe Romm wrote in a post criticizing the Davenport/Lipton article and other pieces published by the Times. "A shocking number of recent articles reveal a paper that's begun to embrace false balance, giving equal time to both climate misinformers and actual climate experts, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus."
Still, many journalists at The New York Times are pulling in the right direction. Columnist David Leonhardt gently disputed the "Democratic hubris" argument in a piece on June 5. A number of Times journalists expressed their displeasure with Stephens' first column. And the climate team keeps doing great work. Let's hope their side wins the tug-of-war.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Media Matters for America.
In his second column, Stephens takes on ethanol, a worthy topic for inquiry: the benefits of ethanol are questionable when the full life cycle is considered. Which is why the Sierra Club is opposed to it, Natural Resources Defense Council pointed out problems back in 2010 and the New York Times editorial board itself expressed its opposition in 2008. (So much for Stephens bringing diversity…)
But instead of diving into an honest argument, Stephens sets up a strawman to burn down. In the column, he attempts to debunk a 1999 Department of Energy (DOE) pamphlet praising biofuels (which he describes as a "paper," lending it a false degree of authority) with a 2008 report (which is actually a paper, published in Science) showing corn ethanol increases, not decreases, emissions.
The problem is that the DOE document—a glossy five-page brochure of the potential for biofuels—doesn't once mention corn. It does mention specific examples of ethanol derived from waste feedstocks, but the 2008 paper Stephens cites to make his point that biofuels are bad actually praises and "highlights the value of" waste-based biofuels in terms of reducing emissions. Because unlike corn ethanol, biofuels derived from waste byproducts don't cause land use changes, which is the main reason corn ethanol is responsible for such high emissions.
Given that both papers praise waste fuels, one could just as easily argue that the paper Stephens suggests casts doubt on the validity of DOE's biofuels support actually confirms it.
Beyond this basic bait-and-switch of an apples-to-corn-comparison, the argument Stephens makes has a few other issues, like cherrypicked stats. More foundationally, he portrays the ethanol situation as a response to his climate critics, an example of "eco-boosterism" gone wrong. But corn ethanol hasn't had strong support from eco-boosters.
Far from being a darling of the climate-concerned, corn ethanol was always something of a bargaining chip, used to try to gain the support for climate action from farm communities and the Republicans who represent them. (Case in point, otherwise anti-climate-action Republican senators are pushing a pro-ethanol policy in exchange for a Congressional Review Act vote on a regulation to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas drilling.)
One unnamed "interlocutor" quoted in Adam Siegel's debunking of Stephens says it best: "You mean a pork-barrel policy turned out to not be so great after all? STOP THE PRESSES!! No seriously NYT, stop it."
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Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
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Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
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Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
Dozens of climate experts are calling on The New York Times to reaffirm its dedication to the facts and issue a more comprehensive correction to columnist Bret Stephens' error-laden debut column on climate change.
On April 29, former Wall Street Journal columnist and longtime climate denier Bret Stephens published his first column, Climate of Complete Certainty, for The New York Times. The column was roundly criticized for being full of errors, "unfair comparisons," "straw men," "logical fallacies" and "lazy" and "disingenuous" arguments. Notably, in the one instance where Stephens actually quoted data to make an assertion, the New York Times was forced to issue a correction, clarifying, "An earlier version of this article misstated the area that warmed by 0.85 degrees Celsius as noted in the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel report. It was the globally averaged combined land and ocean surface, not only the Northern Hemisphere."
Now climate experts have issued an open letter calling for the New York Times to publish a more substantial correction. It notes that Stephens inaccurately and misleadingly uses the term "modest" to describe the rise in temperatures since 1880, cherry-picks "only one side of the range of uncertainties" associated with climate projections, and "mischaracterizes both the certainties and uncertainties regarding climate change, and misrepresents how science reports uncertainties."
The letter also invites scientists to add their names to the letter and urges concerned members of the public to sign a petition calling on the New York Times to stop publishing climate science misinformation.
Here's the open letter as posted by ClimateFactsFirst.org:
A Changing Political Climate Shouldn't Change NYT's Dedication to Facts
We are deeply concerned about inaccurate and misleading statements about the science of climate change that appeared in Climate of Complete Certainty by Bret Stephens (April 28, 2017). While "alternative facts", misconceptions, and misrepresentations of climate science are unfortunately widespread in public discussion, we are dismayed that this practice appeared on the editorial page of The New York Times.
There are opinions and there are facts. Stephens is entitled to share his opinions, but not "alternative facts."
Fact: The N. Hemisphere warmed substantially more than claimed by the writer. The globe warmed by about the amount Stephens claimed the Northern Hemisphere did when he referenced the 2013 IPCC report. The subsequent correction was inadequate, failing to note, for example, that Stephens understated the warming, and that the record warmth in each of the past three years magnifies this mistake.
Using the term "modest" to describe this amount of warming is inaccurate and misleading. Science has found the warming to date to be large and rapid. Much as a fever of only several degrees can be deadly, it only requires a few degrees of warming to transition the planet out of ice ages or into hot house conditions. Importantly, the recent warming has been extremely rapid: more than 100 times as fast as the cooling that took place over the previous 5000 years. It's the rapidity that is most troubling. Human society is built on a presumption of stability, and the rapidness of the change is creating instability.
Not surprisingly this warming has already led to impacts that are widespread and costly. The damage incurred in New York City during Super Storm Sandy was amplified by sea level rise that elevated and significantly extended the reach of the storm surge. Estimated costs for the additional damage were in the billions of dollars.
Stephens also mischaracterizes both the certainties and uncertainties regarding climate change, and misrepresents how science reports uncertainties. Contrary to the writer's false accusation that scientists claim total certainty regarding the rate of warming, IPCC reports present a range of estimates for global warming -- centering around 1°C (1.8°F) of warming since pre-industrial times.
Some things we know for sure, for example that the Earth is warming and that humans are the dominant cause. Yet even the latter is expressed with care; the best estimate of the human influence is 110%, with a range of about 80% to 130%. In other words, natural factors alone would have caused the Earth to cool slightly, but human influences counteracted that and led instead to substantial warming.
Importantly, the scientific treatment of uncertainty extends to climate projections, which give ranges of future warming under various emissions scenarios. However, Stephens suggests that risk management should only be guided by the possibility that warming and its impacts could be less than the best estimate, and not the possibility that it could be more. This cherry picking presents only one side of the range of uncertainties. But uncertainty cuts both ways, and reasonable risk management demands looking at both.
We respect the journalism at the Times and believe its reporters consistently do an excellent job of accurately covering climate change with depth and clarity. But that does not excuse disinformation appearing on the editorial page. Facts are still facts, no matter where in the paper they appear.
We call on the Times to publish a more comprehensive correction to the inaccuracies that appeared in Stephen's column and to avoid such errors in the future by fact checking editorials as carefully as they do news stories.
There is certainly a place for a variety of well-informed opinions when it comes to societal responses to climate change. But it must be made clear that there are facts that are not subject to opinion.
If you are a scientist, click here to add your name to the letter.
Concerned members of the public, click here to take action.
John Abraham, Michael Ashley, Barbara Mayes Boustead, Jason E. Box, Eric Chivian, Jeffrey Corbin, Andrew Dessler, Cari Ficken, Robert Ficken, Jason Freeman, Lawrence Hamilton, James Hansen, Zeke Hausfather, Katharine Hayhoe, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Joanie Kleypas, Greg Laden, Simon Lewis, Michael E. Mann, James McCarthy, Jerry Melillo, Stephen Mulkey, Dana Nuccitelli, Michael Oppenheimer, Shawn Otto, Henry Pollack, James Powell, Ann Reid, Ben Santer, Stephen Scolnik, Richard, C. J. Somerville, Missy Stults, Kevin E. Trenberth, Michael Umbricht, George Woodwell
For years now, we've been calling out for the removal of denial from mainstream media. But today we want to talk about free speech.
First and foremost, it bears repeating that the editorial separation between opinion and reporting means hiring a denier on the opinion side of the New York Times has no influence on the Times's top-tier climate journalism. One bad opinion hire among dozens of outstanding reporters does not justify canceling a subscription; that's shooting yourself in the foot.
That said, the outrage caused by the Times's decision to hire Bret Stephens, which we've covered before, is well deserved. Joe Romm is absolutely right in his (many) criticisms of the decision and responses of the public editor to the initial criticism and further comments Stephens made in a Vox interview.
Stephens published his first column on Friday. The piece suggests that if scientists and advocates told the public the science is less certain than it actually is, they would be more likely to believe it. Romm and Dana Nuccitelli at the Guardian have already done a nice job handling the factual failings with the column. We'd also like to point out that Stephens's thesis flies in the face of the social science showing consensus messaging is key to accepting the reality of climate change.
But should he be censored, his views silenced?
For some time now, the right has been building a case that the left wants to shut down free speech it doesn't like (Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel even wrote a book on it). This argument is a deliberate distortion of the difference between silencing and ignoring speech. And there's a difference between not wanting to propagate factually inaccurate statements and shutting down opinions.
Just because a columnist is not given an audience to deceive does not mean they have been silenced. A news organization has an obligation to tell the truth. It has no obligation to provide a platform for deception. An institution has a right to exercise its editorial judgement. This is why we have no issue with a denier speaking at an event with actual experts: An informed audience knows better than to believe him and can laugh right in his face.
But for the general public readership of the Times opinion page, should Stephens be allowed to publish factually inaccurate columns, for sake of free speech? No. The Times has no obligation to deceive its own readers. Is there some value to being aware of opposing opinions? Yes, of course. Is there value in reading lies? After years of writing the Denier Roundup, we can tell you: No, we've not had any grand epiphany or uncovered any unexpected avenue for disarming deniers.
Should the Times fire Stephens? Probably not—we should see if he can learn from these mistakes. Should they fact check his columns? Absolutely. If Stephens' editors tell him not to lie about climate change or he'll be fired, is that censorship? Not at all. Should he be mocked and ridiculed for his ridiculousness? Absolutely. (And by his new colleagues no less).
There is a difference between silencing someone and choosing not to hand them a microphone. There is a difference between suppressing speech and not offering a liar a stage. There is a difference between free speech and fake speech. We hope that the Times's readership can use Stephens's upcoming columns as valuable lessons in distinguishing between the two.
By Graham Readfearn
The New York Times has been defending the paper's hiring of a climate science denier, fighting off its critics with what it claims is a standard fashioned from hardened "intellectual honesty."
While at the Wall Street Journal, Stephens consistently undermined and disparaged climate change, one time describing it as an "imaginary enemy" and another comparing it to religion with a "doomsaying prophecy and faith in things unseen."
Stephens' new boss, editorial page editor James Bennett, told the paper's public editor Liz Spayd: "The crux of the question is whether his work belongs inside our boundaries for intelligent debate and I have no doubt that it does. I have no doubt he crosses our bar for intellectual honesty and fairness."
Suffice to say, there are plenty who disagree. One climate scientist has already canceled his subscription in protest, with others watching closely.
The @NYTimes hiring of climate denier didn't lead me to cancel subscription. Public editor's offensive response did… https://t.co/c51tVIijWL— Michael E. Mann (@Michael E. Mann)1493096594.0
No doubt that Stephens can write—he won a Pulitzer in 2012 for lots of opinions on stuff other than climate.
But like other conservative columnists admired for their poetic prose and strident opinions while attacking climate change, the methods used by Stephens might be compared to those of a fake chef producing a lumpy and unsatisfying word soup.
There's no real care with the preparation and no quality control over the freshness or blending of the ingredients, but these indiscretions are suitably masked with enough flavor-enhancers to give some short-term satisfaction to unsuspecting diners/readers.
But the New York Times should probably be serving up something far more substantial than crap soup and three-day-old bread to its massive audience.
Stephens wrote that a trend in rising global temperatures was "imperceptible" and that the "hysteria" around climate change ignored how this trend could be "a product of natural variation."
There is a mountain of evidence that global warming is not caused by "natural fluctuations" and this evidence has been in existence for decades. To suggest that it isn't, would be to fall below any bar of intellectual honesty erected in the newsroom of the New York Times or in any science academy around the globe.
In the same column, Stephens chose to highlight "the hyping of flimsy studies—melting Himalayan glaciers; vanishing polar ice" that he said were being used to push a political viewpoint.
Stephens was referring to an error on Himalayan glaciers buried away in a UN report, while choosing to ignore the decades-long trend of melting that has been recorded at glaciers all over the planet.
Stephens himself has told Huffington Post that he's an "agnostic" on climate change and said while it "seems" the weight of scientific evidence points to human causes for global warming, that evidence might be wrong because "the history of science is replete with consensus positions that have evolved."
Now, the New York Times' own defense of its hiring of Stephens is almost as redundant as the arguments that Stephens borrows from climate science deniers.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, the New York Time's Bennett said there was "more than one kind of denial."
"And to pretend like the views of a thinker like Bret and the millions of people who agree with him on a range of issues, should simply be ignored, that they're outside the bounds of reasonable debate, is a really dangerous form of delusion," he said.
Let's think about what the New York Times opinion page might look like if we based it on the beliefs of millions of Americans.
According to Gallup polling data, some 20 percent of Americans believe in witches, which is roughly half the number of people who think extrasensory perception is actually a thing.
A poll conducted by Harris in 2016 found that two out of five Americans think ghosts are real. Belief in evolution? That's at 49 percent. Creationism? Some 37 percent are down with that.
Lizard people controlling societies? One in 25 Americans fear their presence, but where's their representation in the New York Times editorials?
Arguing that someone should be hired to the editorial desk of one of the world's most influential newspapers because "millions of people" hold a particular belief is a clear path to supporting the sort of delusional thinking that has more Americans believing in the paranormal than accepting that climate change is mostly human-caused.
That 1970s Cooling Myth
Opinions are worth printing when they're based on the preponderance of credible evidence, not the self-interests of fossil fuel–funded "fellows" at so-called think tanks or the whimsy of attention-seeking contrarians.
In an August 2011 interview on Fox News Business, Stephens told viewers "in the 1970s we were supposed to believe in global cooling."
Were we? Well, if you want to base your intellectually robust opinion on a moldy-old myth based on a couple of 1970s news items, then fine.
Alternatively, read a 2008 review of science papers published between 1965 and 1979 finding that only seven papers were predicting cooling against 44 saying temperatures would rise.
Here's the newest op-ed columnist for the @nytimes citing the author of Jurassic Park as a reason for his climate d… https://t.co/sSugLN2qOP— Media Matters (@Media Matters)1492441674.0
Also in that interview, Stephens lauded an essay by the late author Michael Crichton that attacked the consensus on global warming.
In that essay, based on a lecture, Crichton said: "Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had."
So let's just stop a second and think about what Crichton was advocating here.
The consensus of medical science says smoking will massively increase your risk of getting cancer and heart disease, even if you can't say exactly which cigarette killed your wheezy relative. You're being had, folks.
Crichton was putting up a straw man argument—that science is done by consensus—in order to then attack it.
When people talk about a consensus on the causes of climate change, they're describing the collective findings of thousands of peer-reviewed articles published in leading scientific journals over decades using multiple methods from a diverse set of observations.
The consensus that climate change is caused by humans comes from the long-studied physical properties of greenhouse gases to the measurements of warming oceans, the atmosphere and the places on the planet where there is or was, ice.
Don't get me wrong here, folks. You're free to choose a glib sound bite from a science fiction writer based on a misrepresentation of the concept of scientific consensus.
But take care not to be had by charlatans promising to chat to your very dead Aunty Betty or save your soul from the claws of the lizard people.
I think it might be time someone broke into the editorial office of the New York Times and raised that bar of intellectual honesty.
Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.