Tuesday, June 06, 2017


The opinion section of The New York Times used to publish cutesy-wootsy news discussions between op-ed columnists Gail Collins and David Brooks. Brooks no longer participates -- I assume he'll soon be announcing that he's leaving the paper altogether to concentrate on book-writing and his new bride -- but his place has been taken by the paper's most recent op-ed hire, Bret Stephens.

Today's Collins-Stephens chat is one more attempt by the Times to persuade readers that Stephens really isn't a climate-change denier. Here he is, swearing on a stack of Bibles and his sainted great-grandmother's grave -- okay, I made that part up -- that he really, really believes in climate science:
Gail: Let’s talk about the accord for a minute. You agree that the globe is warming and that the problem is to a large degree man-made, right?

Bret: Yes. Or rather, oui.

Gail: And you think we should do something about it, but so far you think the solutions have been ... dumb? The one we all know about is your contempt for ethanol, which seems kind of inarguable. The only people in love with ethanol are presidential candidates running in the Iowa caucuses.

Bret: Right again. Which is why I wrote in a previous column that we should “continue to pursue and increase fundamental research and investment in clean tech, at least if we can do it without having the government pick winners and losers.”

The smart play for Scott Pruitt and the rest of the Trump administration is to say something along the following lines: “Precisely because there’s still a lot we don’t know with sufficient certainty, we’re increasing investment in areas where government money can do the most good, especially on fundamental research.” Doubling the budget of the National Science Foundation and NOAA over four years would be a good place to start. Right now they’re both taking steep cuts in Trump’s budget.
Yes, but Stephens spent most of that previous column triumphantly noting that environmentalists used to praise ethanol and other biofuels, and now we know that biofuels weren't a very good idea. Beyond that, he said cap-and-trade plans also don't work. He spends most of the conversation with Collins making the same points, but the friendly chat format makes him seem more reasonable, as he waffles on carbon taxes, then finally comes down on the side of (naturally) Letting the Market Decide:
Bret: ... My friend Jason Bordoff, who founded Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, is having me up to Morningside Heights next week to talk my ear off on [carbon taxes] and other climate-related subjects. So hopefully I’ll have more information — and less ambivalence — once I’ve heard him out.

Gail: Maybe you’ll come back a transformed man, leading a happy polar bear cub on a leash.

Bret: I hope so. Jason has been known to have that effect. But let me turn this back on you: I keep reading that prices for clean energy are coming down. Our colleague Geeta Anand had a fascinating piece Friday about how India is rapidly going green. Here in the United States, many C.E.O.s say their commitment to clean energy is just a matter of good business. If so — and I won’t quibble with them — can’t we sit back and let it happen, Paris or no Paris?
The point of Stephens's two Times columns on climate was that experts can't be trusted -- and now he's saying the government should fund more studies by ... experts? We know what his response would be if that happened: Silly liberals believe the experts as usual, but smart people never trust them because pollsters were wrong about Clinton vs. Trump and Al Gore, who liked biofuels, is fat.

The columns have been smug and superior, but the chat tries to make Stephens seem like a reasonable, amiable guy. The Times clearly feels that this needs to happen. It's part of a massive effort by the paper to persuade readers that hiring Stephens was a good idea -- see also the three columns about Stephens by now-departed public editor Liz Spayd.

Also, there was this pop-up, which appeared for a couple of days whenever I clicked on a Times op-ed:

I think this was also intended as a response to the anger about Stephens.

Short of termination, here's what would make me less angry about the decision to hire Stephens: a little honesty. As I've noted, his work on climate in his Wall Street Journal wasn't intended to sow doubt about scientific expertise on a generally agreed-upon climate problem -- it was meant to cast scorn on the notion that that there's a climate problem at all. He once said on Fox,
It's usually the left that says that if you [don't] believe in global warming you basically believe in flat earth. Well, in the 1970s we were supposed to believe in global cooling. In the 1980s it was the nuclear winter. In the 1990s it was mad cow disease. Global warming was the flavor of the decade. I can't wait to see what the next scare's going to be.
He once wrote in the Journal:
So global warming is dead, nailed into its coffin one devastating disclosure, defection and re-evaluation at a time. Which means that pretty soon we're going to need another apocalyptic scare to take its place....

I propose a readers' contest to invent the next panic. It must involve something ubiquitous, invisible to the naked eye, and preferably mass-produced. And the solution must require taxes, regulation, and other changes to civilization as we know it. The winner gets a beer and a burger, on me....
I'd appreciate it if he'd just admit that he was a professional denialist, but he's made the switch to what Ross Douthat calls climate "lukewarmism" (the problem is real but all solutions proposed by liberals are wrong). It would be truly refreshing if he'd admit that this switch was an act of pure cynicism -- now that his audience isn't the Fox-watching CEOs and corner-office wannabes who read the Journal, he knows that sowing doubt is a shrewder strategy that cackling maniacally about how dumb the libtards are.

Just fess up, Bret. Then maybe I'll have a little respect for you.

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