WASHINGTON — Leading climate scientists wrote an open letter on Tuesday to blast The New York Times for allowing its new columnist to publish “inaccurate and misleading” statements on climate change.
“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,” the experts write. The letter had at least 35 signees as of Tuesday afternoon, including Michael Mann and Katherine Hayhoe.
“There are opinions and there are facts,” they continue. “Stephens is entitled to share his opinions, but not ‘alternative facts.’”
The Times hired Bret Stephens, a former opinion writer at The Wall Street Journal and a denier of mainstream climate science, last month. Public backlash has been fierce, with some readers going as far as to cancel their subscriptions.
In his debut column, titled “Climate of Complete Certainty,” Stephens — who Vox recently dubbed a “climate change bullshitter” — calls the 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit by which Earth has warmed since 1880 “modest.” It is among the claims with which the climate scientists took issue.
“Using the term ‘modest’ to describe this amount of warming is inaccurate and misleading,” they write.
“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,” the letter continues. “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.”
In his piece, which opens with an epigraph from Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz about how a person who claims to be 100 percent correct “is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal,” Stephens writes:
Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions. Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.
None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences. But ordinary citizens also have a right to be skeptical of an overweening scientism. They know — as all environmentalists should — that history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power.
Stephens suggests the effects of climate change may be less serious than the scientific community estimates and ignores the possibility that they could be worse, the scientists write.
“This cherry picking presents only one side of the range of uncertainties,” the letter reads. “But uncertainty cuts both ways, and reasonable risk management demands looking at both.”
On Monday, the Times published a correction on Stephens’ piece, noting that he misstated the area of the planet that warmed by 0.85 degrees Celsius. But the climate scientists have called the correction “inadequate” because it failed to address that “Stephens understated the warming” and “that the record warmth in each of the past three years magnifies this mistake.”
The letter ends with a call for the Times to publish a more comprehensive correction and to apply the same rigorous fact-checking to editorial writers as it does to its news reporters.
“Facts are still facts, no matter where in the paper they appear,” the scientists write.
View the full response letter and a list of signees here.