May 2, 2017 Last Updated 12:00 pm

Group of climate scientists pen open letter to NYT asking for corrections to Stephens column

A group of climate scientists are weighing in on the controversial column written by Bret Stephens in The New York Times. The debut column by Stephens, who had recently joined the paper after many years at The Wall Street Journal, was widely criticized by readers, some of whom said they cancelled their subscriptions over the column.

“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,” said the group, which posted the letter online. “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.”

Stephens was known to be a climate change skeptic before being hired by the NYT, but his criticism of the new president was seen as the reason he left the WSJ and was enthusiastically hired by the NYT. But in his very first column Stephens appeared not to attack the science of climate change, admitting that it is real, but instead argued against any action by government to combat it.

“Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong,” Stephens wrote. “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.”

The open letter takes issue with much of the basic assumptions found in the column.

“Stephens also mischaracterizes both the certainties and uncertainties regarding climate change, and misrepresents how science reports uncertainties,” the scientists write. “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.”

“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.”

The letter then calls on the NYT to publish a correction to the column, though that is unlikely.

“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,” the letter concludes.

The paper may have boxed itself into a corner. Stephens could have avoided the climate change issue in his first column, but by going right to the issue, and then having the paper and many of its journalists defend the column, it has forced many readers to take another look at whether they wish to support the paper.

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