Some People Just Never Learn

Some People Just Never Learn

You probably haven’t heard of 19th-century Irish physicist John Tyndall, despite the fact that mountain peaks, glaciers, a crater on the moon, physical phenomena and research centers bear his name. Among other accomplishments, he explained why the sky is blue. But most importantly, he proved that carbon dioxide and water vapor absorb heat, revealing how the atmosphere influences the temperature of the Earth. After 163 years of further scientific investigation, Tyndall’s description of what we now call “the greenhouse effect” is still correct.

Three years after Tyndall’s death in 1893 (he was accidentally poisoned by his wife), Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius calculated, with just paper and pencil, the approximate temperature of the Earth if fossil-fuel burning doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The number he got is close to the number we get today with modern computers and satellite detection systems that, among other things, can take into account the complex impact of clouds.

The deductions of Tyndall and Arrhenius endure because they are based on fundamental physical principles that have been tested and retested over time. These principles are objective truth, like the germ theory of disease, the structure of the atom or the position of the Earth in the solar system.

Yet, for decades, politicians and opinion writers have played it fast and loose — ignoring objective truth. You can see it everywhere in print and online. Climate science becomes a plot to establish an authoritarian government that will eliminate personal freedom under the guise of protecting the planet, scientific reports are dismissed as “left-wing hysteria” and outrage is shown over the rise of a “green religion.”

Misinformed and biased articles can even be found in respected and widely-read publications, and are promoted by political leaders (including members of Congress) and a wide array of other individuals and organizations. This constant barrage of scientific illiteracy has given rise to the term, “climate change denial.” Many scientists (including myself) have been forced into the ring to respond to denialists, because their mis- and dis-information saps the political will to take action and address the crisis.

A classic example of this destructive influence is Bret Stephens, previously with the Wall Street Journal and now at the New York Times. Mr. Stephens’ past work deceptively underestimated the risk of climate change, which I told his editors in 2010. He disregarded science, promoted conspiracy-tinged articles (debunked by scientists) that confirmed his bias and announced to his readers that “global warming is dead.”

A colleague of mine noted that, in a new article, Mr. Stephens — who recently witnessed the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet firsthand — now acknowledges that global warming is real. So it follows that he will no longer be using his national platform to characterize global warming as a “mass hysteria phenomenon,” or breathlessly describe “curious inconsistencies” in the global temperature record that don’t actually exist. Furthermore, he won’t be circulating conspiratorial whispers of the “sundry other sins of modern climatology,” nor continuing his “climate scientist bashing.”

While this is good news, we will never meet our emissions-reduction targets if we have to take every climate misinformer on their own private trip to Greenland.

His recent article exemplifies the disservice being done by the New York Times in providing such a large platform to an intellectually lazy and biased analyst like Mr. Stephens (a conclusion voiced by others as well). While he finally acknowledges the reality of climate change, he still highlights one person’s opinion that human activities are not responsible for the ice melt in Greenland, despite this opinion being thoroughly debunked. And while he makes a valid point, that we need to meet people where they are if we are going to persuasively educate them about the risk we face, he again misinforms his readers by pronouncing that economic markets, not government, can be the solution to the climate crisis.

Yet markets, with their well-understood failures, are precisely how we got into this predicament. Fossil-fuel use generates costs external to our existing markets, and costs external to the market are not reflected in market prices (you will find this described in any introductory economics text). In this situation, the “free market” fails, as warped prices result in consumers making economic decisions that do not maximize their own well-being (in this instance, perpetuating the costly impacts of fossil-fuel use rather than choosing cleaner and safer alternatives). Market prices are further distorted by a century of subsidies for fossil-fuel production.

There is no doubt that economic markets can accelerate the transition from fossil fuels. But to get them to do so, real costs, such as climatic or health impacts or social injustice, need to be factored in. The way these costs get included is by government intervention in the market, yet such action is resisted by “free-market” conservatives such as Stephens.

I am glad Mr. Stephens has finally conceded that climate change is real. Now, the New York Times should recognize that Stephens’ demonstrated bias prevents him from making credible contributions to the climate debate. Previously, Stephens ignored basic physics, earning himself the moniker of “climate change bullshitter.” Now, he ignores basic economics.

Some people just never learn.