As The New York Times Thinks Through Its Op-ed Policy, Will It Stop Publishing Climate Denial?

The "marketplace of ideas" at the nation's paper of record shouldn't include debunked arguments attempting to discredit climate science.

by | Jun 22, 2020

When The New York Times in early June published an op-ed written by Senator Tom Cotton, arguing for the active military to be called in to repress the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted after the on-camera murder of George Floyd, the resultant uproar was so forceful — with one Times reporter after another tweeting, “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger” — that by the end of the week the paper apologized for running the piece and the editorial page editor, James Bennett, resigned from his post.

A few weeks later, three opinion columnists from The Times, Michelle Goldberg, Ross Douthat, and Frank Bruni, discussed the incident on their podcast The Argument. The three agreed that The Times should publish opinions from every side of the political conversation, since, they all said, the role of the opinion page of the paper of record is, in essence, to record the powerful voices in our culture and politics, presenting their ideas so that they can be understood and debated by the citizens whose lives they influence.

At the same time, though, the columnists also recognized that some opinions were beyond the pale. The New York Times would not, they acknowledged, print an op-ed from Kirstjen Neilsen arguing that children should be permanently separated from their parents at the border. The Times would not, the columnists conceded, print an op-ed from Stephen Miller arguing that immigrants to the U.S. should be exclusively white. The Times would not even, they admitted, run a piece from J.K. Rowling defending herself from the accusation that she’s a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF. All these opinions, they agreed, are outside the bounds of legitimate political discourse at this moment in American history.

But here’s the thing: At this point in American history — indeed in human history — climate denial should also lie outside the bounds of legitimate political discourse. And now that James Bennett is out, The New York Times should commit, at least internally if not publicly, not to publish op-eds advancing denialist arguments.

On its face this claim may seem absurd — after all, one of our two main political parties, the Republican Party, explicitly embraces climate denial, stating in its very platform that it believes “the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution.” How can this idea be beyond the pale if it’s advanced at the very highest echelons of our government?

We can answer this question only if we remember that the role of a free press in our democracy is not only to act as a mouthpiece for the powerful. The role of a free press is also to uphold its commitment to truth. Even the Charles Koch Institute proclaims that “journalists are watchdogs—not cheerleaders.” Just as companies are not allowed knowingly to sell defective products in stores, The New York Times opinion page should not knowingly be offering defective opinions in the marketplace of ideas.

And climate denial is by any normal standard a defective opinion. It is based on outright lies: that increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide doesn’t heat the planet; that human beings are not changing the climate by polluting the atmosphere with excess carbon dioxide; that the climatic changes wrought by global warming won’t be dangerous to human beings or the living world; that decarbonizing will destroy our prosperity and our democracy (and further global warming won’t); and so on. All these lies are enabled by the fundamental lie that the discoveries of climate science are somehow false or distorted for political ends or monetary gain.

Why should The New York Times legitimate these anti-science falsehoods? The Times opinion page would not, I think, print an op-ed arguing that people don’t need to wear masks in public, even though the Centers for Disease Control has seemed uncertain about its recommendations in the past, and mask-wearing has been politicized by Republican politicians and right-wing media elites. Yet this is what they do when they print climate denial — such as this piece on Greta Thunberg’s “radical” activism, which says that “with questions of global warming, the problems of credibility are already large.” Or this one, by self-described “climate agnostic” Bret Stephens, which claims that the developed world “has never been safer from the vagaries of nature”— even though climate change will kill many more people than COVID-19 if we do not decarbonize in time to halt warming at a relatively manageable level.

Which leads me to the second reason why climate denial should be considered unfit for print: It puts people’s lives in danger. Just as the call to bring in armed forces argues for government actions that put innocent Americans who are protesting in danger, so too the denial of the implications of climate science enable government actions that will put our children in danger — indeed, that are already killing Americans today. Extreme heat is not a bullet shot into a crowd, but it kills, too.

Finally, climate denial should be understood as beyond the pale of The New York Times opinion page because circulating it distorts and demeans the role of journalism itself. There is nothing substantial in climate denial. It is a funhouse mirror of lies. It relies not on research, discovery, science, philosophy, or even economics. It relies on its circulation through the media sphere, its presentation as a legitimate opinion, to have any substance or weight in our culture and politics. Of course fossil-fuel interests and Republican politicians and elites would continue to impart denialist propaganda even if they could no longer place op-eds in The Times. But without a media platform it would be much harder for climate denial to seem reasonable rather than what it is: genocidal.

The New York Times should know it’s getting played. Over 20 years ago, in 1998, The Times itself published an incredible scoop on its front page: a memo leaked from a meeting convened by the American Petroleum Institute, and attended by every fossil fuel company and industry association, which laid out the industry’s strategy for distorting media coverage of climate science. The memo said that “victory would be achieved when…media coverage reflects balance on climate science and recognition of the validity of viewpoints that challenge the ‘conventional wisdom.’”

Clearly, the fossil fuel industry has achieved its victory over the media. But now, more than 20 years later, with climate denial having been thoroughly debunked by subsequent science, not to mention by rising temperatures, and with oil and gas companies themselves explicitly acknowledging climate change is real, surely it’s time for The Times to decide that contrarian climate “viewpoints” are unfit for print.

On The Argument podcast, Bruni, Goldberg, and Douthat noted that as history progresses, certain arguments become untenable. We don’t have time to wait for events to make climate denial one of those arguments. This is not the opinion of an activist, but of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, that collection of independent scientists whose lines of research all agree, and verifiably so. In 2018, the IPCC said we have 12 years (now 10) to halve our greenhouse gas pollution, and 30 years to cease our emissions entirely, in order to have even just a 66% chance to halt warming at 2 degrees C above pre-industrial norms, a temperature which might allow our civilization more or less to continue.

That means we have to start decarbonizing right now. Climate denial prevents this decarbonization from happening.

One day the world will look back on the first decades of the 21st century and talk about the consequences of the fact that some of its most powerful media institutions had not yet decided that climate denial was beyond the pale. At that point, our planet might have heated by 3 degrees C. Millions of starving people might be trying to flee into North America and Europe from an equatorial region turning to desert, while the global economy staggers under the unrelenting public costs of extreme weather — on top of the collapses of the mortgage and real estate markets due to sea level rise; while global supply chains grind to a halt as nuclear China and India fight over whatever trickles of water might be left after the Himalayan glaciers melt; while new pandemics, unleashed by ecosystem collapse, roll over the globe; while we are roasted by inhuman heat and the West burns and the Midwest floods and the East Coast, along with Chicago and Los Angeles and most of Texas, suffers rolling blackouts because there isn’t enough air conditioning in the world to make it okay; and while our children, who will still be alive, wonder why we hated them enough to let this happen.

Or perhaps we will decarbonize in time. But for that better outcome to have any chance, our media outlets, The New York Times above all, will need to stop legitimating climate denial by presenting it as a valid political opinion, and not the genocidal propaganda they know it to be.

Genevieve Guenther
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