Dear New York Times: Climate Change Is Real

I've been meaning to write a letter to the New York Times I just wrote this letter to the New York Times about their very wrong decision to add a climate science denier to their editorial staff. When they were recently challenged about this idea, the response was, paraphrasing, "millions of people believe this man that climate change is not for real."

Coming from the New York Times I find that deeply disturbing and overwhelmingly offensive.

Anyway, I haven't written my letter yet, but my friend and colleague Stefan Rahmstorf, climate scientist, did, and he says it is OK to post it. So, here is Stefan's letter:

To the executive editor
The New York Times
27 April 2017, via email

Dear editor,

I am a climate researcher, professor for physics of the oceans and have worked for eight years as advisor to the German government on global change issues. I regret to have to tell you that hereby I cancel my subscription to the New York Times in the wake of you hiring columnist Bret Stephens. Let me explain my reasons.

When Stephens was hired I wrote to you in protest about his spreading of untruths about climate change, saying “I enjoy reading different opinions from my own, but this is not a matter of different opinions.” I did not cancel then but decided to wait and see. However, the subsequent public defense by the New York Times of the hiring of Stephens has convinced me that the problem at the Times goes much deeper than a single error of judgement. It concerns its attitude towards seeking the truth.

The Times argued that “millions agree with Stephens”. It made me wonder what’s next – when are you hiring a columnist claiming that the sun and the stars revolve around the Earth, because millions agree with that? My heroes are Copernicus, Galilei and Kepler, who sought the scientific truth based on observational evidence and defended it against the powerful authority of the church in Rome, at great personal cost. Had the New York Times existed then – would you have seen it as part of your mission to insult and denigrate these scientists, as Stephens has done with climate scientists?

The Times has denounced the critics of its decision as “left-leaning”. This is an insult to me and was the final straw to cancel my subscription. There is no left-leaning or right-leaning climate science, just as there is no republican or democrat theory of gravity. I have several good climate scientist friends who have been lifelong republicans. Their understanding of climate change does not differ from mine, because it is informed by the evidence.

Quite unlike Stephens’ views on climate change, which run counter to all evidence. He is simply repeating falsehoods spread by various “think tanks” funded by the fossil fuel industry.

In December 2015, Stephens called global warming “imperceptible” and the Paris climate summit a “meeting to combat a notional enemy in the same place where a real enemy just inflicted so much mortal damage”. My colleagues and I have analysed 150,000 temperature time series from around the world, finding that monthly heat records occur five times more often now as a result of global warming than in an unchanging climate (Coumou et al, published in Climatic Change 2013). One of those record-hot months was August 2003 in western Europe. 70,000 people died due to this heat wave. Was global warming “imperceptible” to these people and the ones they left behind? On 15 August 2003, the New York Times reported: “So many bodies were delivered in recent weeks to the Paris morgue that refrigerated tents had to be erected outside the city to accommodate them all.” Was that just a “notional” problem?

Stephens doubts that global warming will continue, claiming that in hundred years “temperatures will be about the same”. That is a shockingly ignorant statement, ignoring over a century of climate science. Our emissions increase the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, it is higher now than in at least 3 million years. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, as demonstrated first in the year 1859 by physicist John Tyndall. CO2 traps heat – more CO2 means a warmer climate. That is basic physics, borne out by the history of climate. Denying these well-established facts is about as smart as claiming the Earth is flat, and best left to cranks, ideologues and fossil fuel lobbyists.

Stephens has claimed that “in the 1970s we were supposed to believe in global cooling.” That’s an age-old climate denier myth. It would have cost Stephens just 60 seconds with Google to find out it is wrong. (Try and google “Did scientists predict an ice age in the 1970s”.) But Stephens is clearly not interested in evidence or seeking the truth about matters.

Last Friday, you sent me an email with the subject: “The truth is more important now than ever.” It made me cringe seeing this in my inbox. It said “thank you for supporting news without fear or favor.” The hypocrisy of that is unbearable, and I will support your newspaper no more. Instead, I will give the money to ClimateFeedback.org, a worldwide network of scientists sorting fact from fiction in climate change media coverage. It is much better invested there.

Best regards,

Prof. Stefan Rahmstorf

Also posted on Stefan's Facebook page

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I was curious about one part of the letter that was quoted, where Prof Rahmstorf attributed a European heat wave and the accompanying deaths to global warming. In Feb 2015, the NE US appears to have experienced the coldest month ever (as long as records have been kept). It is not uncommon to hear deniers offer up those kind of 'counter-'examples to scoff at global warming, and the layman (which would be me) explanation I usually hear is that of course there are other factors that can overwhelm the general trends in specific areas of the world, weather is not climate, etc, all of which I agree with.

I was just curious then what is different about these two situations since they are both addressing specific periods in time instead of trends, since the heat wave is attributed to global warming but the cold snap (I think) isn't related to it. The article I read about the cold snap attributed it to a stubborn jet stream, but is there something different then about the causes of the European heat wave? How do we know that the European heat wave was a result of global warming as opposed to actually having been caused by other factors that apparently caused the cold spell?

I suspect there is something more scientific going on to differentiate these two events and was curious as to what those differences are, since at a thousand-foot surface level they seem inconsistent. I would think the professor, again based on my surface understanding of the science, would have better used the examples of the problems caused by rising sea levels, which is a result of a global warming trend, rather than attributing the casualty count of one specific heat wave to global warming.

DL: Good question, and the answer is very interesting.

The heat wave and the cold snap were both caused by the same outcome of global warming as we are seeing it today.

Interestingly, Dr. Rahmstorf is a key member of the team that has figured this out. The idea, briefly, is that the existence and nature of the jet streams is a function of the differential in heat between the equator and the polls. Global warming has caused a change in that differential, and this has caused the jet streams to set up a curvy, slower moving, and generally persistent pattern, which in turn changes weather patterns dramatically. A given area of the Northern (and probably southern, but the research has not addressed that) hemisphere can experience persistent warmth, or cold, or wet, or dry, for a much longer than usual period of time, including the movement of either very cold air south or very warm air north.

See this: http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2017/03/28/global-warming-has-and-wil…

Well said! Two thumbs up.

Ah, thanks! I'll have to read that link more thoroughly when work isn't getting in the way of more interesting topics, but I had overlooked the other layman point that global warming increases extreme weather of all kinds. I had mistakenly applied a shallow, 'the causes of record cold periods are orthogonal to/greater factors than global warming, so it seems inconsistent then to attribute heat waves to it', when in fact it is a factor in both.

" In Feb 2015, the NE US appears to have experienced the coldest month ever "

There's going to be SOMEWHERE, though as time goes on you'll have to pick a smaller and smaller region of space and time to manage this, that has the "coldest $PERIOD ever".

That cold snap was due to the f-up of the arctic. It was, IIRC, 20-30C warmer than normal at that time. And the big thing that keeps the polar jet running, and therefore the polar air at the poles, is the huge temperature difference of a frozen surface solid and on moving keeping the cold dense air at the poles.

But without the ice, the ocean moves much easier and it can warm the air more than the ice would have and reduce the cold temperatures, making it easier to mix and less dense than the temperate or returning polar airmass, so therefore it would get much much further south than it used to.

IIRC too, the other side of the USA was seeing near-summer temps...

When the air moves around, it's a little like moving an air lump under the newly laid wallpaper.

Commendably restrained Greg. Now let's hope a major advertiser feels the same way and pulls its ad spend in protest. Several would be even better.

But who allows principles to get in the way of sales? Certainly not the NYT, so perhaps it is unreasonable to expect its advertising base to behave any better.