Hurricanes, Climate Justice, & Bret Stephens — The NY Times’ Douchebag Climate Columnist

UC Berkeley American studies professor Michael Cohen once called on us to reclaim the word douchebag as referring to “someone — overwhelmingly white, rich, heterosexual males — who insists upon, nay, demands his white male privilege in every possible set and setting”.

Well, it seems that the climate change debate has found its douchebag, none other than the New York Times’ columnist Bret Stephens.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, floods in South Asia, and mudslides in Sierra Leone, which have cumulatively killed thousands and displaced tens of millions, Stephens thought it would be a great idea to write an article, entitled Hurricanes, Climate, and the Capitalist Offset, about how both Hurricane Harvey and climate change is not so bad after all because, well, look how rich we are.

Stephens claimed that unlike people in the developing world, Texans are rich and this protected them from the impacts of Hurricane Harvey — that is the capitalist offset. This demonstrated, in his mind, that what we need to tackle climate change is a little bit more of the same thing that arguably led us into this mess: some good old fashioned, unrestrained, economic growth.

There’s so much wrong in the article it’s difficult to know where to start. Let us put aside that far from being a successful demonstration of capitalism’s supposedly awesome power, Harvey shows the importance of government interventions, as demonstrated by the call for a $125 billion socialist style federal government bail-out, coming from none other than the “the climate-denying, tax-cutting, anti-government Texas Governor”.

Let us also put aside a host of other empirical problems with Stephens’ piece, such as scientific misrepresentation, cherry-picking, and the downplaying of the real harms of Harvey, which have been discussed here, here and here. Rather let us focus in on Stephen’s complete blindness or possible purposeful eschewal of how climate justice and inequality define the climate crisis, thus creating a discourse which favors the interests of the wealthy polluters, while not recognizing the role they have played in predominately creating the crisis.

Stephens writes that: “The paradox of our time is that the part of the world that has never been safer from the vagaries of nature seems never to have been more terrified of them”. His claim is that Hurricane Harvey demonstrated that Americans are supposedly safer than ever from natural disasters, so why are liberals so worried about climate change.

It takes someone living in a warm, moist bubble of white, rich developed world privilege to think that that is “the paradox of our time”, particularly in the wake of major devastating disasters that took the lives of thousands of people across the globe. The much more important paradox of our time, certainly when it comes to the climate issue, is something called the Climate Paradox. The paradox is this, the people least responsible for climate change, the poor and developing world, are suffering the most because of it. On the other hand, those most responsible for the problem, the rich and the developed world, are the least impacted by it.

Those most terrified by climate are not those who are “safer than ever”, rather it is the least developed and most vulnerable countries who have been calling, pleading and decrying the rich developed world to reduce their emissions swiftly and aggressively. Recognizing that climate change puts their communities and countries at existential risk, their call has been for the world to ramp up action on climate change.

The sad thing is, the climate paradox is meant to highlight the deep injustices of the climate problem. It is meant to show what is so terribly wrong and unjust about climate change. It is meant to demonstrate why the developed world needs to rein in their emissions, and why they have a responsibility to help the developing world out of the mess they predominately created. However, rather than decrying the climate paradox as a deep injustice, Stephens’ column is pretty much one long celebration of how, rather than being the single greatest contributor to the climate problem, America’s unrestrained economic growth is the answer to the problem as it supposedly helped protect Texans.

Apart having a tenuous grasp on global injustice, Stephens also glosses over the inequalities and injustices on the ground in America. Within Texas and across the United States, low income families and communities of color, who produce less greenhouse gas emissions than their richer and whiter counter-parts, have been disproportionately impacted by Hurricane Harvey and other climate impacts. Contrary to Stephens’ conjectures, America’s lob-sided unequal growth did not protect them, certainly not to the same extent, rather it marginalized many and left them vulnerable.

Stephens advocates for a remarkably simplistic, over-generalized and privileged perspective that economic growth in and of itself builds climate resilience full stop. This fails to recognize that unequal economic growth, both domestically and internationally, builds a privileged class who are more sheltered from such impacts, while leaving lower income and vulnerable communities to bear the brunt of the impact. And if that unequal growth drives carbon emissions, which it doesn’t necessarily have to, then it further drives the vulnerability of poor and developing world by fueling the climate crisis further.

While some might say it is juvenile to call Stephens a douchebag, sometimes we need to call a spade a spade. Stephens’ article is just the latest installment in a series of misinformed pieces he has written on climate change, which demonstrate just how much of a privileged perspective he takes on this, and how little he understands the problems of justice and equity that underpin the climate issue, never mind his tenuous cherry-picked grasp on the science and economics. Yet the New York Times defends his voice as bringing diversity and representing a minority view.

If the New York Times wanted to balance the debate on climate and hire a minority or diversity voice, it should not have hired yet another white male, rich, conservative, who would be least impacted by the problem and clearly seems to lack enough empathy to understand, or even try to understand, those who are most impacted by it. Voices like Stephens’ are already over represented, and, to the detriment of those most vulnerable to the problem, they pretty much run the game on climate policy in the United States.

To really bring in a diverse, minority voice that counts, the NY Times should have considered hiring someone who actually understands the unequal impacts of climate change, and the questions of justice and equity that underpin it. Someone who knows what vulnerability really means, who understands the inequalities of the current system and how the problem is driven predominately by unrestrained, polluting economic growth in rich countries mostly to the detriment of the poor the world over. Preferably, it would be a person of color too given, given how climate change disproportionately impacts people of color, and because of the NY Times’ already overwhelmingly pale, white male line-up of columnists (7/10).

While we wait for the NY Times to hire someone more qualified for the job, let me end with the words of someone (among the multitude) who would have been infinitely more qualified than Stephens, feminist philosopher Chris Cuomo:

“Climate change was manufactured in a crucible of inequality, for it is a product of the industrial and the fossil-fuel eras, historical forces powered by exploitation, colonialism, and nearly limitless instrumental use of “nature.” The world’s wealthiest nations, and the privileged elite and industry-owning sectors of nearly all nations, have built fortunes and long-term economic stability on decades of unchecked development and energy consumption. By dumping harmful waste into the common atmosphere we have endangered everyone, including those who have contributed little or nothing at all to the industrial greenhouse effect: the “least developed” nations, the natural world, and future generations.”

About the author: Alex Lenferna is a Fulbright and Mandela Rhodes Scholar pursuing a PhD in philosophy at the University of Washington focusing on climate ethics and justice. He is a first generation South African whose family hails from the small island nation of Mauritius.

Alex Lenferna is secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition & campaigner with 350Africa.org. He has a PhD on climate justice from the University of Washington.