The New York Times ran an op-ed decrying the climate activism of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg which featured basic climate denial and personal attacks against her.
The article’s points echo those that have been made in right-wing media ever since Thunberg rose to prominence for her school strikes and climate activism. It’s extremely dangerous for attacks like these to creep over from right-wing media to mainstream media; although the Times’ climate reporting is some of the best around, the paper must do a better job of policing this particular brand of bad faith attacks against young climate protesters.
The op-ed promotes climate denial over science
Christopher Caldwell, author of the August 2 op-ed and a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, states in the article that “with questions of global warming, the problems of credibility are already large, even without fresh incitements to politicization.” Promoting uncertainty of climate science is a classic denier trope that has been used for decades, even though there is nearly unanimous scientific consensus on the existence of man-made climate change.
Caldwell also makes the case for delaying action on climate change, ending his op-ed: “Climate change is a serious issue. But to say, ‘We can’t wait,’ is to invite a problem just as grave.” The article ultimately attempts to distract from the actual scope and scale of the climate crisis, which is exactly the issue that Thunberg is urging politicians to take action on. The science is clear: The world must cut carbon emissions almost in half by 2030 in order to avoid the worst effects of even moderate global warming. Given the fact that we are already feeling the effects of global warming, delaying action on climate change is just as harmful as denying its existence.
Caldwell resorts to personal attacks against Thunberg
Caldwell’s op-ed goes on to claim that Thunberg’s protests are anti-democratic. He describes her approach as “radical,” claiming that she “believes people should act, not argue” and wants to sow panic. Dismissing the fact that Thunberg supports peaceful school strikes and civil disobedience as a nonviolent form of protest, and is merely advocating based on the recommendations of the scientific community, Caldwell then tries to discredit Thunberg with ad hominem attacks:
Normally Ms. Thunberg would be unqualified to debate in a democratic forum. Since a 16-year-old is not a legally responsible adult, she cannot be robustly criticized and, even leaving aside her self-description as autistic, Ms. Thunberg is a complicated adolescent. Intellectually, she is precocious and subtle. She reasons like a well-read but dogmatic student radical in her 20s. Physically, she is diminutive and fresh-faced, comes off as younger than her years, and frequently refers to herself as a “child” — about the last thing the average 16-year-old would ever do.
Daniel Nichanian of The Justice Collaborative called out Caldwell’s strategy:
Right-wing media have been making bad faith attacks on Thunberg for months
Caldwell’s op-ed follows a playbook of criticism featuring climate denial and direct personal attacks that right-wing pundits have made since the beginning of the year. Several of these examples have come as recently as last week. Industry-backed climate denier Steve Milloy chimed into the op-ed debate on August 3 by tweeting:
Milloy, who has tweeted multiple personal attacks against Thunberg, has also appeared on Fox News in 2019 to attack climate activism. In Australia, News Corp. columnist Andrew Bolt wrote a reprehensible column on July 31 that referred to Thunberg as a cult leader and mocked her autism.
Other examples of climate deniers attacking Thunberg from earlier this year abound. Frequent Fox guest Marc Morano tweeted in February that she “promotes useless apocalyptic drivel,” while sometimes Fox contributor and Trump favorite Patrick Moore tweeted in May that she is “like a puppet on strings.” The Koch-backed magazine Spiked tried to discredit Thunberg because her “autistic identity raises other worrying issues,” while James Delingpole at Breitbart.com invoked “climate alarmism” and accused her of being brainwashed. And not to be outdone, Fox host Sean Hannity’s favorite meteorologist, Joe Bastardi, retweeted a meme in June that likened Thunberg to Nazi propaganda.
Ad hominem attacks have also extended to the larger youth climate protest movement itself. The American Spectator’s R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. invoked climate denial in dismissing the school climate strikes in a March op-ed for The Washington Times, and Fox & Friends framed the climate strikes as a propaganda tool in two segments earlier this year.
Caldwell’s op-ed validates months of right-wing attacks against Thunberg
Climate denial and ad hominem attacks have been a feature in many right-wing critiques aimed at Thunberg and the larger movement of youth climate protesters that she represents. When asked in July how she deals with personal attacks, Thurnberg answered: “It proves that they don’t have any arguments. And that they see us as a threat because we are having an impact.”
As The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty put it, this is because right-wing climate deniers know that “the jig is almost up.” With both the science and public opinion firmly on Thunberg’s side, Chakrabortty says climate deniers are “being nastier, more abusive and more personal” and trying to push “a culture war to cover up for its paucity of evidence and arguments.” The same tactic of personal attacks is also being used more broadly by right-wing media to invalidate progressive leaders and policies.
The New York Times’ decision to run an op-ed featuring such bad faith right-wing attacks on Thunberg is unconscionable -- especially when those attacks come from an author who has written skeptically of climate issues before. Bad op-eds from climate deniers like Caldwell or the Times’ own Bret Stephens do a disservice to the paper’s dedicated climate reporting. Differing opinions on how to address climate change solutions should absolutely be welcomed and considered, but the paper of record must have better editorial oversight when a piece containing climate denial and blatant personal attacks is submitted.