A skeptical climate-change column whips up a storm among N.Y. Times readers

The New York Times thought it was bringing a fresh voice and some ideological diversity to its influential op-ed pages when it hired conservative columnist Bret Stephens from the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago.

Readers weren’t impressed by Stephens’s debut column, to say the least.

The cancel-my-subscription outrage flowed freely after Stephens challenged the certitude about climate science in his first piece for the newspaper on Friday. While acknowledging that the planet has warmed over the past century and that humans have contributed to it, he wrote, “much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future.”

Stephens’s timing was impeccable, with his column hitting just as tens of thousands gathered around the nation and in Washington for the Peoples Climate March, in protest of President Trump’s rollback of regulations protecting the environment.

The column had something else for liberals to hate: Stephens’s comparison of the arrogance about climate change to the Clinton campaign’s confidence that its technology and data models would ensure victory in the 2016 presidential campaign.

The piece touched off a switchboard-clogging reaction from Times readers, who began calling the Times to dump their subscriptions. A Times spokeswoman, Danielle Rhoades Ha, wouldn’t provide specific figures but said Saturday, “We are seeing an increase in cancellations . . . citing the new column, but it still looks like overall cancel numbers will be a low single digit, percentage-wise, for the week.”

It’s unusual for any specific column or news article to lead to mass subscription cancellations. Subscribers tend to cancel primarily because they’re moving, or because they can no longer afford or want to pay for the paper or its digital version.

But Stephens — who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2013 while at the Journal — began drawing fire from Times readers even before he wrote a word for the paper.

The Times’s announcement in mid-April that it hired him triggered an earlier round of subscription cancellations; about 2 percent of those who canceled in the week after the announcement cited his hiring as their reason for doing so, according to Rhoades Ha.

The Times has 3 million print and digital subscribers. It has seen a surge of subscriptions since Trump’s election in November.

In a comment emailed to The Washington Post, Stephens offered this about the controversy he’s generated: “If democracy dies in darkness, as somebody’s been saying, then darkness also is a refusal to entertain and seriously engage opposing points of view. I wrote a column that, at heart, is about the importance of acknowledging our…

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