The role of science in climate politics

Jonathan in his recent post and his comments to that post made a big point of emphasizing the importance of science as the basis for action in terms of climate change.  He also emphasized his belief that the denial of climate change by leading Republicans in the current campaign is an unprecedented rejection of science (at least since World War II).

I don’t disagree with any of Jonathan’s points.  But I also don’t think that science is going to be what (if anything) convinces the vast majority of doubters and skeptics about climate change.

I can think of at least three reasons that appear to motivate skepticism of climate change among conservatives and others.  (I don’t claim that this is an exhaustive list, but I am very confident that these are important factors.)

(1)  A belief that humans cannot possibly have a fundamental impact on nature.  This might be because of a belief in the sheer size and scope and power of the natural world, or a belief that God would not allow us to harm the environment, among other reasons.  This is a belief with a long history in American and Western culture, and in many ways the rise of the modern environmental movement can be traced to a rejection of the belief in the inexhaustibility of nature.  But there are many Americans who still adhere to this belief, both in general and in the context of climate change (including a frequent commentator on our blog).  People who adhere to this belief might be open to the possibility that people can cause local environmental harms that should be addressed (e.g., hazardous waste pollution).  But climate change is in many ways in fundamental tension with this belief, as it requires believing that humans are having a global impact on weather and climate.

(2)  A strong libertarian ideology that emphasizes a certain vision of personal liberty and deep skepticism of most forms of government intervention.  Climate change is in sharp tension with this ideology because it requires believing that harm to people around the world is being caused by almost every daily activity that people in a modern industrial society undertake.  If that harm justifies government intervention, then there is a rationale for comprehensive government intervention in almost every aspect of modern industrial life.  Climate change, in other words, might be deeply threatening to a vision of a very limited state.

(3)  There are many people whose livelihoods depend to a great deal (directly or indirectly) on fossil fuel production and consumption.  For these people, action on climate change may result in unemployment or significantly lost income.  (Also note that this third group is one that spans both major parties and is more regional than ideological or belief-based – Democrats in West Virginia are just as motivated by this rationale as Republicans in Wyoming.)

What is important to keep in mind here is that – as with any policy-relevant science – there is some level of uncertainty in the science.  For instance, there are remaining questions about the role that clouds might play in accelerating or reducing the impacts of greenhouse gases.  Each of these groups have different reasons to emphasize and focus on that science: The first group simply disbelieves the science because it conflicts with fundamental philosophical or religious beliefs (just like a significant proportion of Americans still support creationism over evolution); the second group is highly skeptical of the relevant science because that avoids a possibly difficult conflict with their ideological positions; the third group is highly skeptical of the relevant science because it is threatening to their livelihoods.

The question is, would getting more certainty on the science really convince any of these groups about climate change?  The higher the stakes of the decision that involves science, the more incentive there is to question or challenge the science.  And given the history of the past couple of decades of climate politics, there doesn’t seem to be much promise that more certain science will change the terms of the debate.

So what might make a difference?  The starting point is to examine why individuals are skeptical.  Group two isn’t going to be convinced by more certain science; instead, they will be convinced if you can show how climate change doesn’t have to lead to (or even significantly increase the risk of) substantially increasing the scope of the governmental leviathan – perhaps by using tools such as a carbon tax, and by arguing how fundamental libertarian principles are consistent with those tools.  (Jonathan Adler has been making a lot of these arguments.)

Group three isn’t going to be convinced by more certain science; instead, they will be convinced if you can show how action on climate change doesn’t have to be threatening to their economic interests and livelihoods.  Building up the economic base for clean energy, for instance, might make a huge difference politically – and indeed, I’ve made the argument that this is a major factor in explaining why Californians defeated Proposition 23 in the fall of 2010 (Proposition 23 would have effectively repealed California’s greenhouse gas regulatory statute, AB 32.)

There are other alternatives that others are pursuing.  Religious outreach might work for Group one.  Key cultural and political figures and leaders might be important in shaping belief-based and ideological positions in Groups one and two (as the Cultural Cognition project has explored).  But I’m pretty positive that yet another article in Science isn’t going to be what makes the difference.

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Reader Comments

12 Replies to “The role of science in climate politics”

  1. I think your post incorrectly assumes that people fall into two groups on the subject of climate change: those who acknowledge the scientific evidence of anthropogenic global warming and support state regulation and coerced reduction of green house gas emissions; and those who do not. I think you then try to break up the latter group into the three categories described above.

    There is a third group that your article does not mention: those who acknowledge the scientific evidence of AGW, but who are not persuaded that the cost of state regulation and coerced reduction of GHG emissions is less expensive than the cost of mitigating the likely consequences of AGW as they arise.

    Personally, I fall under that category and I suspect many conservative intellectuals would as well. I am not a scientist, but have made an honest effort to evaluate the body of scientific knowledge in this area, and I acknowledge the scientific evidence supports a conclusion that AGW is real, and that CO2 emissions are the primary driver.

    But simply establishing AGW as a real phenomenon does not, by itself, persuade me that state regulation and coerced reduction of GHG emissions is wise policy. There seems to be no scientific evidence that the probable or even potential adverse consequences of AGW cannot be addressed more cost effectively if, and when, they arise.

    For example, there are a number of promising geoengineering technologies, that would be much less costly than massive state intervention in the energy markets. Even without geoengineering solutions, I am still skeptical that the net costs of dealing with the problem via state intervention will be less expensive. Sea levels have fallen and risen multiple times since the appearance of homo sapiens. We have adapted and survived. The Sahara has slowly grown to cover nearly all of North Africa, driving early civilations to the Nile. Still we adapted and survived. Our current reserves of oil will last maybe another 100-120 years, our coal might last us another 500 years. Before that day arrives, advances in technology and the rising price of fossil fuel energy will shift us away from a reliance on fossil fuels.

    I know this will not be a popular position here, but unless the scientific evidence shows a real, probable risk that AGW will be truly catastrophic (and I am unaware of any consensus on that issue), I am leery to initiate the economically devastating level of state control and coerced GHG reductions currently called for by the alarmist side of the climate debate.

  2. I think your post incorrectly assumes that people fall into two groups on the subject of climate change: those who acknowledge the scientific evidence of anthropogenic global warming and support state regulation and coerced reduction of green house gas emissions; and those who do not. I think you then try to break up the latter group into the three categories described above.

    There is a third group that your article does not mention: those who acknowledge the scientific evidence of AGW, but who are not persuaded that the cost of state regulation and coerced reduction of GHG emissions is less expensive than the cost of mitigating the likely consequences of AGW as they arise.

    Personally, I fall under that category and I suspect many conservative intellectuals would as well. I am not a scientist, but have made an honest effort to evaluate the body of scientific knowledge in this area, and I acknowledge the scientific evidence supports a conclusion that AGW is real, and that CO2 emissions are the primary driver.

    But simply establishing AGW as a real phenomenon does not, by itself, persuade me that state regulation and coerced reduction of GHG emissions is wise policy. There seems to be no scientific evidence that the probable or even potential adverse consequences of AGW cannot be addressed more cost effectively if, and when, they arise.

    For example, there are a number of promising geoengineering technologies, that would be much less costly than massive state intervention in the energy markets. Even without geoengineering solutions, I am still skeptical that the net costs of dealing with the problem via state intervention will be less expensive. Sea levels have fallen and risen multiple times since the appearance of homo sapiens. We have adapted and survived. The Sahara has slowly grown to cover nearly all of North Africa, driving early civilations to the Nile. Still we adapted and survived. Our current reserves of oil will last maybe another 100-120 years, our coal might last us another 500 years. Before that day arrives, advances in technology and the rising price of fossil fuel energy will shift us away from a reliance on fossil fuels.

    I know this will not be a popular position here, but unless the scientific evidence shows a real, probable risk that AGW will be truly catastrophic (and I am unaware of any consensus on that issue), I am leery to initiate the economically devastating level of state control and coerced GHG reductions currently called for by the alarmist side of the climate debate.

  3. I would not count as skeptics or deniers those who believe that climate change is occurring and is human-caused but believe that alternatives to mitigation (such as adaptation or geoengineering) are preferable. I understand that many conservative intellectuals take that position, and while I disagree with it strongly, I would categorize that position as accepting the relevant science (or at least an important part of it). The point I was making is that (As Jonathan noted) the public position of leading figures in the Republican party is to deny that climate change is existing at all. That is probably because that position has public resonance. And then the question is why that is the case. For the reasons I elaborated, I don’t think that the uncertainty of the science truly explains skepticism or denial, and therefore I don’t think clearer science will make a difference with the public at large (again, in contrast to elites and intellectuals whether conservative, liberal, or otherwise).

    I would also add that it appears from your comments that you would demand a higher level of proof of certainty from the science to justify government intervention to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, precisely because of your belied that government intervention is harmful (either as a matter of principle, or because you think it would have other significant costs). As with the three groups I discussed in the main post, your perception of the relevant science, and the level of proof that you demand, is being shaped by values that are external to the relevant scientific evidence. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but it does mean that a fruitful conversation about what to do about climate change (if anything) requires a discussion not just about the science, but about the values shaping your (and my) evaluation of the science.

  4. I would not count as skeptics or deniers those who believe that climate change is occurring and is human-caused but believe that alternatives to mitigation (such as adaptation or geoengineering) are preferable. I understand that many conservative intellectuals take that position, and while I disagree with it strongly, I would categorize that position as accepting the relevant science (or at least an important part of it). The point I was making is that (As Jonathan noted) the public position of leading figures in the Republican party is to deny that climate change is existing at all. That is probably because that position has public resonance. And then the question is why that is the case. For the reasons I elaborated, I don’t think that the uncertainty of the science truly explains skepticism or denial, and therefore I don’t think clearer science will make a difference with the public at large (again, in contrast to elites and intellectuals whether conservative, liberal, or otherwise).

    I would also add that it appears from your comments that you would demand a higher level of proof of certainty from the science to justify government intervention to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, precisely because of your belied that government intervention is harmful (either as a matter of principle, or because you think it would have other significant costs). As with the three groups I discussed in the main post, your perception of the relevant science, and the level of proof that you demand, is being shaped by values that are external to the relevant scientific evidence. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but it does mean that a fruitful conversation about what to do about climate change (if anything) requires a discussion not just about the science, but about the values shaping your (and my) evaluation of the science.

  5. I think the problem lies with how the issue is presented. Instead of AGW deniers versus believers, it is really a question of tolerable versus intolerable AGW. From my perspective both sides are guilty of framing the issue as whether AGW is real. The left knows they will win that debate with those who trust scientific institutions, and the right knows they will win with those who are skeptical of science that disagrees with their “gut instinct.”

    That plays well politically I’m sure, but it misses the real question, namely: What are the probable future costs of AGW that cannot be mitigated with geoengineering or adaptation, and does the probable benefit of avoiding those future costs outweigh the current cost of instituting massive state regulation and coerced reduction of GHG’s?

    Yes, I am always hesitant to support central planning by the state as the only solution to a problem, but even the most ardent libertarian would prefer a centrally planned solution to living on Venus.

  6. I think the problem lies with how the issue is presented. Instead of AGW deniers versus believers, it is really a question of tolerable versus intolerable AGW. From my perspective both sides are guilty of framing the issue as whether AGW is real. The left knows they will win that debate with those who trust scientific institutions, and the right knows they will win with those who are skeptical of science that disagrees with their “gut instinct.”

    That plays well politically I’m sure, but it misses the real question, namely: What are the probable future costs of AGW that cannot be mitigated with geoengineering or adaptation, and does the probable benefit of avoiding those future costs outweigh the current cost of instituting massive state regulation and coerced reduction of GHG’s?

    Yes, I am always hesitant to support central planning by the state as the only solution to a problem, but even the most ardent libertarian would prefer a centrally planned solution to living on Venus.

  7. I think cognitive dissonance should definitely make the list. To embrace the fact that one’s actions are negatively impacting the world is a bitter psychological pill to swallow. Many people’s egos won’t allow it…thus denial kicks in.

  8. I think cognitive dissonance should definitely make the list. To embrace the fact that one’s actions are negatively impacting the world is a bitter psychological pill to swallow. Many people’s egos won’t allow it…thus denial kicks in.

  9. Bernie- why are you so confident that a carbon tax on the order of $1/gallon (= to about $100/ton Carbon, if I recall correctly), and offset by cuts in other taxes, would have “economically devastating” effects?

  10. Bernie- why are you so confident that a carbon tax on the order of $1/gallon (= to about $100/ton Carbon, if I recall correctly), and offset by cuts in other taxes, would have “economically devastating” effects?

  11. Daniel – I should clarify. I was referring to the proposal that we limit GHG emissions to 1990 levels. I don’t know if that goal can be reached with a $1 per gallon tax, but I would suspect that it cannot. If it were just a $1 per gallon tax on gasoline, that would still (like most taxes) add another deadweight on economic growth but it probably would not be devastating.

  12. Daniel – I should clarify. I was referring to the proposal that we limit GHG emissions to 1990 levels. I don’t know if that goal can be reached with a $1 per gallon tax, but I would suspect that it cannot. If it were just a $1 per gallon tax on gasoline, that would still (like most taxes) add another deadweight on economic growth but it probably would not be devastating.

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Eric Biber

Eric Biber is a specialist in conservation biology, land-use planning and public lands law. Biber brings technical and legal scholarship to the field of environmental law…

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