Climate Change and the Politics of Scientism

Subscriber Only
Sign in or Subscribe Now for audio version

Earlier this year, I attended a conference in Australia at which an American participant gravely pronounced that the recent floods in Queensland resulted from anthropogenic global warming. (The Australians present, by contrast, seemed more cautious in their conclusions — being well aware that Brisbane is built on a flood plain, and that significant flooding has occurred on multiple occasions since European settlement there began in the nineteenth century.) Meanwhile, in the United States, hit by a series of big blizzards, pundits furiously traded sound bites over whether our ugly winter weather proved or disproved theories about climate change caused by human fossil-fuel usage.

Such impressionistic pop science has become all too common in debates over global warming and political fights over the proper response to climate challenges. Setting aside, for a minute, the question of what the global climate is or is not doing, or whether or to what degree human activity has caused it, let us simply consider the politics of climate change. Could the movement that has dedicated itself to saving the global ecosystem from man-made catastrophe be harming its own agenda by forsaking the very scientific ideals that ought to make its case more effective?

This is not to allege that there exists a sinister global scientific conspiracy to massage climate data into producing the desired conclusions, or that the science underlying the case for human-caused climate change is fatally flawed or otherwise unpersuasive. I leave climate science to the climate scientists; in my own amateur opinion, I do not presently see any compelling reason to question the general conclusions of anthropogenic change. However, the business of climate change advocacy in the broader cultural and political environment has arguably damaged its own cause by promoting a political discourse of zealous absolutism. This has not only been unfaithful to the ideals of good science but even politically counterproductive, and may have impaired the ability of the body politic to grapple sensibly with scientific issues in the future.

Eco-Villains and Chevy Volts

Climate-change advocacy became big business in the last decade, thanks in no small part to the media and cultural whirlwind surrounding the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth and the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize shared by the film’s star, former vice president Al Gore, and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Gore went on to parlay his environmental fame into a spectacularly lucrative lecture circuit and corporate advisory career.

The bigger story, however, is how the issue of climate change itself grew into a huge global politico-cultural movement — producing intergovernmental conferences and treaty negotiations, spawning new global networks of NGO activism, driving new trends in marketing and fashion, and playing into Barack Obama’s initial incarnation as a president who would “transform” both America and the world. (The reader will no doubt remember, for instance, that then-candidate Obama pronounced his selection as the Democratic nominee in the 2008 presidential campaign to be “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”)

The self-congratulatory symbolism of saving the world can now be found everywhere in modern Western life, from ostensibly “green” products in the local pharmacy, to the plots of major movies like James Cameron’s recent blockbuster Avatar, to the eco-happy advertising even of massive international oil companies (witness the “Beyond Petroleum” campaign of the company formerly known as British Petroleum). In today’s world of eco-positional mass-market consumerism, a “hybrid” Chevy Tahoe that gets 20 miles per gallon on the highway is apparently much cooler — actually winning “Green Car of the Year” at the Los Angeles Auto Show in 2007 — than a “gas-guzzling” high-octane-consuming Corvette that gets a more noble 24. (And of course, nothing bespeaks crunchy suburban political correctness like an expensive but genuinely frugal Toyota Prius.) Clearly, being “seen to be green” has both marketing power and politico-cultural cachet.

But as a movement, eco-messianism requires an eco-evil against which to mobilize. To some extent, this need is met by targeting high-powered, specific villains. But while it’s temptingly easy to bash oil companies or conservative politicians, climate-change advocacy faces a deeper political problem: the inconvenient truth that large-scale fossil-fuel consumption derives ultimately from ordinary consumers’ clear preference for driving, buying, and consuming things that are made with or that use cheap energy presently available only from fossil fuels. As with our recent economic crisis — which sparked extraordinary excoriations of “fat-cat” bankers who had profited in a market swollen with bad real estate loans, but produced notably little criticism of the legions of ordinary American “homeowners” who foolishly borrowed money they couldn’t possibly repay — eco-activism faces significant difficulty in vilifying the ordinary people upon whose changing behavioral choices the movement’s ultimate fate depends.

This is why there is such enthusiasm on the left for dirigiste policies that effectively proclaim us to be in the midst of a catastrophic market failure — thus justifying interventions in that market (tax-credit subsidies for buyers of the all-electric Volt, or government direction of “stimulus” funds to favored firms working on particular wind or solar technologies) as well as government coercion of behavioral change (efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to impose, by regulatory fiat, carbon-use controls that the U.S. political system has thus far rejected). And this is also why there has been a concerted effort to blanket everyday lifestyle decisions in an almost religious sense of guilt. But for obvious reasons, this approach is unlikely to gain real traction: eco-correctness alone is not equal to the challenge of changing behavior on the scale needed. Green fashion, for instance, may sell thousands of Priuses or hulking “hybrid” Tahoes, and may even provide a market for the heavily-subsidized but still remarkably expensive Chevy Volt — a car which in most areas of the United States will consume its fossil fuels with pleasingly invisible indirectness, running on power coming through electrical lines from power plants burning coal — but there were nearly 256 million highway-registered vehicles in the United States in 2008. Assuming that Chevrolet succeeds in its plan to make and sell 10,000 Volts in the car’s first year, those vehicles will account for less than one-hundredth of one percent of the cars on the road in this country alone.

The Integrity and Humility of Science

Central to the strategy of the green movement has been the creation of a narrative in which those who question climate science or who doubt the urgency of the movement’s policy recommendations are seen as ignorant or even malevolent crusaders. Anthropogenic global warming must be seen as an utterly unassailable Truth. Thus did the politics of vilification creep back in through the back door: today’s culprits are the “deniers.”

Climate advocacy on this scale has required a reflexive and moralistic rectitude that is more theologically fundamentalist in its psychology and behavior than actually scientific. Here is where the politics began to outstrip the science, for the kind of truth in which the movement planted its flag is not a kind of truth that science can really provide. To serious climate scientists, accelerating anthropogenic climate change may have been the best available explanation for trends within a bewilderingly complex data set, and an account persuasively consistent with results being obtained from the best available techniques of computational modeling and statistical analysis. To the movement, however, it needed to be more than “just” that.

Despite the political and cultural fervor the movement was able to produce, and the spread of a vaguely environmentalist conscience well beyond the die-hard political base, its adoption of this “fundamentalist” paradigm has come at a cost, lessening its ability to weather politically the various storms that have inevitably come its way. The leak in late 2009 of the so-called “Climategate” e-mails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia opened a window on the tawdry internal politics of the climate science community; then in 2010 there was an embarrassing retraction of a much-publicized IPCC prediction that Himalayan glaciers could vanish by 2035; and there has been increasing public disagreement over the degree to which dire global warming predictions have depended upon measurements of surface temperatures from ground sensors that may have been biased by local warming effects, such as from the urbanization of areas around sensor emplacements.

The point is not, as some critics have suggested, that such questions and revelations actually invalidate scientific claims about anthropogenic global warming. Perhaps they cast some overdue doubt on certain of the enthusiasts’ more extreme predictions. (In a notable British high court ruling in 2007 over whether An Inconvenient Truth could be shown as part of a school curriculum, the judge found Al Gore’s claims in the film to be “broadly accurate,” but called his presentation “one-sided,” and cited “nine scientific errors” Gore made as a result of “alarmism and exaggeration.”) But the problem isn’t that such embarrassments have nullified the science of global warming, but that they have done damage to the politics and policymaking of climate change, in large part as a result of stubborn adherence to what is ultimately an unscientific notion of absolutist certainty.

To a scientist, there ought to be nothing untoward about fielding questions on methodology and data, or living with some degree of ambiguity in the certainty of one’s results. Indeed, it is quite normal, especially in extremely complicated fields such as large-scale climate modeling — in which the dynamics are often literally “complex” in the technical sense that elaborate feedback loops help make outcomes highly dependent upon initial conditions and resistant to long-term prediction. (It is not for nothing that Edward Lorenz’s famous “butterfly effect” was derived from meteorological modeling.) Serious science always tries to know more, and to know it more reliably, but it is built around an awareness that human knowledge and capabilities are finite. Scientists spend their careers refining, and sometimes entirely debunking, the best answers provided by their predecessors. They must, therefore, expect that their views will also be subject to such attentions. When faced with challenges, proper science assesses, analyzes, regroups where necessary, and moves on.

Perhaps we need more of the humility of proper science in the policy world, for this sensibility is somewhat foreign to the arena of policy activism — which too often seeks to romanticize “science” and appropriate it as a mobilization tool in service of ideological certainties. The green movement has made claims of absolute, near-theological truth in an effort to get people to accept policy remedies that involve considerable economic and other sacrifices. These remedies have seemed particularly unpalatable to energy-consuming Westerners in a time of economic stress, and to people in the developing world hoping cheap energy can help them raise their standard of living. So it is hardly surprising that the activist political discourse ran somewhat aground when the scientific case upon which it gambled everything was confronted with even fairly minor problems of data, consistency, or methodology.

Beyond Scientistic Policymaking

Many climate scientists have protested since the revelation of the “Climategate” e-mails that — notwithstanding any gamesmanship that may or may not have occurred over how to display the famous “hockey stick” graph used to convey comparisons of recent northern hemisphere temperatures to older data inferred from proxy indicators — most of the science underlying claims of anthropogenic global warming remains sound. In this sense, the basic policy case for some kind of remedial action presumably also remains strong. But while climate-change science may remain largely unscathed, climate-change politics has suffered a painful wound that is largely self-inflicted.

To be sure, it can be hard to persuade people to accept heavy opportunity costs under the best of circumstances, especially to forestall an ill they themselves may not personally live long enough to experience. Nor is today a time in which the public is particularly keen to accept adding energy price hikes to its list of woes. But the political world is not unfamiliar with arguments for change that do not rely upon infallible predictions of disaster. Serious and sensible decision-making in many fields relies on continually making calculations of this sort in one form or another. I need no certainty that I will be in an accident in order to wear a seat belt or bicycle helmet, to pay attention to crash-test safety performance when purchasing an automobile, or to not purchase a motorcycle; I need merely know that a crash is both possible and not entirely within my control, and that its consequences could be catastrophic. Similarly, people quite reasonably buy insurance in the expectation of possible, rather than certain, future need. And militaries routinely plan against contingencies, preparing themselves as best they can against a range of possible threats rather than just the single most likely one they can envision. Most people find it acceptable to bear some burden today against the possibility of dangers tomorrow.

Of course, such implicit or explicit actuarial calculations — planning, in effect, against a “landscape” of potential future outcomes, as scenario planners in the corporate world have been urging their clients to do since at least the 1970s as a means of coping with market uncertainty — have their limits. The anticipated likelihood of future bad consequences clearly affects the degree to which we are willing to bear burdens today in order to forestall them, and the magnitude of the burdens we will stomach to such an end. (If I were certain that I would have a car accident, I would not drive at all, or would purchase a very different sort of vehicle — something big, slow, and armored.) A presumed certainty of catastrophe would justify much more significant present-day sacrifices than a mere likelihood — in the climate context, legitimating a full-bore attack on all consumption of fossil fuels, or upon the allegedly dysfunctional capitalist “market” in its entirety.

But this “fundamentalist” approach need not be the only one capable of making significant gains. An argument that terribly debilitating global warming is probably coming might have served as the foundation for important policy changes, and could very well have proven more resilient in the face of contestation around the margins of the science. Such an approach might even have made possible rather more significant adjustments than governments around the world seem willing to enact today.

And such an approach may yet emerge someday. But the climate politics of the last several years may come to be seen as a lost opportunity for the anti-global warming movement — a cautionary tale. Or perhaps this episode will be remembered as having damaged the ability of our body politic to grapple with other issues of science in public policymaking — that is, if the overreach of scientistic climate politics ends up damaging our collective ability to appropriately turn to science to help inform wise and humane decisions. Science should be able to help the policy community evaluate risks and thus to plan soberly against contingencies, but it is in this respect only a tool, and but one tool among many. To mistake its role, or to deliberately oversell its handiwork in the zealous pursuit of policy transformation, may be to imperil the credibility of science and the seriousness of policymaking alike.

Christopher Ford, “Climate Change and the Politics of Scientism,”, April 20, 2011.

Exhausted by “science says”?

During Covid, The New Atlantis has offered an independent alternative. In this unsettled moment, we need your help to continue.