Climate Scepticism & Public Policy

A preface – I am no scientist.  I intend to write here about a social phenomenon, not a scientific one, though there is an obvious scientific assumption underlying it.  I’m not going to try to justify that position because I don’t have the time, will or most importantly the knowledge.  Even if you don’t accept it, I think my observations are interesting enough to be worth running with my assumptions for a little while.

It should be clear that there is a scientific consensus on global warming.  Consensus, of course, doesn’t mean that every scientist agrees on the subject.  It certainly doesn’t mean that belief is absolutely or indisputably true.  But it carries some weight nevertheless.

That weight is carried because scientific consensus is about as close to truth as we can possibly get on a whole range of issues, and is the only truth-offering mechanism that has any value for the purposes of policy-making, given the severe limitations of that sphere.  Scientific consensus has been enough for the formulation of policy on the ozone layer, DDT, tobacco, alcohol, drugs – the list could go on almost indefinitely, because every policy with any remotely scientific subject-matter is informed by scientific consensus.

On the issue of climate change, though, that very same consensus is somehow not enough.  The lack of policy action is indicative, of course, of a straightforward political and electoral cowardice, which remains even when the problem is acknowledged.  But that wouldn’t be enough if it weren’t for the ever-present scepticism/denial movement, which constantly returns to the ring to assert that the problem is non-existent or overstated, that scientists and media are involved in some bizarre conspiracy to lie and conceal, that no conclusive proof of climate change has been presented.

Consider Hume, consider the problem of induction, and we know that nothing within our empirical experience can actually be conclusively proved.  Even adopting a less philosophical approach of reasonable doubt, most of the examples I gave above – cancer from mobile phones, harms associated with alcohol and smoking – did not and do not have the kind of conclusive proof climate sceptics are now demanding.  They received response nevertheless.

What is the difference?  To say that responding to climate change requires action so much more drastic and potentially harmful, and therefore must meet a greater burden of certainty before that action can be taken, is appealing but misleading.  Was there, at any stage in the process of legislating responses to tobacco or DDT, a decision along the lines of “well, the proof here isn’t conclusive, but this policy area is sufficiently insignificant so we’ll let it slide” ?  Of course not.  There is no sliding scale for the burden of certainty; scientific consensus is and always has been enough.

But not here.  Climate scientists, apparently, have a vested interest – in being funded by governments for research and the like – which means that their pronouncements on the subject of their own expertise are to be looked on with ferocious doubt.  Geologists, meanwhile, the scientific group most consistently opposed to climate change consensus, have no such vested interest which qualifies their opinion as safer and more accurate.  Their lack of actual professional expertise doesn’t seem to disqualify them in the same way.

Essentially that means that the political criterion (of incentives and vested interests) becomes more significant than the scientific criterion (of studying and researching in the relevant field).  That reveals the wholesale transfer of science’s work into the political domain where it becomes up-for-grabs on grounds other than the consensual scientific credibility of a claim. 

So we’re back where we started – science has lost its aura of independence and credibility.  As much as everybody loves critical thinking and accountability, that’s not really good news when the thinking is critical only in the most attack-minded sense of the word, and is being done by people with precisely no qualifications for it.

The way I see public policy, it should be the product of a process which combines a few principal inputs: scientific fact (such as it is), normative ideology, economic theory, democratic will.  If politics is feeding back into all those fields instead of just taking them in and working with them, the policy process breaks down.

That will probably happen everywhere, but it’s particularly notable on climate change – where scientists are constantly accused of having a political bent, and where scientific positions have acquired a political leaning.  There is no plausible explanation (one-world government conspiracies do not count) for climate scepticism to be so universally the preserve of the right.  It’s just not a political issue.  (Policies in response to it certainly are, the scientific claim simply isn’t.)  As long as it stays one, science is compromised and policy-making can’t work as it’s supposed to.