The Lack of Prudence of Fossil Fuel Supporters

Bruce Gilley

Editor's note: This article is a reply to "Academia on the Verge of a New Dark Age" by Leo Goldstein. Bruce Gilley is associate professor of political science at Portland State University and is the president of the Oregon Association of Scholars. 

In recent years, mainly due to instant opinionating and ideological clustering on the Internet, the tone of public debates in democratic countries has become shrill and conspiratorial. There are many issues on which reasonable people should disagree. But our ability to disagree in civil terms has eroded. I doubt that either the Left or Right is worse in this respect. But Mr. Goldstein’s article is a fairly representative example of what the right-wing versions look like in the case of climate change. For those scholars among us for whom the most important virtues of scholarship are a deep humility and prudence, this alt-turn in public affairs could not be more worrying.

Let me respond to his article with a few general points. First, many prominent and respected conservatives accept the evidence that human-produced greenhouse gases are pushing the climate into very dangerous territory and that, given the very modest costs of cutting those emissions steeply, to continue to take this risk is irrational. Indeed, over the last 20 years, it is conservatives more than liberals who have changed their minds on this issue. Even if we assume that there is only a 10% chance that a majority of the world’s climate scientists are correct, the catastrophic consequences are such that the modest costs of mitigation make eminent sense. That is why Judge Richard Posner says that conservatives have their heads in the sand on climate change. For conservatives, who pride themselves on conserving, on avoiding massive transformations of systems on which human flourishing depends, the prudent argument for climate action existed long ago.

It is true that we could use more data and better models, but this requires time which we do not have. Until then, we are best to rely on the models presently used. Mr. Goldstein’s understanding of scientific epistemology leaves something to be desired. There are two ways of making an explanatory claim: deductive and inductive. Most climate models (the so-called “energy balance” models) are inductive, which is to say they are non-falsifiable because they are fitted to data. They can predict but only as extrapolations of the past, not as theoretical “if x then y” models based on laws. Deductive models (“if x then y”, in the case of climate “general circulation” models) are falsifiable. But since any particular future scenario will be characterized by various violations of their ceteris paribus conditions, their predictions are also “correct”, that is non-falsifiable, until seen in hindsight, when it can be established whether those conditions were violated (if not, the theory is likely falsified). So either way, prediction models are non-falsifiable. As climate change skeptics like to point out, the climate is a complex system, probably beyond the present grasp of deductive models. But that implies the need to work based on inductive ones. And if that is seen as too much slapdash curve-fitting then the need for deductive ones that are “correct” by definition. Either way, you cannot escape the uncertainty of all scientific inference.

Secondly, much of the argument for cutting fossil fuel use would remain sound even without climate change: air pollution, environmental damage from extraction, transportation risks, stalled reforms in petro-states, and heavy infrastructure requirements compared to the rapidly falling costs of solar and wind, and to the safe and powerful availability of hydro and nuclear (liberals, by the way, have their heads in the sand over hydro and nuclear). Think of it as good energy policy if that makes you feel better. Fossil fuels will continue to be part of the global energy mix because those gases do dissipate. But for wholly non-climate change reasons, it is easy to make the economic case for a curtailment of their use.

In light of this, one must wonder what motivates the animus one feels from climate change skeptics. Some, no doubt, are scientists with a bee in their bonnets. The science itself is at issue. I am not a scientist and make no attempts to wade in this debate because I know that I would be prone to look for evidence supporting my beliefs. But I am a political scientist who works on policy issues, and I know that much of what drives policy positions is ideology. Mr. Goldstein’s passion clearly comes from an anti-Left stance. I share with him a disdain for how the Left has seized this issue and used it to advance irrelevant agendas (the broader sustainability agenda that has become simply a byword for left-wing causes). As a student of communist politics, I also feel viscerally his aversion to Gosplan approaches. But the scholar who allows his policy positions to be altered by irrelevant associations has lost a sense of what political pluralism entails.

It is indeed a concern in the academy if climate skeptics in science cannot get jobs and thus cannot build up the evidence to lodge their claims. But conservatives have been able to end-run or shame the liberal establishment in other fields of scholarship and there is no reason to suppose climate science as a field is any less porous or vulnerable in this regard. Indeed, even as conservatives in the general public have generally drifted towards acceptance of climate science in recent years, liberals among the scientific community have learned to be more cautious in their claims. This is all for the good and suggests that behind the Internet-based histrionics of both Left and Right, practically-minded people are making sensible choices. I applaud NAS maintaining an open debate on this issue because I have faith in scientific reason and in the wisdom of the common man. Climate change action will go ahead as a result.

Image: Louis Pasteur in his laboratory, painting by A. Edelfeldt in 1885.

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