Liberals and environmentalists would do well to take on board the categorical imperative of climate policy from a conservative point of view, namely, that whatever policies are developed, they must be compatible with individual liberty and democratic institutions, and cannot rely on coercive or unaccountable bureaucratic administration.
Not long ago the journal Issues in Science and Technology (a consortium publication of the National Academy of Sciences, Arizona State, and three other institutions) challenged me to write a piece about “Conservatism and Climate Science,” and the long piece is just now available online. But it’s really not about climate science, but rather climate policy, and the heart of the article is a lengthy consideration of the problem of the crossroads of science and power, which should bother us in many domains beyond climate.
The piece is over 5,000 words long, so you’ll want a pot of coffee for the whole thing. But here are a couple of the key elements:
Today science is the most powerful idea in modern life, and it does not easily accommodate or respect “nonscientific” perspectives. This collective confidence can be observed most starkly in the benign condescension with which the “hard” sciences regard social science and the humanities in most universities (and the almost pathetic fervor with which some social science fields seek to show that they really are as quantitative and thus inaccessible to non-expert understanding as physics).
Even if the once grand ambition of working out a theory of complete causation for everything is no longer seriously maintained by most scientists, the original claim of scientific pre-eminence, best expressed in Francis Bacon’s famous phrase about the use of science “for the relief of man’s estate”—that is, for the exercise of control over nature—remains firmly planted. And even if we doubt that scientific completeness can ever be achieved in the real world, the residual confidence in the scientific command and control of the behavior of matter nonetheless implies that the command and control of human behavior is the legitimate domain of science. . .
. . . [O]ne of the most basic problems of social science, from a conservative point of view (though many liberals will acknowledge this point) is that despite its claims to scientific objectivity, it cannot escape a priori “value judgments” about what questions and desired outcomes are the most salient. This turns out to be the Achilles heel of all social science, which tries to conduct itself with the same confidence and sophistication as the physical sciences, but which in the end cannot escape the fact that its enterprise is indeed “social.” We can really see this social dimension at work in the “climate enterprise”—my shorthand term for the two sides, science and policy, of the climate change problem. The climate enterprise is the largest crossroads of physical and social science ever contemplated.
The social science side of climate policy vividly displays the problem of fundamental disagreement over “normative” questions. Although we can apply rigorous economic analysis to energy forecasts and emission control pathways, the arguments over proper discount rates and the relative weight of the tradeoff between economic growth and emissions constraint cannot be resolved objectively, that is to say, scientifically. Climate action advocates are right to press the issue of intergenerational equity, but like “sustainability,” a working definition or meaningful framework for guiding policy is nearly impossible to settle. The ferocious conflicts over assessment of proposed climate policy should serve as a healthy reminder that while the traditional physical sciences can tell us what is, they cannot tell us what to do.
This is only one of the reasons why the descent from the theoretical to the practical level leads conservatives to have doubts about the reach and ambition of supposedly science-grounded policies in just about every area, let alone climate change. In environmental science and policy, environmentalists like to emphasize the interconnectedness of everything, the crude popular version of which is the “butterfly effect,” where a butterfly beating its wings in Asia results in a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Conservatives don’t disagree with the interconnectedness of things. Quite the opposite; the interconnectedness of phenomena is in many ways a core conservative insight, as any reader of Edmund Burke will perceive. But drawing from Burke, conservatives doubt you can ever understand all the relevant linkages correctly or fully, and especially in the policy responses put forth that emphasize the combination of centralized knowledge with centralized power. In its highest and most serious form, this skepticism flows not from the style of monkey-trial ignorance or superstition associated with Inherit the Wind, but from the cognitive or epistemological limitations of human knowledge and action associated with philosophers like Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper (among others), which tells us that knowledge is always partial and contingent and subject to correction, all the more so as we move from the particular and local to the general and global.