from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Argument and Authority in the Climate Fight

February 03, 2012

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I had planned to ignore last week’s awful Wall Street Journal op-ed in which sixteen “concerned scientists”, few of whom do any climate science research, flimsily slammed basic climate science and invented some pretty specious energy economics. But a response from thirty eight climate scientists that the Journal published this week made me think twice. The climate scientists, after making it clear that they speak from relevant authority, rightly slam the “concerned scientists” for using a patina of scientific credibility to substantiate their empty arguments. Then they explain what the vast majority of those who spend their professional lives picking through the data actually believe.

But, in the final sentences of their piece, they go a step further:

“In addition, there is very clear evidence that investing in the transition to a low-carbon economy will not only allow the world to avoid the worst risks of climate change, but could also drive decades of economic growth. Just what the doctor ordered.”

“Very clear evidence”? Perhaps someone can point me to that. There are certainly frequent claims from politicians and advocates along these lines. There are even some papers (invariably controversial) that offer suggestive arguments. But there is nothing remotely approaching “very clear evidence” – certainly not the sort of evidence that the letter writers would (rightly) expect in the climate science literature where they themselves publish.

What was that that they were saying about authority and expertise?

I know, like, and genuinely admire several of the authors of both pieces. But both dangerously use earned authority in their areas of expertise as a substitute for careful argument in other fields. (To be clear, at least two of the thirty eight letter writers are economists; that said, the typical reader will simply see thirty eight "authorities" endorsing the statement.) The original authors do this far more egregiously that the respondents, but both succumb to the same unfortunate temptation.

This phenomenon doesn’t only show up when climate scientists lecture on economics or particle physicists assert that only they know how the atmosphere works – it appears all over the climate debate. Clean energy entrepreneurs regularly assert that because they’ve created solar jobs, they know that more solar energy is good for the U.S. economy. Oil barons are similarly authoritative in asserting that their industry experience tells them that a transition away from fossil fuels would be economically ruinous. Too many economists will assert that this or that policy won’t affect investors’ and consumers’ behaviors, since that’s what their theories tell them, even if investors and consumers themselves can tell you from experience (and hence some authority) that that is dead wrong. Other economists will tell you that they know that cutting emissions will be cheap, when smart political scientists can readily point out that real world politics will likely lead to considerably more expensive policies.

This isn’t an argument for why people should only write in areas where they have PhDs. After all, if that were the standard, I’d be out of a job. But if people want to invoke authority (something that should be kept as rare as possible), they ought stick to areas where they’ve earned it, rather than sliding into ones that seem closely related to uninformed readers but that actually aren’t all that similar. Otherwise, they’d be well advised to stick to careful argument. This would leave the writers of the original Journal op-ed without much to say on an opinion page (save their observations about the unpleasant culture in some university departments), this week’s respondents focusing on climate science, and everyone better off.