TCS Daily

Baby Steps On the Road to Serfdom

By Nick Schulz - February 15, 2002 12:00 AM

President Bush has crafted a political compromise on global warming designed to placate Europeans and greens fretting over the effects of CO2 emissions on climate change. The proposal calls for "voluntary" (albeit with heavy incentives) CO2 emissions reductions and a focus on CO2 emissions "intensity" as opposed to absolute emissions levels. This decision is a shame, for two reasons.

First, as an appeasement mechanism it likely won't work. As my colleague over in Europe Philip Stott points out, European elites simply will not be assuaged by such baby steps. Why? Because the global climate change debate for them isn't just about fears over global warming. It is tied into a larger anti-capitalist, anti-globalization, anti-trade agenda. They seek to rein in economic activity and growth, particularly of what they perceive as its chief economic adversary, the United States. So what is to make the White House think that "voluntary" measures and a focus on intensity will satisfy opponents who have their eyes on a much larger prize?

Second, and more importantly, by allowing for baby steps ostensibly designed to moderate climate change, the Bush administration has ceded to aggressive social engineers an argument that it has no scientific reason to concede. Before heading down this road for good, the administration might want to remember the lessons from an earlier era, one when social engineers used shoddy science to press for ambitious societal experiments - experiments that sometimes resulted in disastrous consequences.

Through much of the 20th century, social scientists of a utopian bent believed they held the keys to creating better, healthier societies. Through the study of social science, it was believed that experts could rationally engineer families, schools, and communities - through government mandates - that would better reflect the natural state of humanity and rectify historic injustices so mankind would be happy and truly free.

Two landmark studies on human sexuality kick-started this movement, one from Margaret Mead and another from Alfred Kinsey. "Coming of Age in Samoa" and "Sexuality in the Human Male and Female" provided the intellectual ammunition social engineers needed to change (read: liberalize) social attitudes and mores. Regardless of the merits of the changes advocated by Kinsey and Mead, the fact that they were ostensibly grounded in science is what gave their arguments such heft. Who, after all, could argue with science?

Thereafter, social liberals who wanted to correct what they perceived as society's ills knew that social science could be employed to justify the means -- school integration, busing, public housing policies, health care programs, welfare -- to advance largely liberal social ends. Time and again, study after study was trotted out "demonstrating" that the social science ultimately pointed to specific social policies as remedies - policies that invariably called for more social spending and regulation. That these studies almost always conformed to liberal political prejudices was irrelevant. The fact remained that politicians now had the "science" they needed to advance their particular political agendas.*

The movement to employ social science on behalf of social betterment reached its political apotheosis in the 1960s with Lyndon Johnson and his anti-poverty programs. This was the high point of social science in American public policy - the political science and sociology departments of America's elite universities helped dictate American social policy. On questions of race and sexuality, arguments based on principle -- protection of individual rights and application of constitutional principals in a nondiscriminatory manner - were jettisoned in favor of measures grounded in the social science of the day (this fostered the unfortunate consequence of shifting political focus away from equal rights to equality of results).

But while this was going on, a curious thing was happening. To be sure, many of the means and aims of the activist social scientists were laudable. After all, who would argue against integration of schools today? But several social scientists and academics began to realize that a lot of the science being trotted out was no good - skewed by political bias or insufficient to justify the conclusions and remedies it called for. And they started to speak out. This counter insurgency in the academy served as one current of a political movement that came to be known in American politics as neo-conservatism. Intrepid social scientists such as James Coleman, Seymour Martin Lipset, Irving Kristol, James Q. Wilson and others began championing sound social science over shoddy or politically skewed work, and in so doing launched a sustained critique on the welfare state that made possible the welfare reform of the 1990s and the ongoing reevaluation of American social policy.

Why is all of this relevant? Because there are lessons in the history of activist social science in the United States for the current environmental science.

Activist environmental scientists, hoping to bring about radical changes in social policy, have had a huge head start in the academy, just as the American social scientists of the mid-century did. With the publication of "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson (the environmental movement's Margaret Mead), the modern environmental movement was born. Her work was followed by the work of Lester Brown and Paul Ehrlich and others who purported to demonstrate through environmental science that we were doing irreparable harm to the planet.

Employing environmental studies, activists were able to press for all sorts of controls and regulations. This movement - environmental scientists marching lockstep with the political class - reached a highpoint with the presidential candidacy (and near victory) of Al Gore. Gore was the political darling of the climate science community. He signed the Kyoto protocol calling for massive global limitations on energy use, and he even had gone so far as to call for the eradication of the internal combustion engine - the emblem of the modern industrial economy.

Meanwhile, another curious counter insurgency has been building. An inchoate group of members of the scientific community have, over time, taken stock of much of the currently available climate science and found it severely wanting. Beginning with social scientists such as Julian Simon, a counter movement was born calling into question the alarmism emerging from the environmental movement. Demanding fealty to sound science over politically skewed research, these scientists are providing the intellectual and scientific tools necessary to resist radical environmental engineering efforts. Climate scientists such as Richard Lindzen, Philip Stott, Sallie Baliunas, and Willie Soon have made great strides in educating policy makers and the scientific and political communities about "the true state of the planet" as science writer Ronald Bailey calls it.

Courageous scientists have bucked the pressure of the environmental lobby to cast significant scientific doubt on the great climate science shibboleth, man-made global warming. Now it remains to be seen if courageous politicians will follow suit. President Bush thinks he has come across a suitable compromise. But there is no compromising on sound science. There is only putting political expediency ahead of scientific rigor. And currently the science suggests that the cost of implementing emissions reductions far outweighs any potential benefits.

A former Greenpeacenik, Bjorn Lomborg, has made exactly this case in his new book The Skeptical Environmentalist. He has been savaged for daring to question the orthodox views of the climate science establishment - providing all the evidence necessary that global warming activists now care little about the science involved. Let's hope President Bush can still muster the same courage that Lomborg and others have to champion sound science over political activism.

*** Science wasn't always used to advance liberal social ends: at the turn of the 20th century, science was used to justify the eugenics movement, and in the 20th century, a study by Dr. Isaac Ehrlich supposedly demonstrated that the prospect of the death penalty would reduce the murder rate. The study influenced the Supreme Court's jurisprudence on the death penalty. Subsequent research has demonstrated that Ehrlich's research was questionable.


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