The rise of scientific authoritarianism

The megalomania of James Hansen of NASA shows how ‘climate expertise’ can undermine democracy.

Roger A Pielke Jr

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Topics Science & Tech

One of the leading lights in the demand for action on climate change, James Hansen of NASA, wrote an op-ed for the Observer last Sunday (1), which, more than any other piece of his that I have seen, expresses his political philosophy. In a phrase, that philosophy can be characterised as ‘scientific authoritarianism’.

Scientific authoritarianism, as I am using it here, holds that political decisions should be compelled by the political preferences of scientists. It is a very strong form of the ‘linear model’ of science and decision-making that I discuss in my book, The Honest Broker. Hansen believes that the advice of experts, and specifically his advice alone, should compel certain political outcomes.

He opens his op-ed with this statement: ‘A year ago, I wrote to Gordon Brown asking him to place a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants in Britain. I have asked the same of Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Kevin Rudd and other leaders.’

Collectively, Brown, Merkel, Obama and Rudd lead about 500million people. The idea that one person’s policy views should carry so much weight in democratic societies is an indication that Hansen believes that expertise should carry decisive weight in decisions. Hansen is not even a citizen of Germany, Australia or the United Kingdom, so the mere fact that he is asking the leaders of these countries to act based on his say-so is an expression of scientific authoritarianism.

Rather than making the case for his preferred policy, Hansen’s argument includes his complaint that policymakers have not followed his advice, which Hansen seemingly believes should take precedence over all other views. Indeed, he dismisses the views of the public as being too poorly informed, too distracted or unsophisticated to contribute to decision-making on the climate issue: ‘The public, buffeted by weather fluctuations and economic turmoil, has little time to analyse decadal changes. How can people be expected to evaluate and filter out advice emanating from those pushing special interests? How can people distinguish between top-notch science and pseudo-science?’

By contrast, Hansen argues that policymakers cannot be excused for not understanding what the scientists demand: ‘Those who lead us have no excuse – they are elected to guide, to protect the public and its best interests. They have at their disposal the best scientific organisations in the world, such as the Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences. Only in the past few years did the science crystallise, revealing the urgency.’

Hansen’s scientific authoritarianism becomes largely incoherent when he accuses political leaders of ‘tricking’ their citizens when they say that climate policies include plans for the future development and implementation of carbon capture and storage from coal plants: ‘The dirtiest trick that governments play on their citizens is the pretence that they are working on “clean coal” or that they will build power plants that are “capture-ready” in case technology is ever developed to capture all pollutants.’

Where might governments have come up with the idea that carbon capture and storage from coal plants might be part of their climate policy portfolios?

Why, from the very same experts that James Hansen says that policymakers have at their disposal. For example, the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommended carbon capture and storage (CCS) as an important future technology in a glossy summary about what everyone should know about energy (2). A report from a National Academies workshop on CCS in 2003 concluded: ‘One way to reduce atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide is through sequestration or the safe disposal of large quantities of carbon dioxide in locations where it will not re-enter the atmosphere.’ (3)

Similarly the UK Royal Society has endorsed CCS: ‘The Royal Society has called on the government to ensure that any new coal-fired power plants built in the UK are capturing 90 per cent of their carbon dioxide emissions by 2020.’ (4) The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and International Energy Agency (IEA) depend upon the future availability of CCS in all of their mitigation scenarios, and on this basis governments are investing resources in developing CCS technologies.

It may not be enough of an investment, or the governments may not be following the precise advice of their national societies, but those are not Hansen’s arguments. His argument is that governments are tricking citizens. So, if Hansen wants policymakers to listen to scientists, and scientists are calling for CCS research and deployment, and in fact assume such technologies in their mitigation scenarios, how can he fault policymakers for listening to exactly these recommendations?

Here Hansen swerves from scientific authoritarianism to megalomania: ‘The trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death… The German and Australian governments pretend to be green. When I show German officials the evidence that the coal source must be cut off, they say they will tighten the “carbon cap”. But a cap only slows the use of a fuel – it does not leave it in the ground. When I point out that their new coal plants require that they convince Russia to leave its oil in the ground, they are silent. The Australian government was elected on a platform of solving the climate problem, but then, with the help of industry, it set emission targets so high as to guarantee untold disasters for the young, let alone the unborn. These governments are not green. They are black – coal black.’

The very notion that the German (or any) government has the obligation to answer to James Hansen is really odd, and one I don’t think I’ve ever seen in any policy analysis on any subject: ‘When I show… they say… When I point out… they are silent.’ It is a blatant appeal to authority to include the fact that one’s views are not followed as part of the argument for why they should be followed. Hansen must have a pretty well-developed sense of worth to believe that his views should compel governments around the world to listen and follow.

On some important aspects of the climate policy issue I agree strongly with Hansen, for instance on the importance of air capture and the feebleness of current policy approaches. But with respect to his approach to climate politics, I could not be more in disagreement. (To head off straw-man responses, because I disagree with his political philosophy does not mean that I disagree with any of his policy recommendations.)

Climate policy successes will depend on successful processes of democratic governance necessarily involving public participation and support. Scientific authoritarianism, weak or strong, has no role in climate politics.

Roger A Pielke Jr is the author of The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics (buy this book from Amazon(UK)). This article first appeared on the science policy blog, Prometheus.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill argued we should keep science out of politics and showed how climate change scepticism is the new blasphemy. Tony Gilland showed how the IPCC is a very political organisation. Ben Pile declared that the BBC has presented a one-sided view of climate change. Rob Lyons looked at how polar bears are the poster animals of climate change. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

(1) Coal-fired power stations are death factories. Close them, James Hansen, Observer, 15 February 2009

(2) What you need to know about energy, National Academy of Sciences

(3) The Carbon Dioxide Dilemma, National Academies Press, 2003

(4) No coal without carbon capture and storage, Royal Society, 3 April 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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