October 10, 2016 4:28PM

You Ought to Have a Look: Big Science, Carbon Taxes, and the Clean Power Plan’s Day in Court

You Ought to Have a Look is a regular feature from the Center for the Study of Science.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.


This week we feature a few smart pieces by some smart folks.

First up is an excellent post “Climate Modeling: Settled Science or Fool's Errand?” by Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Bill Frezza in which he discusses the development of climate models and the reliability of the future that they project. But Bill’s post is really just to provide some background for his Real Clear Radio Hour interview with Arizona State University’s Dr. Daniel Sarewitz, who is the co-director of ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes. Sarewitz has a lot of interesting things to say about “Big Science” and the problems that result. Frezza summarizes his interview:

Sarewitz, who was trained as an earth scientist, is terrified that “science is trapped in a self-destructive vortex” that is endangering both science and democracy. In his blockbuster analysis mentioned above, he nails his thesis to the laboratory door, challenging Big Science to get its act together. Politicizing science, he argues, leads to debates about science being substituted for debates about politics. So we end up fighting over unverifiable forecasts about what might happen in the future, rather than wrestling with the complex tradeoffs that attend political decisions on what we should – or could – do about carbon emissions under all the potential future scenarios.

But rather than get discouraged, Sarewitz believes there is a way out of this conundrum. His advice is, “Technology unites while science divides.” He recommends that science “abdicate its protected political status and embrace both its limits and its accountability to the rest of society.” Despite calling long-range climate forecasting “a fool’s errand,” he thinks dumping too much CO2 in the atmosphere will make anthropogenic global warming a long term problem that will eventually require the decarbonization of our energy industries. But he sees this as a process taking many decades, one that can be best addressed not with politicized science, but by letting adaptation, innovation, wealth creation, and economic growth lead the way.

If you have a free 20 minutes or so and are interested in how the quest for policy has derailed the pursuit of science, listening to Frezza’s full Sarewitz interview will be time well spent.

Next up is a post in which Institute For Energy Research economist Robert Murphy takes a look at a new report from R Street—a “A carbon bargain for conservatives”—in which R Street tries to tell conservatives that “[a] properly designed revenue-neutral price on carbon will improve economic efficiency, promote better environmental outcomes than existing policy and allow market forces to determine the course to a lower-carbon future.”

To which Murphy bluntly asks “What is the point of this exercise?” He elaborates:

It’s not as if President Obama or Gina McCarthy are making a substantive offer here. Rather, R Street’s proposal (and others like it) are fantasy land bargains from people with no political power in order to get conservatives and libertarians to abandon their opposition to a massive new tax. What is the point of this exercise?

…The typical progressive activist, and the typical administrator at the EPA, do not share [a] general admiration for the market economy. It is not as if the people of Greenpeace toss and turn at night, lamenting the Pareto inefficiencies in our economy and the fact that industry produces a bit above the “optimal” level of pollution. No, these people do not like capitalism, period, and think Americans are consuming too much.

…I’m glad to see that R Street’s energy analysts are admitting all of the tremendous problems with a carbon tax (such as leakage, the tax interaction effect, and the arbitrariness of the “social cost of carbon”), but they valiantly throw all of those concerns aside and still assume they can strike a deal with groups who are saying, in print, that they are not going to make such a deal. In closing, I simply repeat my initial reaction: I honestly don’t know what the point of these reflections is, except to weaken conservative and libertarian resistance to a massive new tax that R Street admits could bring in more than $1 trillion in the first ten years.

Murphy’s full rebuttal is both thoughtful and entertaining.

And finally, the Bipartisan Policy Center last week hosted a panel discussion which reviewed the Clean Power Plan’s recent day in court, including insightful commentary from participants from both sides of the argument.  The discussion was moderated by Wall Street Journal energy reporter Amy Harder with panelists including David Doninger from National Resources Defense Council, Christophe Courchesne, chief of the Environmental Protection Division of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, Jeff Holmstead, former Assistant Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency for Air and Radiation, and Allison Wood, attorney at Hunton & Williams, and who presented arguments in the case before the DC Circuit Court.

The panelists offered interesting thoughts about the issues which may decide the case and how they perceived that the judges received the arguments and what decision they may ultimately come to. We found the comments to be informative and to well-summarize (including key details) this important case.

The discussion was recorded by C-SPAN, which has made it available here. It’s long (at over an hour and a half) but is a good place to hear what those in the trenches are saying about the case. You ought to have a look.