Three years ago, I ran into former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd at a ritzy Northwest Washington restaurant. We exchanged pleasantries, but before long, our conversation became unpleasant.
Since climate science is my field, I felt compelled to point out that Mr. Rudd’s support for a cap-and-trade policy for carbon emissions had recently helped cost him his job as prime minister. “Well, what should I have done?” he replied. “My scientists, I say, my scientists, told me this is an important problem.”
Having closely followed implementation of Mr. Rudd’s cap-and-trade, my response was admittedly a little testy: “Your scientists said exactly what you paid them to tell you.” It took less than an hour for the daily newspaper The Australian to get wind of the encounter.
That brief interaction with Mr. Rudd is indicative of a widespread problem: The government of Australia, and pretty much every other nation, funds research scientists and then relies on them for policy guidance. It is in the best interest of these government-funded scientists to ensure their fields — and therefore their jobs — are deemed of great importance.
The problem is particularly costly when it comes to environmental science.
In the United States, government-funded scientists are required to produce a National Climate Assessment every four years. The assessment is produced by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a 13-agency behemoth with multibillion-dollar annual funding. Under its empowering legislation, the assessments are “for the Environmental Protection Agency for use in the formulation of a coordinated national policy on global climate change .”
The research program and the individuals who write such reports are the largest consumers of federal largesse on climate science. Would they ever produce a report saying that their issue is of diminishing importance — so much so that EPA regulations of greenhouse gases are simply not needed? No, not unless they are tired of first-class travel and the praise of their universities, which are hopelessly addicted to the 50 percent “overhead” they charge on science grants.
The perils of science-by-government-funded-committee became apparent in their first assessment in 2000. The models they used were worse than no forecast at all.
If, for example, the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s computer models were given a multiple-choice test with 100 questions and four possible answers each, simply spitting out random numbers would, within statistical limits, get around 1 out of 4 (25 percent) correct. The initial assessment, however, would get only 1 out of 8 answers correct (12.5 percent) — essentially performing twice as badly as a random series of numbers.
The research program was aware of this problem and published its report anyway.
The reigning assessment is the 2009 version, which has been considered authoritative and is largely the basis for the EPA’s greenhouse-gas regulations. It was missing so much science that I produced an addendum, in exactly the same format as the original, which was actually longer and contained more references.
Later this year, the U.S. Global Change Research Program is scheduled to publish its quadrennial replacement. The draft has been circulated for public comment. In its 1,200 horror-studded pages, almost everything that happens in our world — sex, birth, disease, death, hunger and wars, to name a few — is somehow affected, usually for the worse, by pernicious emissions of carbon dioxide. Before the end of the 60-day public comment period, 133 single-spaced pages of comments from my organization alone barely scratched the surface of the report’s failings.
The main problem is that the new draft ignores the spate of science since 2010 detailing the long-predicted (at least, by some of us) lowering of temperature projections. You can read about this in The Economist, The New York Times, and the United Kingdom’s Spectator, but you won’t find it in the current research program’s document. As our review says, “Without the addition of the new projections, the [National Climate Assessment] will be obsolete on the day of its official release.”
Later this year, government science goes international with the release of the next Scientific Assessment of Climate Change by the United Nations body that tracks the issue. It suffers from the same problem as the draft research program document — because the same people produced both reports. It, too, will serve as the basis for policy, and it, too, will be obsolete the day it is published.
In Big Science, money is power. Money is publications. Money is promotion and tenure, television time, awards, rewards and a permanent ticket out of coach. There’s simply no incentive for scientists to do anything but perpetuate their issues.
This is why, in 2018, when former President Barack Obama is confronted about his mandate of tiny cars because of dreaded climate change, he might say, “Well, what should I have done? My scientists, I say, my scientists, told me this is an important problem.”
Patrick J. Michaels directs the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute.