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ON LIBERTY
August 27, 2009

Posted by: David Lungren David_Lungren@epw.senate.gov

EPW POLICY BEAT: ‘ON LIBERTY’

Link to US Chamber Blog Post on Call for Transparency

Link to US Chamber Petition

It is well known that questioning the science underlying climate change policy—that is, publicly raising doubts about various aspects of it, or even disbelieving the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis entirely—is outré, something that simply cannot be raised in polite society, or in the halls of Congress.  This is a reality we know well, and one we accept with ironic amusement.   Moreover, we are, in various forums, happy to stipulate the so-called consensus science—i.e. mankind’s consumption of fossil fuels is fueling a planetary disaster—given that the policies (read: cap and trade) driven by it do absolutely nothing to remedy the problems—droughts, disease, general decimation of all kinds—that are identified by it. 

This is not to say, of course, that questioning should stop—to the contrary: it should continue, unabated, in the true spirit of open, Baconian scientific inquiry, if only because such questioning, by numerous, respected, well-credentialed scientists, including those once convinced of the accuracy of the “consensus” position, has revealed serious, in fact devastating, flaws, in what some believe to be an open and shut case deserving of no dissent.  For this reason, we welcomed the news that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has asked EPA to hold a hearing on the scientific evidence supporting the agency’s proposed endangerment finding for greenhouse gases. 

One would expect EPA and the environmental community, so convinced of the absolute certainty of their position, to welcome such a challenge, which would once and for all dispose with “denier” doubting about the supposed harms of carbon dioxide emissions.  Yet we found just the opposite.  According to the LA Times an EPA spokesman dismissed the Chamber’s request for an open hearing as a “waste of time” and “frivolous.”  A representative from the Union of Concerned Scientists, following that group’s usual penchant for nuance and subtlety, compared the Chamber’s request to “the Salem witch trials, based on myth.” “In this case,” according to the UCS’s Brenda Ekwurzel, “[the Chamber filing], would be ignoring decades of publicly accessible evidence.”  Joe Romm, of the Center for American Progress, asks the board members of the Chamber “to declare whether they are evolved members of humanity or dedicated to our self-destruction.” 

This scathing, ad hominem response brings to mind John Stuart Mill, who, in his renowned essay “On Liberty,” discussed the practical implications of stifling opinions thought to be incorrect or misguided.  We think the following quote from Mill posits an eloquent challenge to EPA and others opposed to an open hearing on the endangerment finding and its supporting evidence:

“Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Mill went to write:

 

“[T]he opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. Its condemnation may be allowed to rest on this common argument, not the worse for being common.” 

We don’t expect EPA to follow the Millian example.  That’s fine, so far as it goes.  But the scientific debate will continue, if “beneath the radar.”  As for us, debating the efficacy of the policy prescriptions will suffice, for the weight of the evidence, as EPA Administrator Jackson and others have acknowledged, overwhelmingly supports the contention that addressing global warming with unilateral action through cap-and-trade will cost hundreds of billions of dollars without creating any meaningful climate benefits.  As we have numerous times, we welcome a full an open hearing on this point, with, as always, a willingness to entertain, and take seriously, arguments supported by facts and evidence.  We only wish our opponents would do the same.

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