The Presumption of Knowledge: The Fatal Conceit

This week, Senate Democrats were engaged in hand wringing and excessive rhetoric during a Senate Budget Committee hearing titled “The Costs of Inaction: The Economic and Budgetary Consequences of Climate Change.” Committee Chairman Patty Murray talked about the fiscal budget. The hearing was choreographed with the release of a report by the Council of Economic Advisors with a similar title that was an example of constructing an analysis to support a preordained conclusion. To be blunt, all of this was either just more smoke and mirrors or the arrogance that comes from the presumption of knowledge.

Combining the words government and budget planning is clearly an oxymoron.

Government budgets–there hasn’t been one in about five years thanks to Senator Reid–only go in one direction—up. Good budget planning requires an understanding of the relevant subject matter, goals and objectives, an understanding of opportunity costs, and a willingness to terminate programs that don’t work. None of that seriously takes place in the federal government process.

Mr. Rubin was good at running Goldman-Sachs and a well-respected Treasury Secretary. He is clearly a capable executive and public policy savant, although his performance on the Citi Board demonstrated his capabilities are not unlimited. None the less, he makes some valid points in his op-ed. “Good economic decisions require good data. And to get good data, we must account for all relevant variables”. He gets off the tracks in what follows—“…we’re making decisions based on a flawed picture of future risks. While we can’t define future climate-change risks with precision, they should be included in economic policy, fiscal and business decisions because of their potential magnitude”. All of that sounds good, except that it involves claiming knowledge about unknowns.

Mr. Rubin relies on the consensus of those who represent the climate orthodoxy and treats that as if it reflects the views of the vast majority of scientists who have studied the climate system. A May 26 Wall Street Journal opinion-piece, demonstrated that the asserted 97% consensus is a fabrication; it is bogus. In addition, Mr. Rubin’s comments also show him to be woefully ignorant about climate science and the effect of CO2 on global temperatures.

The late Jim Schlesinger use to tell a climate change story about when he was Secretary of Energy—1976. Scientists came to him urging action to avoid global cooling. Twelve years later, Al Gore and James Hansen convinced the media, Congress, and the Bush 1 Administration that global warming was a serious threat to the future of the planet. A little more than a decade later, a pause in warming started that has lasted 16 years. Given that almost 40 years of history and the government’s poor track record in long run planning and understanding, how could anyone really trust what would come out of the call for a budget planning initiative.

Concerns by Senator Murray and others in her party about the cost of inaction should not be taken seriously because the record is clear that “inaction” is another bogus claim. CO2 emissions are below the 2005 level and the Energy Information Administration does not forecast them returning to that level for at least two decades. Is that a result of inaction? There is a long-term trend in decarbonization that has been taking place without the help of government. Technology and our natural gas renaissance are leading to both more efficient energy use and lower emissions.

The problem is that the preferred solution of those, like Mr. Rubin, who buy into the climate orthodoxy—wind, solar, and biofuels—is that they are not commercially viable. In the case of wind and solar, neither is suited for base load power generation.

Abandoning the false notion that there is a linear relationship between CO2 and global temperatures and that CO2 is a pollutant–it’s a nutrient– while recognizing that the human impact on the climate system is not known is any useful way would free public policy to focus on what is actually important. Our climate system is chaotic and while the Administration and some in Congress like to pretend that it isn’t and that they can manage it, they are pursuing an expensive fool’s errand.

The federal government should do two things. First, refocus research spending on basic research to better understand the climate system, especially natural variability, climate sensitivity, cloud formation, and ocean and solar effects. Second, give adaptation a higher priority, which is an area where something useful can actually be done, independent of how the climate changes or its causes. Investing in knowledge creation and adaptation technology would not only benefit the US but would be of great value to emerging economies that are most affected by climate events.


This article appeared on the National Journal’s Energy Insiders weblog at

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