One of the prominent American sceptics about ‘climate change’ is Pat Michaels, a climatologist at George Mason University in Washington. He is a proper scientist (PhD from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in ecological climatology) and also a leading light in the Cato Institute, a right-wing think-tank also in Washington. In a piece in the Washington Times the other day he wrote of meeting Kevin Rudd.

‘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 rest of the article Michaels explained how all this worked in the USA. Well, I wouldn’t put the core of the problem in Australia quite like that, but Michaels is pointing to a serious matter, one that will cause difficulties for an Abbott Government, should there be one after September 14th. I don’t think that our government relies on research scientists for policy advice, exactly. The process is more complicated.

If a government decides to move into a new policy area, let’s call it X, because it sees electoral value in doing so (there are a lot of people out there making a fuss about X), it needs to staff it with people who know something about X, and they will be for it rather than against it. (The Department of Finance and Deregulation will provide plenty of ammo against X, at least at the beginning.) One or two of the new staff will be notable advocates for X, and they are chosen to make sure that the electorate accepts that something is being done. Before long the new agency is staffed by sympathisers. The government has made a decision, and the agency, now led and staffed by those who think that X is important, is doing its bit.

The agency will recruit sympathisers outside to come to  workshops, community consultations and major public meetings, where they too will say the right things. Some will be sent to international meetings, and will write about what happened there. Government funding will flow to university departments where  there is plainly support for X. It is important for the government that its new policy imperative gets media support, and these people will help to secure it. In the beginning it all goes smoothly. X is happening, and the electorate is happy.

But things never stay smooth for long, for governments are never able finally to solve problems. The best they can do is to push matters this way or that way. It doesn’t matter whether the problem is sexual abuse of children, or ‘climate change’, or care for the disabled — governments are not omnicompetent. But it is important to them that they appear so. When criticisms begin to appear about X the reaction of the relevant Minister is to get support from outside — a prominent scientist’s paper will be referred to, or he (or she) may speak up in support.

If the matter is serious enough, the Minister will begin to categorise opponents of X as ‘uninformed’ , and say that ‘the advice we are receiving from experts is that our policy on X is the right one and that it is working’. He may even call opponents ‘deniers’. By now we have a triangular relationship between the government, the experts and the media, which will need to take up a position on X. The media too will go to the experts, and at first look for critics as well as supporters, because a fight is always good news. But it isn’t long before newspapers and television and radio news editors come to a position on X, and if the opinion in the electorate is for it so will they be (they want an audience).

And eventually a former Prime Minister will say that his scientists told him that X was important. That’s shorthand. How did Kevin Rudd come to believe in AGW? It was an obvious policy position to distinguish himself from John Howard. Having won the election and signed up to Kyoto, he then had the job of implementing his carbon tax promises. That was much more difficult. In fact, the whole business of being in government was much more difficult than he had thought it would be. His scientists weren’t much use there.

There’s a lesson in that, somewhere.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Malcolm Miller says:

    An excellent summary of how sciance and government interface. I think that Gillard has purposefully soft-pedalled the AGW thing because she knows it’s going to be a loser. Abbot has to say he’ll remove the tax, which really hasn’t made much difference to anything, climate or our standard of living. So we son’t notice much change from what ever happes with the next government.

  • John Morland says:

    An excellent account of how a relatively minor concern can get out of hand. The lesson? Don’t let the tail wag the dog.

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