Climate science and the Supreme Court


Reposted from Dr. Judith Curry’s Climate Etc.

Posted on October 16, 2020 by curryja

by Judith Curry

An alternative assessment of U.S. Supreme Court Justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s statements on climate change.

For those of you not in the U.S., confirmation hearings on the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court are currently underway.  There are many very political issues surrounding this nomination and its timing.  Lets put all that aside for the moment, and consider her statements on climate change.

Barrett’s statements [link]:

“I will not express a view on a matter of public policy, especially one that is politically controversial.”

“I don’t think my views on climate change or global warming are relevant to the job I would do as a judge. Nor do I feel like I have views that are informed enough.”

“I’m certainly not a scientist,” she said when asked by Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) whether she had a personal opinion on the issue. “I mean, I’ve read things about climate change. I would not say I have firm views on it.”

“I don’t think I’m competent to opine on what causes global warming or not.”

The twitterati are hysterical over these statements.  From a Washington Post article:

“The judge’s exchange on climate change was short, but her critics say it is disqualifying”

“It is a requirement that a Supreme Court Justice be able to review evidence to make a decision,” he said. “The scientific evidence of climate change is beyond reasonable doubt or debate, yet Amy Coney Barrett refused to acknowledge reality.”

“A climate change case is already on the Supreme Court’s docket next year. It will hear a case involving several oil companies, including Dutch Royal Shell, being sued by the city of Baltimore, which is seeking to hold them financially responsible for their greenhouse gas contributions. Barrett’s father spent much of his own career as a lawyer for Shell. “

An article in the Esquire is entitled: Amy Coney Barrett’s answer on this climate change question is completely disqualifying.

“Put simply, this is just totally disqualifying for any official holding public office in the year 2020. This isn’t even an up-to-date Republican bullshit line on the topic. “I’m not a scientist” is so 2014, maybe because even the Elite Political Media—pockets of which are just today allowing themselves to be hoodwinked by another Emails caper—caught on to how dumb it is. Does Judge Amy Coney Barrett accept the scientific consensus that gravity is keeping her in that chair? If so, why? She’s not a scientist, so how could she possibly know?”

There are two issues here that deserve discussion:

  1. Whether  ‘belief’ in climate change actually means anything when spouted by politicians and other non-scientists
  2. What judges should be expected to know about climate science.

“I believe in climate science”

I think that Amy Coney Barrett’s answers to the climate question was admirable.  She wanted to stay out of a contentious political debate.  But more importantly she wasn’t going to pass a judgement on something for which she had not carefully evaluated the evidence and did not find herself qualified to make a judgement on.  I thought her stance on this showed wisdom and humility.

In the 2016 presidential debates, Hillary Clinton said: “And I believe in science” , with specific reference to climate change.

In the political debate on climate change, ‘I believe in climate science’ is a statement generally made by people who don’t understand much about it. They use such statements  as a way of declaring belief in a scientific proposition that is outside their knowledge and understanding. The belief of individuals making such a statement is often more akin to believing in Santa Claus than relating to actual understanding of science. In the case of Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech at the U.S. Democratic National Convention, Clinton’s appeal to science was a partisan rallying cry that was coupled to the mockery of Donald Trump and his supporters as ‘anti-science.’

In the context of the climate change, ‘I believe in science’ uses the overall reputation of science to give authority to the climate change ‘consensus’, shielding it from questioning and skepticism. ‘I believe in climate science’ is a signifier of social group identity that supports one particular solution:  massive government legislation to limit or ban fossil fuels. ‘Belief in  climate science’ makes it look as though disagreement on this solution is equivalent to a rejection of the scientific method and worldview. When exposed to science that challenges their political biases, these same ‘believers’ are quick to claim ‘pseudo-science,’ without considering (or even understanding) the actual evidence or arguments.  An excellent summary of all this is provided in a previous blog post discussing an article by Robert Tracinski.

In my albeit limited experience, very few politicians have made a serious attempt to understand climate science, beyond being able to parrot talking points provided to them by advocacy groups.

Here is what we are left with: One side attacks science and the other side uses science for political attacks. Neither side actually cares about or understands the science.

Kudos to Amy Coney Barrett for providing an appropriate answer to the climate change questions

Supreme Court

A New York Times article discusses why judge’s ‘opinions’ on climate change are relevant to the Supreme Court.  The EPA endangerment finding may be facing a challenge in a future Republican administrations.  There are also lawsuits against the U.S. government and oil companies that could make it the Supreme Court.

The Wikipedia has a good overview on the Juliana case against the U.S. government as well as previous cases.  Apart from procedural issues, I don’t see what kind of ruling by the Supreme Court on climate change that would hinge on the Justices’ understanding or ruling on details of the science.

The Dutch Urgenda ruling accepted the authority of the IPCC assessment reports.  This was an unusual ruling based upon the U.S. court system, which leaves matters of policy to the legislative and executive branches.



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