A century from now, the great evolutionary biologist, paleontologist, and historian of science Stephen Jay Gould may be best-remembered for his 1997 essay “Nonoverlapping Magisteria.” In it, Gould argues that science and religion deal with entirely different fields of inquiry and therefore each has a unique “magisterium,” or area of teaching authority.

Science dispassionately describes the world, while religion offers ideas about why the world exists, how humans relate to the divine, and, in most modern faiths, what standards we should adopt for moral behavior. Under these circumstances, Gould writes, “if religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution.”

One can infer from this thesis that perhaps we also should reevaluate the role that science—climate science, in particular—ought to play in shaping public policy. Raw scientific data can tell us quite a bit about what is and is not possible, but they say very little about what we ought to do. As Gould would put it, science and public policy, like science and religion, have different magisteria.

We do need facts, of course

The debates about the role of science in either religion or public policy aren’t entirely analogous, of course. While a scientist probably doesn’t need any knowledge of religion to do effective work in the lab, a clearheaded understanding of some climate science is vital to making good public policy.

Such an understanding might be summarized like this: Human activity, particularly livestock agriculture and burning fossil fuels, releases greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. Accumulating GHGs increases the atmosphere’s ability to retain heat. This, in turn, leads to higher average global temperatures. Because a warmer climate affects a number of natural systems, there already is modest indirect evidence that warming is happening. It also may cause a number of potential future results that we can model but won’t ascertain with any certainty for some time.

Acknowledging the facts of climate science in this dispassionate way provides almost no specific guidance about what public policy ought to be with regard to greenhouse gas emissions. It therefore follows that the people who determine facts about the climate should have no special say in emissions-control policy or, indeed, any other public policy related to climate change.

Scientists can’t decide for us

Scientists have the same rights to participate in the policy process as anyone else in a democracy, and they may well have good ideas. But those ideas should be judged on their merits, not accorded higher status because they emanate from people who spend time in laboratories. Even if all of the world’s top climate scientists came out to support larger solar-power subsidies, a carbon tax, or any other specific policy, this shouldn’t be considered dispositive as to what actions are needed to deal with climate change.

The real question isn’t what scientists think we should do, but rather, what is the most effective policy prescription to deal with the current and potential effects of climate change. Opinions on this question naturally will be informed, at least in part, by political ideology. Those who mistrust market-driven outcomes, value equality over liberty in close cases, and favor more government control over property naturally will favor policies that reflect these values. Those who mistrust government-driven outcomes, value liberty over equality in close cases, and favor more private property—conservatives, in other words—likely will favor different policies.

In general, conservative public policies will reflect more skepticism of government intervention and may seem more timid. But given the complex problems that could result from climate change and the wide range of possible future outcomes debated in the scientific literature, one might argue that humble, even cautious policies probably would be the best course, over the long run. These include policies like a revenue-neutral carbon tax, limits on regulations, ending subsidies for fossil fuels, and cautious, directed public investments in basic research.

Pursuing these policy goals won’t necessarily do more to reduce carbon emissions now, but this strategy leaves open many future options. By contrast, future options could be foreclosed by a big-government cap-and-trade scheme, which could send the economy into a tailspin, or by direct subsidies to politically favored companies, which involve the government picking winners and losers and perhaps making it difficult to achieve true breakthroughs.

Science offers few answers about what mix of policies offers the optimal outcome, given the political economy facts of divergent preferences, ideological commitments, and a need for consensus. Nor should it be asked to provide them.

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