Law in Contemporary Society

Climate Change, Creeds, and Expertise

I. A problem: Climate change is a priority justice issue

There is an international scientific consensus that climate change is real, and that it will hurt us badly and our children worse. Thus, it is past time to focus public debate on the justice dimension of climate change. Climate change should be considered a top priority justice issue because it is a phenomenon which will inflict great amounts of irreversible damage on many people, organisms and places. This damage is unjust because it can be ameliorated but we are not taking the steps necessary to do so.

Having identified a moral problem which needs to be addressed, the next step is to organize a response. Identifying opportunities and exploiting them requires a strategy, which can be defined as the matching of finite resources to objectives with a plan.

II. A resource: The creed of expertise

Ideologies and institutions

Ideologies can be thought of as resources, because they can help build and hold together things, like institutions. "Creed" is a colorful shorthand term used by Thurman Arnold for ideology. Arnold shies away from precisely defining his concept of a creed, believing precision in definition can inhibit, rather than enhance understanding. 33. However, in his discussion, he indicates that a creed is a system of unconscious beliefs that serve as categories of perception which organize reality and rationalize the status quo. They serve as an organizational glue for groups any significant size, from cities to corporations to countries.

Creeds do so through specifying a panoply of deities as examples of qualities to be emulated or scorned. For example, Arnold identifies the American businessman as the primary divinity of the American creed. The Devil, conversely, is represented by government interference. 37.

The creed of expertise

If the New Deal represented in the American imagination a titanic battle between the avatars of government and business, one of the lesser deities which profited from the conflict and developed its own minor creed was the expert. During the New Deal, President Roosevelt recruited a corps of bright lawyers, including Felix Cohen and Thurman Arnold, to help administer the complex new "alphabet soup" of agencies created.

The vast American administrative state came to be legitimized through a creed of expertise. Congress justifies delegating great decision-making discretion to agencies, and thus avoiding themselves the political costs of making a decision, on grounds of the powers that experts possess a unique ability to identify the correct answer to the problems at hand. The power of these agencies is legitimated through a belief that it is not politics which motivates their decisions, but apolitical expertise. Thus, the devil of government interference gains a toehold in the American imagination through the wiles of his apprentice demon, the expert.

III. Climate change and the creed of expertise

Climate change brings the issues of expertise to a head, since it pits the scientific community against powerful status quo interests. Arnold is doubtful that the so-called “Thinking Man,” the notional rational citizen who is responsive to scientific pleas, has much political power.

Yet, paradoxically, expertise can be a creed itself. Scientists in the United States benefit not only from scientific authority emanating from their curriculum vitae, but also a kind of moral authority emanating from their white lab coats.

Environmentalists can make use of the creed of expertise to advance stronger climate policies. It may be that complex scientific arguments, qua arguments, generate little political force, because most citizens will not be interested in assessing climatological arguments on the merits. However, being able to claim the mantle of science can help bolster and legitimize claims about policy. The key issue is to avoid being drawn “down into the weeds” of scientific minutiae, but rather to articulate the big-picture message that science is on the side of the environmentalists.

This is not to endorse postmodernist spin: the environmentalists possess the considerable advantage that the policies they advocate actually do accord with what the best science tells us about how to protect the conditions of human flourishing. The challenge will be to get that message out, quickly, and effectively.


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r18 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:14:12 - IanSullivan
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