Friday, December 01, 2006

Global Warming, Intelligent Design, and Moo

[With apologies for the use of mild profanity in this post. . .]

In one of my favorite novels, Jane Smiley’s Moo, there is a scene in which an economist is giving a lecture extolling the virtues of commercial exploitation of what had been a delicate ecosystem in Central America. In the audience, the novel’s main character, the Chairman of the Botany Department (called Chairman X), sits fuming at the economist’s utter disregard for any notion of value other than short-term dollars and cents. Chairman X is so filled with rage that as his hand shoots up to ask the first question after the lecture, he feels himself unable to form any query other than “What kind of ignorant asshole are you?” Yet somehow, when he does open his mouth, he asks a more conventional, less rude question.

In working on my next FindLaw column, which will use the oral argument in Massachusetts v. EPA, the global warming case, as an illustration of what’s wrong with the Supreme Court’s standing doctrine, my eyes fixed on the following piece of double-speak from the Deputy Solicitor General (who shouldn’t himself be blamed for it, since he’s only representing the position of the Bush Administration):

I think one thing that we ought to be able to agree on is there is that there is uncertainty surrounding the phenomenon of global climate change. I think the debate is on which areas are more uncertain than the others. But certainly I think the agency was entitled to conclude, particularly if you take into account the deference this Court should give to that kind of determination, that the scientific uncertainty surrounding the issue of global climate change, surrounding issues of the extent of natural variability in climate, surrounding the issues of impact of climate feedbacks like ocean circulation, and low cloud cover, are permissible considerations for the agency to take into[account].

This statement was offered in defense of EPA’s decision that it is too early even to make a judgment about whether man-made carbon dioxide emissions are a threat warranting regulation and it reminds me of nothing so much as the view of creationists (oh, I’m sorry, I mean intelligent designists) who say that because there is uncertainty over such matters as exactly which Australopithicenes were human ancestors or what all of the intermediate stages were in the development of various complex organs among vertebrates, there is therefore substantial uncertainty about evolution itself. But more directly to the point, the Deputy SG’s argument that “ooh this stuff sure is complicated, better not worry your pretty little lawyer heads about it and leave it to the expert agency, which is patiently waiting to be absolutely sure that global warming has caused catastrophic and irreversible damage” left me wondering how the Justices could bring themselves to ask anything other than “what kind of ignorant asshole are you?” Yet, like Chairman X in Moo, Justice Stevens in fact asked a polite question in response to the above-quoted mush.