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CSS colloquium: Gabriel Henderson, CSS

"Between Complacency and Panic” – The Heuristics of American Climate Governance during the Carter Years, 1977-1980

Info about event


Wednesday 26 October 2016,  at 14:15 - 15:45


Koll G4 (1532-222)

On July 7, 1977, Frank Press wrote a memo to President Jimmy Carter outlining his assessment of the risks of carbon dioxide to human society, as well as his own prescription for managing such matters within the context of national energy policy. Given growing awareness about the carbon dioxide threat by members of congress and the scientific community, Press agreed that the matter had evolved from merely “speculation to a serious hypothesis worthy of a response that is neither complacent nor panicky.” In hindsight, this was quite a statement. As director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which was and still is the highest ranking scientist within the American federal government, Press used his judgment as a scientist and as an administrator to reconcile his own awareness of the “potentially catastrophic” consequences of carbon dioxide with his own commitments to rational governance. What this meant in practice was straight forward: he felt that the urgency of carbon dioxide was significant enough to justify continued research into the nature of climatic variability, but he did not believe that the issue was urgent enough to justify “emergency action to limit the consumption of fossil fuels in the near term.”
But given the high stakes involved in not limiting fossil fuels, why would Press advocate such a moderate approach to climate governance? Part of the explanation rests with what Sheldon Chow calls the concept of inferential heuristics, a type of reasoning used to facilitate judgment, inferences, and decision making. By examining the degree to which Press and others justified their restraint by appealing to a rhetorical middle ground between complacency and panic, this presentation investigates how scientists and policy makers during the late 1970s used both their scientific expertise and political judgments to say something meaningful not only about future environmental threats but how American society should respond. To be sure, the employment of such heuristics within the context of climate governance was more reflective of existing political exigencies than an adherence to existing laws of nature. There was no equation or empirical fact that led necessarily to the acceptance of such heuristics, nor were there any advisers who had more experience in climate governance than others. This heuristic was created by and for scientists wishing to maintain their credibility given the range of scientific uncertainties that existed, and as such their adoption says more about the manner in which scientists assessed risk than any objective measure of danger posed by fossil fuel emissions.