Roger Pielke Jr.: climate science is a grab for power

Summary: Politics infuses all realms of American society, including science. Roger Pielke Jr explains how science has become a way to take control – for the best of motives. It shows the eternal will to power that lies within each of us, released from its institutional leashes. It is a corruption we cannot afford.

A grabbing hand


Planetary Boundaries as Power Grab

By Roger Pielke Jr. at his website, 4 April 2013.
Posted with his generous permission.


Writing at the Huffington Post UK, Professor Melissa Leach, Director of the Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability Centre at Sussex University, asks a provocative question.

“When the cover of the Economist famously announced ‘Welcome to the anthropocene‘ a couple of years ago, was it welcoming us to a new geological epoch, or a dangerous new world of undisputed scientific authority and anti-democratic politics?”

The occasion for raising this question was Leach’s participation last month in a United Nations’ meeting of experts on the development of new sustainable development goals. Leach describes a meeting in which scientific authority was invoked as the basis for closing down debates over policy and asserting the preeminent roles of experts in charting a course for future global development.

Melissa Leach

“This meeting – and many others like it in the run up to September – raise a significant question: is there a contradiction between the world of the anthropocene, and democracy?

“The anthropocene, with its associated concepts of planetary boundaries and ‘hard’ environmental threats and limits, encourage a focus on clear single goals and solutions. It is co-constructed with ideas of scientific authority and incontrovertible evidence; with the closing down of uncertainty or at least its reduction into clear, manageable risks and consensual messages.

“This is a far cry – as a South African participant pointed out – from some other worlds: on the ground in the global south and north, where people and social movements debate and contest their interests, values and desired futures; and the world according to democratic theory, in which such politics are worth acknowledging and respecting. In this world, there is a need to open up, make uncertainty and ambiguity and dissensus explicit, and foster diversity to cope with it.”

The basis for the power grab by the experts – really old wine in new bottles (see Governing the World: The History of an Idea by Mark Mazower, 2012) – is the fashionable idea of “planetary boundaries” which holds that there are hard and fast ecological limits within which human activity must be constrained. The concept is much contested scientifically – such as in this excellent review by my colleagues at The Breakthrough Institute.

However, as an instrument of scientific authority in political debates the concept of planetary boundaries could not be more perfect. Frank Biermann of VU University Amsterdam explains in Earth System Governance: World Politics in the Anthropocene (2014) …

“Since the assessment of planetary boundaries is inherently political, scientists involved in this process become inadvertently also political actors. This raises fundamental questions about the legitimacy and accountability of scientific assessment processes …”

For the proponents of planetary boundaries as political authority, issues of legitimacy and accountability are easily dealt with through the incontestable authority of science. Consequently, they argue that the tradition conception of sustainable development as a challenge of trading off competing values – environmental, social, economic – needs instead to be rethought in hierarchical terms. They explain and illustrate the need as follows (from this recent paper in Nature).

new climate paradigm

“[W]e need to reframe the UN paradigm of three pillars of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental – and instead view it as a nested concept.”

In the hierarchical axiology, the trump values are defined by the planetary boundaries.

Who, you may ask, is responsible for identifying and enforcing those values? Why, the experts, of course. The power implications of planetary boundaries were spelled out explicitly by several of its leading advocates as follows …

“Ultimately, there will need to be an institution (or institutions) operating, with authority, above the level of individual countries to ensure that the planetary boundaries are respected. In effect, such an institution, acting on behalf of humanity as a whole, would be the ultimate arbiter of the myriad trade-offs that need to be managed as nations and groups of people jockey for economic and social advantage. It would, in essence, become the global referee on the planetary playing field.”

The political model that underlies the power grab of scientists is one of “trusteeship” a form of which was described by PIK’s John Schellnhuber, an early advocate of the planetary boundaries model of global politics, in Der Spiegel.

“Ultimately only democratic societies will be able to master this challenge, notwithstanding their torturous decision-making processes. But to get there perhaps we’ll need innovative refinement of our democratic institutions. I could imagine assigning 10% of all seats in parliament to ombudsmen who represent only the interests of future generations.”

An expert body of the German government memorialized the political philosophy in a comic book (illustrated below, here in PDF), complete with the scientist (Schellnhuber himself in this case) symbolically above the policy maker, describing a planetary boundary condition and as a consequence, President Obama in the panel below expressing concern that action is needed.

Schellnhuber comic
A real-world example of the implications of the planetary boundaries political philosophy is vividly seen through the issue of global energy access. Future global development, at least in the short term, necessarily will involve trade offs between expanded use of carbon-emitting fossil fuels and the expansion of energy access to the world’s poorest. The planetary boundaries advocates, consistent with their hierarchical values framework, call for “universal clean energy” and recommend development targets focused not on measuring expanded energy access, but rather carbon dioxide emissions (here in PDF).

In other words, expanded energy access to the world’s poorest is deemed acceptable only if it first satisfies the demands of planetary boundaries – in other words, the political demands of the scientists couched in the inviolable authority of science. As Shellenhuber explains

“I have nothing against economic growth, as long as it does not break through the planetary guardrails.”

Nico Stehr

In a recent essay, Nico Stehr, of Zeppelin University, characterizes dissatisfaction about democracy among climate experts, and explains the general underlying perspective:

“Consensus on facts, it is argued, should motivate a consensus on politics. The constitutive social, political and economic uncertainties are treated as minor obstacles that need to be delimited as soon as possible – of course by a top-down approach. …the discourse of the impatient scientists privileges hegemonic players such as world powers, states, transnational organizations, and multinational corporations. Participatory strategies are only rarely in evidence.

“Likewise, global mitigation has precedence over local adaptation. ‘Global’ knowledge triumphs over ‘local’ knowledge. …the sum of these considerations is the conclusion that democracy itself is inappropriate, that the slow procedures for implementation and management of specific, policy-relevant scientific knowledge leads to massive, unknown dangers. The democratic system designed to balance divergent interests has failed in the face of these threats.”

Stehr’s explanation aptly summarizes the play book used by the experts at the United Nations meeting described by Leach in their efforts to assert authority over high level decisions on the future course of global development. Leach ends her essay with an ominous warning.

“[T]he human rights and well-being that are under threat in the anthropocene may prove not just to be material rights to food, water and energy, but also rights to voice, priorities, perspectives and culturally-embedded ways of life.”


In the comments Melissa Leach weighs in with further thoughts.

Victor Galaz, of the Stockholm Resilience Center, says that this post is focused on a straw man. Read his response here and we start a discussion in the comments.


Roger Pielke Jr
Roger Pielke Jr.

About the author

Roger Pielke, Jr. is a Professor of Environmental Studies at the U of CO-Boulder. He was Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. He is now Director of the Sports Governance Center in the Dept of Athletics. Before joining the faculty of the U of CO, from 1993-2001 he was a Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

His research focuses on science, innovation and politics. He holds degrees in mathematics, public policy and political science from the University of Colorado. In 2006 he received the Eduard Brückner Prize in Munich for outstanding achievement in interdisciplinary climate research. In 2012 Roger was awarded an honorary doctorate from Linköping University in Sweden and the Public Service Award of the Geological Society of America.

His page at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research has his bio, CV, and links to some of his publications. His website has links to his works, and essays about the many subjects on which he works.

He is also author, co-author or co-editor of seven books, including The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics (2007), The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming (2010), The Edge: The War against Cheating and Corruption in the Cutthroat World of Elite Sports (2016), and his latest work (a revision of his 2014 book) – The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters & Climate Change (see below).

Some of his recent publications.

For More Information

For more about this issue, see Scientists as both experts and political myth-makers.

Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change, all posts about Roger Pielke Jr., and especially these …

  1. Important: Climate scientists can restart the climate change debate – & win.
  2. Ignoring science to convince the public that we’re doomed by climate change.
  3. Focusing on worst case climate futures doesn’t work. It shouldn’t work.
  4. Manichean paranoia has poisoned the climate debate.
  5. Paul Krugman shows why the climate campaign failed.
  6. A new paper shows why the climate policy debate is broken.
  7. The irresistible foe preventing action to fight climate change.
  8. Scientists show us why the climate change campaign failed.

See how science has become corrupted and can be reformed.

Disasters and Climate Change
The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters & Climate Change

… see Pielke’s new book, the revised second edition of The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters & Climate Change. See my review of the first edition. Here is the publisher’s summary …

“After nearly every hurricane, heatwave, drought, or other extreme weather event, commentators rush to link the disaster with climate change. But what does the science say?

“In this fully revised and updated edition of Disasters & Climate Change, renowned political scientist Roger Pielke Jr. takes a close look at the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the underlying scientific research, and the climate data to give you the latest science on how climate change is related to extreme weather. What he finds may surprise you and raise questions about the role of science in political debates.”

3 thoughts on “Roger Pielke Jr.: climate science is a grab for power”

  1. I disagree that Pielke’s is a strawman. It is a warning. IMO, the arguments advanced by Blomqvist and Galaz ignore the nature of how such governance will develop while Pielke gives us the most likely path. IMO, the most telling indication that these persons are out of their territory, and not Pielke, and their proposed institutions would develop as Pielke warned, is contained in

    ““within this overall target corridor, the nine boundaries leave human societies ample space for different political choices and socio-economic development trajectories. These socio-economic development trajectories—within the safe operating space set by the planetary boundaries—are left open to the democratic political process and intergovernmental negotiation. […]. The planetary boundaries do not determine any “limits to growth”, but set limits to the total human impact on planetary systems.”” from Biermann.

    The first problem is who gets to define “ample.” To say that this does not enter the world of politics is worse that naive, it is delusional, IMO. Next, just ask the question and then answer it, Will “different political choices and socio-economic development trajectories” have to meet their own criteria or those enforced from above? They even state a top down approach will be used. Note, IMO, the stupid statement “The planetary boundaries do not determine any “limits to growth”, but set limits to the total human impact on planetary systems.” In top down approach, control is always about permission and hierarchy from the top. The answer is in their text “set limits”. Even worse, they outline an unscientific statement; it is a political statement. In science, the growth limiting factor is a recognized phenomena in chemistry, biology, physics to name some big groups. The growth limiting factor is BY DEFINITION the planetary boundaries.

    You would think that they are purposefully misrepresenting their case by the use of socio! Where is the politico if not the policy itself. They appear to be trying to fool people into not noticing this will be a political task to end up in this position. They also, hilariously use a big pie to express their paradigm. One can see who gets the bigger part of the pie. One may think this is a juvenile comparison. It most definitely is not. It shows the true nature of how limits and possibilities will be controlled and constrained. So, look at the pie. The ONLY way to make this work is a rigid POLITICAL system. Yet, Pielke’s opponents claim otherwise.

    A few last items in a few words. The precautionary principle in this context would result in enforced stagnation. Bureaucracies always control and slow, and get more so with age. The pie indicates as our population gets larger, in the Society part, the economy has to get smaller in stagnant world. Who has the guns and who gets to pick the survivors?

  2. The really remarkable thing about the global warming movement is that even if you concede the causal account and the predictions of disaster, the advocated measures are obviously ineffective. There is also a general refusal to advocate the measures which the theory does require and which, if its correct, would be both necessary and effective.

    As an example, California is considering making all the electricity used carbon-neutral by 2045. This will have little impact on California’s emissions, even less on the US emissions, and none on global emissions. At the same time, if California was really serious about lowering its own emissions, it would have to dramatically reduce cars and trucks. The people who claim to be furiously persuaded of the merits of going to zero emissions electricity on the grounds that it will reduce emissions will not even consider that.

    And then, if we look at the global picture, 75% of global emissions, and the sources of emission growth, are in China and the developing world. China does a good third of global emissions. But you will find no climate activists who advocate that China should reduce its 10+ billion tons a year. In fact, raise this on any of the activist blogs and you will meet with a chorus of abuse.

    If you think of analogous social policy issues, the weirdness becomes clear. Imagine someone arguing that regional discharges of raw sewage into a river were causing cholera and had to be stopped, but refusing to ask a city which does one third and rising of the discharges to clean up? Imagine offering the argument that it had low per capita discharges, or that it had historically discharged very little so it was only fair it should catch up?

    All activist movements which cannot persuade eventually end up with some variant of the doctrine of false consciousness. As Pielke documents, this is happening with global warming and the proposed policy remedies. The thing that is remarkable is that the suspension of democracy which is claimed to be required is to bring about measures which, in the theory’s own terms, would do nothing to avert the claimed danger.

    There is an interesting comparison to be made with that other great contemporary science/policy disaster: the advocacy of the low fat diet. The common factor is the lack of evidential justification in the established science for the remedies proposed.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “the advocated measures are obviously ineffective.”

      I see what you mean (eg, the Paris agreement), but disagree.

      First, the advocated measures are effective at gaining political power. Many on the Left have been clear since the movement began about their rea motives.

      Second, politics is about incremental change. Advocates are wisely going for the most effective measures they have a change of implementing. While not sufficient, every journey begins with a first step. Note that they have not been able to take even big first steps (eg, carbon tax) in the US — so they can’t be accused of trying for too little.

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