28 June 2009

Who Cares About Integrity of Process When There are Political Points to Score?

In January 2006 I wrote a post titled "Let Jim Hansen Speak" in which I called the actions of the Bush Administration to limit the ability of NASA"s most famous scientist to speak out on policy matters "incredibly stupid." This week the blogosphere has been mildly excited (here and here) about an EPA economist named Alan Carlin whose comments on the EPA endangerment finding were buried by his superiors, i.e., not submitted as part of the internal EPA review process, as a matter of concern about how they would be received politically.

This post discusses issues of process related to the ability of civil service experts to have their voices heard on matters of policy related to administration political priorities. As I argued in the similar case of Jim Hansen in 2006, EPA's actions to limit Carlin's ability to have input are simply put, incredibly stupid, for the exact same reasons that NASA's actions under the Bush Administration to try to muzzle Hansen were also incredibly stupid. Here is how I see the Carlin issue:

1. It is without a doubt that his views were suppressed, in the sense that his superiors did not allow them to be included as part of the formal internal EPA review process. That fact is clear from the following email obtained and released by the Competitive Enterprise Institute:

2. For purposes of this discussion of process I am willing to stipulate that the substance of the review materials provided by Alan Carlin are in the words of fellow government civil servant Gavin Schmidt of NASA in a post implicitly condoning the EPA actions,
a ragbag collection of un-peer reviewed web pages, an unhealthy dose of sunstroke, a dash of astrology and more cherries than you can poke a cocktail stick at.
3. I further note that Alan Carlin is not Jim Hansen, most obviously in terms of visibility, but also in the fact that Hansen is a climate scientist and Carlin is an economist. But there is an interesting symmetry in that with respect to the issues of suppressed comments Hansen is a scientist whose offending comments were on economics and policy, whereas Carlin has expertise in economics and policy and is commenting on aspects of climate science.

The relevant question of process is whether the submission's content (#2) or the author's characteristics (#3) justify the actions observed in #1, that is, refusing Carlin the opportunity to have a voice in the EPA review process. This question is exactly parallel to the circumstances involving Jim Hansen and the Bush Administration. My judgment is that #2 and #3 should be irrelevant to #1 -- As I concluded with Hansen, EPA should let Alan Carlin speak. Based on my quick reading of his submission (available here in PDF), Carlin's work poses little threat to the climate science community or the Obama Administration's political agenda. By contrast efforts to keep Carlin's views out of the public record could be much more politically significant (as was the case with Bush Administration and Jim Hansen).

But they probably won't be because the various political camps in the climate debate pretty much operate under an "ends justify the means" mentality these days, and that means that some acts of suppression will be judged more acceptable than others and everything will fall out along pre-existing political cleavages, with little attention or concern about the integrity of process, except among thos seeking to score a few political points. So the same people who complained about Hansen being suppressed under the Bush Adminstration will defend the supression (or more likely just ignore it) in Carlin's situtaion, and vice versa. The climate debate is predictable if nothing else.