I was quite disappointed to see “uncertainty” front-and-center in the arguments yesterday by the EPA lawyer before the Supreme Court:

… now is not the time to exercise such authority, in light of the substantial scientific uncertainty surrounding global climate change and the ongoing studies designed to address those uncertainties.

I thought I’d detected a shift by those opposed to action away from this argument and toward economic and fairness arguments. I guess when your back’s against the wall, you go with what you know.

The argument that there is too much uncertainty to act is a value decision, not a scientific one. Consider this example: the odds of dying in a skydiving accident are about 100,000 to one. You and I can agree on this statistic, but disagree on its implications. I can say, “that’s too risky,” while you might disagree and argue, “I’m jumping — you can’t live your life avoiding risk.”

The situation is the same in the climate debate. You and I can agree completely on what we know and don’t know about the climate, but still disagree on whether this scientific basis compels action. I can say, “we must take action now,” and you can reply, “no, we don’t know enough.” This disagreement is not scientific!

The argument over values is made to sound scientific by mentioning ongoing studies to reduce the uncertainty, the implication being that further studies will clarify the disagreement. This is obviously false if the underlying disagreement is one of values and not science.

That’s true in this case. The “evidence” of scientific uncertainty presented by the EPA consists of a few quotes from a National Academy of Sciences report. In an amicus brief (PDF), several of the authors of that report took pains to point out that these quotes were taken out of context and egregiously misinterpreted. They did not, in fact, say the things that the EPA said they did.

So why make this argument? Because it works. In his now infamous memo (PDF), Republican bad-boy Frank Luntz used focus group data to show that the “uncertainty” argument is extremely effective, especially when used as part of a broader set of arguments that include economic and standard rhetorical components.

I hope the Supreme Court soundly rejects this argument.

PS: If you’re dying to read more about this, see previous blog entries I’ve written on this topic here and here.