In his recent essay, Rupert Darwall quotes my colleague Jerry Taylor on the reality of climate science, and ties his beliefs about climate science to our institutional support for a carbon tax.

“Basic physics explains it. If global warming isn’t happening, then virtually everything we know about physics is wrong,” states Jerry Taylor, president of a group that advocates for imposing a carbon tax on the United States. In so many words, Taylor says that the case for cutting carbon dioxide emissions is incontrovertible: Science demands conservatives support a carbon tax.

Summarizing our position to be that science demands conservatives support a carbon tax is a bit of a short circuit, so it is worth a brief note to reemphasize the path from scientific belief to policy preferences. For a deeper dive, see Jerry’s piece from the Milken Institute Review.

The primary message that we draw from the scientific literature is that there is little doubt industrial emissions are now a leading cause of global warming, and the degree of warming over this century and beyond will largely be a function of the extent of future emissions. That said, there is a great deal of uncertainty about how much warming we will encounter that compounds with uncertainty about how warming will manifest. That very uncertainty tells us that there exists a planetary, non-diversifiable, risk associated with CO2 emissions. It’s not a big jump to conclude that reducing CO2 emissions reduces the potential severity of those risks.

From here, political and policy preferences take us to a carbon tax, starting with the argument that in many other contexts, vested agents pay to avoid big risks (maybe a lot). If it is justifiable that we pay to avoid climate risks, then paying the least necessary is probably best, and that leads us to a carbon tax. But these are not judgements of science and the difference should be clearly stated.

Of course, the nature of climate risks, their potential severity, and the price we should assign carbon emissions are questions that can be partially informed by science. Thus, properly calibrated estimates of uncertainty and risk are desirable. How do we do that in a complex field like climate science? Darwall’s essay continues to analyze how scientists talk about uncertainty as individuals and amongst themselves. We’ll continue there in another piece.