During the late 1970s and early 1980s, despite growing political, scientific, and popular concern about the prospect of melting glaciers, sea-level rise, and more generally, climate-induced societal instability, American high-level science advisers and administrators, scientific committees, national and international scientific organizations, and officials within the Carter administration engineered a politics of restrained management of climate risk. Adopting a strategy of restraint appeared optimal not because of a pervasive disinterest in or ignorance of the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change. Rather, this administrative decision was rooted in widespread skepticism of the public’s ability to regulate their panic given popular dissemination of alarming scenarios of the future. Their concerns were not epistemic; they were sociopolitical. Broad-based appeals to moderation directly informed both scientists and the administration’s eventual decision in 1980 to minimize executive involvement. Despite some environmentalists’ and scientists’ calls for a more proactive position aligned with their ethical perspectives about the future implications of climate change, these linguistic cues of moderation became powerful heuristics that helped shape and anchor assessments of climate risk, calibrate scientists’ advice to policy makers, and regulate public apprehension about climate risk. Ultimately, officials within and outside the science community concluded that the likely short-term costs incurred from immediate action to curb fossil fuel emissions were greater than the social and political costs incurred from maintaining what was considered to be a tempered approach to climate governance in the near-term.

This content is only available via PDF.