06 January 2010

An Inconvenient Democracy: A Guest Post by Nico Stehr and Hans von Storch

An Inconvenient Democracy

Nico Stehr and Hans von Storch

Activist climate scientists and many other observers agree that the Copenhagen climate summit was a failure. In its aftermath, one issue which will be discussed intensively is the role of climate science in political deliberations about climate policy. Can science tell us what to do?

We can glean some insight to this question via the work of the renowned American economist and political scientist Charles E. Lindblom who studied interrelations between knowledge, markets and democracy. These interrelations are just as relevant today, but not just because of the serious effects of the recent financial and economic crisis.

As is well-known, the supposed virtues of a free market can easily be questioned. Many thoughtful and informed observers are skeptical toward unrestrained markets or are self-consciously opposed to the concept of a liberal market. The solution to financial crises is in their eyes, a fencing in of the market by the state and society.

Much less common, however, as Lindblom also stresses, if not taboo, is an open and explicit expression of doubt about the virtues of democracy, with the obvious exception of certain leaders of decidedly undemocratic nations. In particular, it has traditionally been the case that scientists rarely have raised serious misgivings in public about democracy as a political system.

But the times are changing. Within the broad field of climatology and climate policy one is able to discern growing concerns about the virtues of democracy. It is not just the deep divide between knowledge and action that is at issue, but it is an inconvenient democracy, which is identified as the culprit holding back action on climate change. As Mike Hulme has noted , it can be frustrating to learn that citizens have minds of their own.

Leading climate scientists insist that humanity is at a crossroads. A continuation of present economic and political trends leads to disaster if not collapse. To create a globally sustainable way of life, we immediately need in the words of German climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a "great transformation." What exactly is meant by the statement is vague. Part, if not the heart of this great transformation is in the eyes of some climate scientists as well as other scientists part of the great debate about climate change a new political regime and forms of governance: "We need an authoritarian form of government in order to implement the scientific consensus on greenhouse gas emissions" according to the Australian scholars David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith their book The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy. The well-known climate researcher James Hansen adds resignedly and frustrated as well as vaguely, "the democratic process does not work". In The Vanishing Face of Gaia, James Lovelock emphasizes that we need to abandon democracy in order to meet the challenges of climate change head on. We are in a state of war. In order to pull the world out of its state of lethargy, the equivalent of a global warming "nothing but blood, toil, tears and sweat" speech is urgently needed.

Why such a radical political change at any price is deemed essential, and how is it feasible?

For one, various national and global climate policies seem unable to reach their own modest goals, such as those of the expiring Kyoto agreement. Add to those more and more robust findings about the causes and consequences of human-induced climate change and it seems that political action is incompatible with goals set forth by climate policy advocates.

These two factors have led to to a now clearly discernable skeptical attitude towards democracy among some prominent voices in the community of climate scientists and the science of climate policy.

Democracy, an emerging argument holds, is an inappropriate and ineffective political system to meet the challenges of the consequences of climate change in politics and society, particularly in the area of necessary emission reductions. Democratically organized societies are too cumbersome to avoid climate change; they act neither timely nor are they responsive in the necessary comprehensive manner. The "big decisions" to be taken need a strong state. The endless debate should end. We have to act -- that is the most important message. And that is why democracy in the eyes of these observers becomes an inconvenient democracy.
In another historical context, decades ago, Friedrich Hayek pointed to the paradoxical development that follows scientific advances; it tends to strengthen that view that we should “aim at more deliberate and comprehensive control of all human activities”. Hayek pessimistically adds “It is for this reason that those intoxicated by the advance of knowledge so often become the enemies of freedom”.

The growing doubts about the functionality of democracy go hand in hand with a further escalation of warnings about the apocalyptic consequences of global warming for humanity. The so-called Global Humanitarian Forum warns about in a 2009 report about 300,000 heat death losses a year and damages of 125 billion U.S. dollars. That these figures are nothing more than political arithmetic is easily overlooked, when they are used to justify comprehensive global policy action.

Without wanting to follow into the footsteps of the radical skeptics and alarmist: the emerging trend of emphatic criticism of democratic governance can not simply be ignored or considered as marginal voices to be neglected.

In order to understand the dissatisfaction with democracy among some scholars and experts we must understand the underlying dynamics.

First, we are informed that the robustness and the consensus in the science community about human-caused climate change has in recent years not only increased in strength but that a number of recent studies point to far more dramatic and long lasting consequences of global warming than previously thought. In such a circumstance, how is it possible, many scientists ask, that such evidence does not motivate political action in societies around the world?

Secondly, the still dominant approach to climate policy shows little evidence of success. One result of the current global recession may well be an unintended reduction of the increase of CO2 emissions. The worldwide reaction to the economic crisis, however, shows very clearly that governments do not conceive of a reduction in the growth of their wealth of their populations as a useful mechanism toward a reduction of emissions. On the contrary, everything is set in motion worldwide aimed at a resumption of economic growth. Jump starting the economy means the emissions will raise again.

Thirdly, the discussion of options for future climate policies support the impression that the same failed climate policies must remain in place and are the only correct approach; it is simply that these policies have to be become more effective and "rational". It follows that international negotiations must lead to an agreement for concrete, but much broader emission reduction targets. Only a super-Kyoto can still help us.

But how the noble goals of a comprehensive emission reduction can be practically and politically enforced remains in the fog of general declarations of intent and only sharpens the political skepticism of scientists.

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 interest has failed in the face of these threat. According to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman all of this is about nothing less than a betrayal of the planet, and for his colleague Thomas Friedman, evidence that the authoritarian state of China presents a model to be admired and perhaps copied.

Fourth, in the architecture of the reasoning of the impatient critics of democracy, one notes an inappropriate fusion of nature and society. The uncertainties that the science of the natural processes (climate) claims to have eliminated, is simply transferred to the domain of societal processes. Consensus on facts, it is argued, should motivate a consensus on politics. The constitutive uncertainties of social, political and economic are treated as minor obstacles that need to be delimited as soon as possible - of course by a top-down approach.

Fifth, the discourse of the impatient scientists privileges hegemonic players such as world powers, states, transnational organizations, multinational corporations. Participatory strategies are only rarely in evidence. Likewise, global mitigation has precedence over local adaptation. "Global" knowledge triumphs over "local" knowledge.

Finally, the growing impatience of prominent climate researchers constitutes an implicit embrace of now popular social theories. We think in this context especially of Jared Diamond’s theories on the fate of human societies. Diamond argues that only those societies have a chance of survival which practice sustainable lifestyles. Climate researchers have evidently been impressed by Diamond’s deterministic social theory. However, they have drawn the wrong conclusion, namely that only authoritarian political states guided by scientists make effective and correct decisions on the climate issue. History teaches us that the opposite is the case.

Therefore, today's China cannot serve as a model. Climate policy must be compatible with democracy, otherwise the threat to civilization will be much more than just changes to our physical environment.

Nico Stehr, Karl Mannheim Professor of Cultural Studies, Zeppelin University, Germany Hans von Storch, Professor of Meteorology, University of Hamburg, Germany and Director of the Institute of Coastal Research, GKSS, Germany.

Note: A version of this post was published in Der Spiegel 29 Dec 2009.