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Nico Stehr: Good Climate, Bad Democracy

Nico Stehr, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

An increasing number of climatologists are critics of democracy. Only autocratic governments could avert catastrophe, they believe. 

Disasters, such as a refugee crisis, a stock market crash, an extreme weather event or the bursting of a speculative bubble seem to hit democratic societies almost always by surprise. Climate change is, however, no calamity, but it can be a political disaster. Therefore, climate change should not be seen primarily as an environmental or economic problem, but as a question of political governability of modern societies.

There are many threats to democracy these days. Not the least is the widespread feeling not to be heard or represented by the political class. This dissatisfaction ranges from the tea party movement in the United States, to Ukip in the UK, to the Pegida protesters in Germany and to the Front National in France.

There is also a change of mind among scientists today. Among climatologists, in climate policy and the news media, there is a growing impatience with the virtues of democracy in the face of robust findings about global warming. Their claim to urgency and the exceptional circumstances of our present environmental situation remain largely without precautionary response both politically and socially. However, not only is the deep gulf between knowledge claims and political action deplored. Increasingly what is considered an annoyingly ineffective democracy is also condemned as guilty of inaction.

Slow democracies

Leading climate scientists are right to stress that humanity is at a historic crossroad. Should we continue economically and politically as before, they claim, our path would lead inevitably to the disaster that endangers the survival of mankind (sic). In order to realise a globally sustainable lifestyle, we would need an immediate “great transformation”, as demanded by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

However, what exactly is meant by this transformation often remains vague. Part of the solution of this ‘great transformation’, if not at its core, is a new political order, according to some climate scientists – and others who have been participating in the debate. “We need an authoritarian form of government to implement the scientific consensus on greenhouse gas emissions,” the Australians David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith emphasise in their book The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy.

The American climatologist James Hansen, disillusioned and inaccurately adds that the democratic process is not working when it comes to climate change. And in his book The Vanishing Face of Gaia James Lovelock even demanded to give up democracy in order to meet the challenges of climate change since we were in a state of war. The British historian Eric Hobsbawm doubted that democracies were in a position to meet challenges such as climate change, considering their slowness and lack of political coverage.

Enemies of freedom

Why is this radical political change seen as necessary at all cost? The question is rather whether this is the only possible policy approach dealing with the consequences of climate change. Firstly, both national and global climate policies are evidently unable to implement their own modest goals, such as those laid down in the expiring Kyoto Protocol for example. There are also insights into the more and more compelling causes and consequences of human-induced climate change. Both factors are increasing the scepticism about democracy among climatologists.

It is important to recognise that a diagnosis of unsuitable climate policy is focused primarily on its causes, that is, on the reduction of greenhouse gases. By focusing primarily on this question, and only secondarily, if at all, focusing on the effects of warming, a socio-political question is largely reduced to a technical question.

One result of this often one-sided approach to the problem of climate change is its de-politicisation accompanied by a simultaneous politicisation of climate science. By emphasising mainly the aspects of mitigation, the impression is created that the solution to the climate issue would only need technical regulation and implementation. Given the already inevitable warming of the global climate in the medium-term, this is one of two dangerous fallacies.

One can describe the widespread scepticism like this: democracy is inappropriate to respond effectively to the challenges faced by politics and society, given the consequences of climate change. Democratically organised societies act neither timely nor comprehensive. Therefore, a strong state must make the big decisions and stop the endless debate in this way. ‘It is necessary to act now’, is their motto. In the eyes of these commentators democracy thus becomes an uncomfortable as well as an inconvenient democracy.

In another historical context, the economist and social philosopher Friedrich Hayek has called attention to the paradoxical development that the impression of a massive reduction of “ignorance” within science increases the belief of the public and some scientists that we could therefore aspire to “a comprehensive and conscious control of all human activities”. “And for this reason,” Hayek added resignedly, “the people, who are intoxicated by the progress of knowledge, so often become enemies of freedom.”

Experts demand power

The growing doubt about the functionality of democracy and the suspicion that the values ​​and motives of the people are rigid goes hand in hand with a further escalation of warnings about the apocalyptic consequences of global warming for humanity during the Paris climate conference. After all, it is not just an annoying democracy which would lead civilization ever faster “back to the Stone Age”, as some observers believe. They also believe the iron grip of climate change itself could wipe out the freedoms and opportunities for people and thus the social foundations of democracy within a few years or decades. Bringing both observations together, these observers come to the conclusion that democracy can only be saved by the abolition of democracy.

The claim that the virtues of democracy have failed must not be accepted fatalistically, or brushed aside as a marginal view. We are confronted with the demands and aspirations of “experts who demand the power to lead because they believe that only in this way their specialist knowledge comes into its own”, to quote Hayek once again.

The generally pessimistic assessment of the ability of democracies to cope with exceptional circumstances and to keep them under control is, paradoxically – and even if only implicitly – linked with an optimistic assessment of the potential of central planning.

Political nature of knowledge

The second dangerous fallacy of people arguing against democracy is based on the immediate performativity of scientific findings: there is an erroneous understanding of knowledge at work here, because scientific knowledge is not immediately performative. If that were the case, knowledge could be equated with practical reason and would be immediately persuasive, that is, knowledge would convince without any resistance. One of the fundamental flaws in the portrait of the unpleasant democracy is the failure to recognise the social nature of knowledge in general and the controversial nature of political knowledge in particular.

When it comes to effective responses to the social threats associated with climate change, the alternative to the abolition of democratic governments is thus: more democracy and worldwide participation opportunities and knowledge enhancement and dissemination by individuals, groups and movements that deal with environmental problems. The existence of “treacherous” policy issues, i.e. issues such as climate change, which include open, complex and insufficiently researched systems, and of social complexity do not contradict democracy and the possibility of democratic participation.

A scientific study of the political and social handling of the consequences of climate change has hardly been done yet. A close collaboration between natural and social scientists would be necessary. The crucial question is whether we can deal politically with the social consequences of climate change without compromising our freedom and thus democracy.

Translation Philipp Mueller

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 1 December 2015