Liberty is a daughter of knowledge or the inconvenience of democracy

“It is distressing that, despite the clarity and imminence of the danger of continued high fossil fuel emissions, governments continue to allow and even encourage pursuit of ever more fossil fuels. … our objective is to define what the science indicates is needed…. we suggest that rapid transition off fossil fuels would have numerous near-term and long-term social benefits, including improved human health and outstanding potential for job creation.

…If this treaty is analogous to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol …, climate deterioration and gross intergenerational injustice will be practically guaranteed. … Norway, which along with the other Scandinavian countries has been among the most ambitious and successful of all nations in reducing its emissions, nevertheless approves expanded oil drilling in the Arctic and development of tar sands as a majority owner of Statoil. Emissions foreseen by the Energy Perspectives of Statoil … would … cause dramatic climate change that would run out of control of future generations. If, in contrast, leading nations agree … to have internal rising fees on carbon with border duties on products from nations without a carbon fee, a foundation would be established for phaseover to carbon free energies and stable climate.” Hansen et al., 2013

I am surprised by the vehement reaction to Nico Stehr’s new commentary in Nature. The following is hugely subjective and dependent on my perception of the online-debate on our dearest topic, climate change. I thought his argument not too far off. He writes a timely reminder although he may exaggerate – well, he does – and his examples are, unfortunately, not well chosen (see quote of Klimazwiebel-comment by Werner Krauss at the bottom of this post). The timeliness is conditional on one thing, namely, that I replace “climate scientists” by “some scientists, activists, and commentators”. The underlying assumption here is, at least for me, that democracy is still rather a delicate flower, and that democratic values are too easily brushed away if it seems to serve a bigger aim – e.g., security, the war against terrorism, etc.

Stehr’s argument is approximately the following. The frustration of scientists leads many of them to propose a more technocratic way of governance. He equates this with a technocracy whose implicit autocratic structures are in contrast to our democratic values.

While from my point of view implicit proposals for an autocratic form of climate governance are not uncommon in commentaries on climate policy and general climate activism, I still think the use of “many scientists” in his piece mis-addresses the concerns. Stehr’s text is titled “Climate policy: Democracy is not an inconvenience”. If I recall correctly, he is not the first to note that, in the climate debate, democracy is sometimes depicted as a hindrance, an inconvenient part of the process. From policy-prescribing articles to frustration about “Not in my backyard”, from consensus to prosecution, from false-balance-arguments to “unacceptable” attitudes, in all this democratic values sometimes appear to have to take a back seat – though possibly that is an involuntary effect.

Stehr’s argument starts from scientists(, activists, and commentators) voicing frustration about the lack of action which I think is a fair analysis. A frustration that subjectively indeed can lead to arguments which possibly involuntarily side-step democratic values. Therefore, Stehr’s concerns are in place though exaggerated.

It is interesting that Stehr appears to ignore that technocratic mechanisms are not so uncommon in our societies. Technocrats in multiple topics directly influence policies without a vote of the electorate.

As a side-note, Stehr draws a parallel between the “angry citizens” of UKIP and Pegida and scientist who feel unheard. Obviously the feeling of an unconcerned political elite pervades diverse social groups. Nevertheless the implicit equalization stretches Stehr’s argument beyond the breaking point.

Stehr diagnoses “a tendency to want to … put the decisions into the hands of scientists themselves,” which I cannot perceive. There is a sentiment that knowledge should lead to action. “Truth” should speak to power. “Truth” should lead to action. But this does not imply “taking action into one’s own hands”. Indeed, I am a bit surprised to read this from Stehr. Similarly, I am not convinced that scientists “…disenchantment with democracy has slipped under the radar of many social scientists”. If I recollect correctly, there are a number of publications on the broader topic – not least as far as I know by Stehr himself[?].

A further claim is that “many people” argued for “a technocracy, in which decisions are made by those with technical knowledge” and that there is a shift “from a purely advisory role towards policy prescription.” I think the last point is true, there is a tendency to try to be slightly more prescriptive in assessments. However, I am not sure that there are “many” scientists – though possibly many activists – who propose a policy prescriptive role. I don’t think that there is any relevant number of people proposing a technocracy. Technocratic elements are a common feature in modern democracies. Thus, it is not surprising that technocratic structures are proposed for the implementation of climate policies. This, however, does not imply setting aside the electorate. Nevertheless Stehr interprets it as “argument for an authoritarian political approach” which I again think is an unwarranted leap.

“Scientific knowledge is neither immediately performative nor persuasive.” While it is certainly true that some would like this to be untrue, it does not really contribute to any argument here.

When Stehr writes, “The erosion of democracy is an unnecessary suppression of social complexity and rights,” we likely learn about his core-concern. It is not necessarily the abolishment of democracy but its subtle erosion. An argument that is also made with respect to CCTV, internet surveillance [Hi there] and the war on terror. It is a valid argument that we should always consider. Is it warranted in the discussions on climate policy? Above I said “yes, but …”.

Stehr closes, “It is dangerous to blindly believe that science and scientists alone can tell us what to do.” I didn’t and I don’t see the big problem with this point, but it was possibly the one that drew the most ire on Twitter? I think, there is a pervasive tendency in climate commentaries and climate activism to see (climate) science and the answers of (climate) scientists as the ultimate guiding pile. This is not dangerous as long as the delicate flower democracy is also “well-fortified”. However, if the view that science alone could guide us became dominant, I would see a risk that what counted as science or what science told us might clash with our democratic values.

Anyway, possibly Stehr is only advertising his new book to be published in January 2016, that no-one will buy except libraries because it costs 100€ (or 30, if you buy the German version published this summer).

(See also Reiner Grundmann’s text at the Klimazwiebel or ATTP’s text. Der Spiegel’s Axel Bojanowski also weighs in. I am not going to link to the BigThink-piece here. You’ll find it if you want to.)

Some tweets:

And the one I agree with

Werner Krauss comments at the above Klimazwiebel-link

Nico Stehr writes: “Academics increasingly point to democracy as a reason for failure. NASA climate researcher James Hansen was quoted in 2009 in The Guardian as saying: “the democratic process doesn’t quite seem to be working”.

In my understanding, in the interview James Hansen does not blame democracy as a reason for failure; quite the contrary, he blames the erosion of the democratic process as a reason for failure. He wants to save democracy and not replace it by an authoritarian regime, as Nico Stehr suggests.

Here the quote in context of the interview:

“James Hansen, a climate modeller with Nasa, told the Guardian today that corporate lobbying has undermined democratic attempts to curb carbon pollution. “The democratic process doesn’t quite seem to be working,” he said.

Speaking on the eve of joining a protest against the headquarters of power firm E.ON in Coventry, Hansen said: “The first action that people should take is to use the democratic process. What is frustrating people, me included, is that democratic action affects elections but what we get then from political leaders is greenwash.

“The democratic process is supposed to be one person one vote, but it turns out that money is talking louder than the votes. So, I’m not surprised that people are getting frustrated. I think that peaceful demonstration is not out of order, because we’re running out of time.”

Based on this quote, I do not understand why Nico Stehr brings James Hansen into context with the racists from Pegida, the right-wingers of the Tea Party or Front National, or anti-democratic intentions in general. Not everybody who blames lobbyism or corruption is a member of Pegida or an anti-democrat.

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