Who Governs the Climate?

Against the Antipolitics Machine

One of the many dividing lines in climate change debates is between those, on the one hand, who think that climate change is such a totalizing and overwhelming existential threat that normal politics must be suspended and those, on the other, who recognize that human life is political before it is natural. Australian environmental lawyer Lisa Caripis from the University of Melbourne is clear on which side of this divide she sits.

In a recent Guardian commentary, Caripis argues that dealing with climate change is too important to be left to political process. In the context of recent political developments in Australia ahead of national elections in a few weeks’ time, Caripis wants to get climate change out of politics and to let parliament be led by the advice of impartial experts. Since politicians are swayed by lobbying, opinion polls and seeking political advantage, she argues, the Australian Climate Change Authority should set the terms of policy development and deployment. This is a similar role to that handed to the Climate Change Committee in the UK by the 2008 Climate Change Act.

But is the fact that human actions can now modify global climate of such over-riding importance that the processes and institutions of parliamentary democracies should be so readily set to one side? Or to put the question more simply: “Who should govern the climate: unelected experts or the people?”

This form of question has echoed down the ages since Plato considered the ideal city-state in Ancient Greece. It has been debated time and again when democracies face the threat or reality of war. It emerged again after the terrorism of 9/11. And on smaller scales it gets debated every time a new technology comes under public and political scrutiny. What is the appropriate authority of expertise in liberal democracies? When should elected politicians defer to unelected experts?

I considered these questions in my study published last year “What sorts of knowledge for what sort of politics? Science, climate change and the challenge of democracy.” And I shall re-visit the question later this year when I deliver the Alexander von Humboldt Lecture at the University of Nijmegen: “Who governs the climate? Agency, knowledge and the limits of democracy.” Below I summarize why I sit on the other side of the line to Caripis.

Climate, as ‘nature’ understood more broadly, can never mean one thing. Less still can ‘climate change’ mean one thing with its provocative mixture of believed human, non-human and divine causes. Disputes over the meaning of climate change and the forms of political response that are appropriate can never be resolved by appeal to science or authorized experts. Being ‘armed only with peer-reviewed science’--as claimed by the UK climate protestors of summer 2007 against the proposed third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport--is never enough. Meaning is always culturally mediated and politically contested.

So politics, not science, must take center stage with climate change. As Amanda Machin shows in her forthcoming book, Negotiating Climate Change: Radical Democracy and the Illusion of Consensus, asking climate science to forge a consensus that will enable decisive political action misunderstands climate, science and politics in equal measure. Contra Caripis, if democratic politics is to be effective we need more disagreement, not more consensus, about what climate change is really about. Machin argues, “Consensus on how to combat climate change cannot and will not ever be reached; there is no one ‘rational’ path to take … Any apparently inclusive agreement and rational discussion is rather a trick of power that disguises exclusion and inequality.”

And driving always for consensus, whether in science or in politics, is not just unhelpful but can also be dangerous. Aggrandising projects of Earth System governance or climate engineering or a global carbon market are nothing short of political mega-projects, justified by some in the name of “impartial experts” as essential and non-negotiable. But Machin shows the dangers of such steam-rolling: “The myth of consensus … is perhaps the biggest problem facing climate change politics today … Assuming political consensus as a horizon marginalizes those who dissent and undermines the role of disagreement in politics”.

The argument about global-scale climate engineering, for example, has to be political before it can be technical. The urgency is not to figure out how these putative technologies can be made to work or to debate how they can be governed. But rather it is to give voice to a multitude of arguments, voices from around the world, about why such a response to climate change is or is not desirable or necessary. Otherwise we risk the tyranny of “the expert” and the mighty power of naturalism will suppress the creative and legitimate tension of agonistic human beings.

Speaking in a wider context about agonistic politics, political theorist Chantel Mouffe in The Democratic Paradox puts it succinctly: “Taking pluralism seriously requires that we give up the dream of a rational consensus which entails the fantasy that we could escape our human form of life.”

Mike Hulme is the professor of climate change in the School of Environmental Sciences at University of East Anglia. His two most recent books are Why We Disagree About Climate Change and Making Climate Change Work For Us, both published by Cambridge University Press. This article originally appeared on his blog.

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