Exceptional Circumstances

Does Climate Change Trump Democracy?


Researchers who flirt with the idea that more authoritarian governance would help us address global warming are badly mistaken. What’s really needed is more democracy.

March 14, 2016 | Nico Stehr,

This excerpted essay is reprinted with permission from Issues in Science and Technology. Click here to read the full and original essay. 

The threats to democracy in the modern era are many. Not least is the risk posed by the widespread feeling among different segments of the public in contemporary democracies that no one from the political class is listening. Such discontent reaches from the Tea Party in the United States and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the United Kingdom to the Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party in Germany and the National Front in France. But worryingly, similar sentiments can be found in the climate science and policy community.

The well-known climate researcher James Hansen, who has been publicly sounding the alarm on global warming since his influential 1988 testimony before the U.S. Congress, summarized the general frustration when he asserted in 2007 that "the democratic process does not work." In his 2009 book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, James Lovelock, another long-time scientific voice of warning, compares climate change to war, emphasizing that we need to abandon democracy to meet the challenges of climate change head on. To pull the world out of its state of lethargy, "nothing but blood, toil, tears, and sweat" is urgently needed.

Dale Jamieson, professor of environmental studies, philosophy, and law at New York University and author of Reason in a Dark Time (2014), exemplifies the skeptical view of our present political order’s ability to cope with the consequences of global warming. He warns that climate change presents us “with the largest collective action problem that humanity has ever faced, [but] evolution did not design us to deal with such problems, and we have not designed political institutions that are conducive to solving them.” He adds: “Sadly, it is not entirely clear that democracy is up to the challenge of climate change.”

I do not disagree with Jamieson about the enormous challenge global warming likely offers. But I do disagree strongly about the implicit medicine, the rationale for which is beginning to come from scholars in diverse fields. The historian Eric Hobsbawn’s long-time skepticism toward democracy extends in his 2008 book, Globalisation, Democracy, and Terrorism, to strong doubts about the effectiveness of democratic states in solving complex global problems such as global warming. And Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman says: “the bottom line is that I’m extremely skeptical that we can cope with climate change. To mobilize people, this has to become an emotional issue. It has to have immediacy and salience. A distant, abstract, and disputed threat just doesn’t have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilizing public opinion.”

Climate scientists, social scientists concerned with climate change, and the media refer to a future of “exceptional circumstances.” However, the same groups also assert that no one is listening to their diagnosis of potential incomparable dangers. An elite of climate scientists believes they are reading the evidence that others fail to acknowledge and know truths that others lack the courage to fully confront. In light of the extraordinary dangers to human civilization posed by climate change, democracy quickly becomes in their eyes an inconvenient form of governing.

In the past, warlike conditions and major disasters typically were seen to justify the abolition of democratic liberties, if only temporarily. The term “exceptional circumstances” refers to conditions often invoked to grant governments additional powers to avert or tackle unforeseen but threatening political, economic, or environmental problems. The present appeal to exceptional circumstances echoes this sentiment, demanding the elevation of a single socio-political purpose—specifically carbon emissions reductions—to ultimate political supremacy.

The implication of the position is that democratic governance of society must be subordinated to the defeat of the exceptional circumstances. The single purpose of defeating the exceptional circumstances legitimizes the suspension of political rights and liberties. But for how long can one defer liberties? At least in the case of war, in democratic societies the answer is that, in economist Friedrich Hayek’s words, “it is sensible temporarily to sacrifice freedom in order to make it more secure in the future.” However, is any massive absorption of powers in the hand of the state and its representatives easily reversible? And, are the potential consequences of climate change the equivalent of (abrupt) warlike conditions? How can one pinpoint the onset of exceptional circumstances? Or, perhaps even more troubling, their endpoint?

The deficiencies of and the short-term as well as long-term challenges faced by democratic governments are many and go far beyond the problem of climate change and its societal consequences. What alternatives do these impatient scholars have in mind? After all, authoritarian and totalitarian governments do not have a record of environmental accomplishments; nations that have followed the path of “authoritarian modernization” such as China and Russia cannot claim to have a better record, despite the high status of scientists and engineers in their societies.

To those who see climate change as a uniquely overwhelming threat to human well-being, democracy itself seems inappropriate, its slow procedures for implementation and management of specific, policy-relevant scientific knowledge leading to massive risks and dangers. The disenchantment with democracies continues to advance as the democratic system designed to balance divergent interests appears to have failed in the face of these future threats.

The discussion in the climate science and policy community about the shortcomings of democratic governance resonates, at least superficially, with assessments coming from the social sciences of the present and future state of democracy, which have reached similar discouraging conclusions about the efficacy of democratic governance in many nations. So, for example, political scientist and former UK Member of Parliament David Marquand sees “a hollowing out of citizenship; the marketization of the public sector; the soul-destroying targets and audits that go with it; the denigration of professionalism and the professional ethic; and the erosion of public trust.” Many social science observers see contemporary democracy—whether by design of self-interested actors such as large corporations, or as an unintended outcome of structural economic, political, and moral changes—as tending toward increasingly autocratic forms of governance.

But social scientists and climate scientists diverge profoundly in their analyses of the necessary remedy. Social scientists such as political historian Pierre Rosanvallon and sociologist Colin Crouch see the need to restore the vitality of the core function of democracy through more active participation of large numbers of citizens in shaping the agenda of public life. Climate scientists and others whose chief concern is climate change seem instead to believe democratic governance to be inherently incapable of coping effectively with large-scale environmental problems.

What should be the role of climate science knowledge and climate scientists in political deliberations about climate policy? Can science, and thus should scientists, tell us what to do? For the Massachusetts Institute of Technology historian and philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller, the answer is clear: “where the results of scientific research have a direct impact on the society in which they live, it becomes effectively impossible for scientists to separate their scientific analysis from the likely consequences of that analysis.” To Keller, this seems to then add up to a compelling case for an immediately effective, practical political role of climate science, given the seriousness of the problem of global warming:

There is no escaping our dependence on experts; we have no choice but to call on those (in this case, our climate scientists) who have the necessary expertise.… Furthermore, for the particular task of getting beyond our current impasse, I also suggest that climate scientists may be the only ones in a position to take the lead…. [G]iven the tacit contract between scientists and the state which supports them… I will also argue that climate scientists are not only in a position to take the lead, but also that they are obliged to do so.

Complementing the expectation that scientists must lead is the conviction that citizens are unprepared to act. We have already seen how some leading academics believe that the public is not cognitively capable of coming to the right conclusions about climate change’s urgency. Robert Stavins, director of Harvard’s Environmental Economics Program and an IPCC lead author, notes that a “bottom-up demand, which normally we always want to have and rely on in a representative democracy, is in my view unlikely to work in the case of climate change policy as it has for other environmental problems.... It’s going to take enlightened leadership, leaders that take the lead.”

But the idea that science and scientific leadership offer some sort of alternative to democracy has, to put it mildly, major weaknesses. To begin with, scientific knowledge does not and cannot dictate what to do. One of the fundamental flaws in the portrait of an inconvenient democracy is the failure to recognize that knowledge of nature must always enter society through politics (whether democratic or authoritarian)—through decisions about, as Harold Laswell famously put it, “who gets what, when, how.” Knowledge about how such decisions are best made is not particularly available to scientists. Indeed, such knowledge is inherently and necessarily contestable.

The vision of a scientifically rational and beneficent authoritarian regime is thus incoherent because it treats a simple technical goal—the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions—as if the very fact of its articulation should automatically illuminate an optimal pathway for transforming the complex global energy system on which modern societies depend for their survival. But as stressed by Mike Hulme, a climate scientist who has come down clearly on the side of democracy, such notions may be favored by those “who are more likely to conceive of the planet as a machine amendable to control engineering.”

 The pessimistic assessment of the ability of democratic governance to cope with and control exceptional circumstances seems to bring with it an optimistic assessment of the potential of large-scale social planning. Yet all evidence suggests that the capacity not only of governments, but societies, to plan their future is rather limited, perhaps non-existent. The problem is not one of democracy, but of the complexity of social change. From this perspective, the claims that the key uncertainties about the behavior of the natural climate processes have been eliminated does nothing whatsoever to address the uncertainties associated with the social and political processes for taking effective action. Consensus on the evidence of natural science, it is argued, should motivate a consensus on political action. The uncertainties of social, political, and economic events, the difficulty of anticipating the future, are treated as minor obstacles that can be managed by the experts. But contemporary societies show no evidence that these uncertainties are even comprehensible, let alone manageable.

Indeed, this is precisely why democracy, inconvenient as it may be, is not only necessary but, for a challenge of the magnitude and complexity of climate change, essential. To a far greater extent than authoritarian governance, democratic governance is flexible and capable of learning from policy mistakes, which are inevitable when trying to deal with something as complex as climate change. Democratic governments’ ability to learn allows them, as David Runciman explains in The Confidence Trap, his 2013 study of democracies in crisis, “to keep experimenting and adapting to the challenge they encounter, so that no danger becomes overwhelming.” Democracies “have the experimental adaptability and they have the collective resilience under duress.” But Runciman offers a cautionary note, because “the knowledge that democracies have of their long-term strengths does not tell them how to access those strengths at the right moment. That is why climate change is so dangerous for democracies.” Dangerous because the impatience of the climate science community leads it to imagine that other, less open forms of governance might do better than democracy.

An alternative model is therefore needed, and I submit that it will be found only through revitalized democratic interaction in which alternative perspectives can be presented and tested. Climate policy must be compatible with democracy; otherwise the threat to civilization will be much more than just changes to our physical environment. The alternative to the abolition of democratic governance is more democracy—making not only democracy and solutions more complex, but also enhancing the worldwide empowerment and knowledgeability of individuals, groups, and movements who work on environmental issues. As the world gradually transitions toward further denationalization of governance, democracies will produce new, multiple forms of social solidarity and obligations, strengthening local and regional capacities to respond to climate change, and enhancing the awareness of social interdependence. Examples include the widespread community and regional support of renewable energy in Germany—and the success of wind energy in Texas.

Now is the time to commit to democratic complexification that fosters creativity and experimentation in the pursuit of multiple desired goals. For those who think that there can be only one global pathway to addressing climate change, the erosion of democracy might seem to be “convenient.” History, of both recent decades and centuries, tells us that suppression of social complexity undermines the capacity of societies to solve problems. Friedrich Hayek points out a paradoxical development: As science advances, it tends to strengthen the observation shared by many scientists 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.”

Nico Stehr (nico.stehr@zu.de) is the Karl Mannheim Professor of Cultural Studies at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, Lake Constance, Germany.