Deepening Democracy

Scientists & Experts Must Guide, Not Usurp, Climate Negotiations

Last Friday, Björn-Ola Linnér and I had an op-ed in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter that discussed the role of experts in politics. We argue that, "a commitment to democratic governance means accepting that power rests with the people, and not the experts." An English translation appears below, courtesy Björn-Ola Linnér.

On Thursday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presented the first of four assessments, this one taking stock of the physical science of the climate system. The report’s reception and promotion highlights challenges that arise when expertise meets politics.

The temptation to use the conclusions to forward different political agendas will be abundant. And rightly so, the initial idea behind the IPCC report was to provide an assessment of science that could be used by policy makers. This is clearly not a problem when politicians, activists, or lobbyists use the report in an open debate on how to address climate change. We should expect advocates to pick and choose among the report’s findings to find those bits that fit best with their agenda. That is how interests operate in democracies.

We see, however, for us, a worrying tendency among some scientists to use climate and other environmental science reports to advocate for more authoritarian political systems and call for an emergency order by emphasizing the worst-case scenarios of these reports as a “trump card” in political debates.

Yvo de Boer, the former secretary general of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change argued almost a year ago, “The next IPCC will scare the wits out of everyone. I am confident that those scientific findings will create a new political momentum.” The problem with fear-motivated decision-making is that it has not worked so well in environmental policy-making We can just see to what degree the climate scare has changed societies so far: very little, if at all. The global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and carbon-free energy still has the same proportion in the energy mix as when the whole climate debate started in earnest 20 years ago.

Not only are appeals to fear ineffective, but they can also be dangerous for democracy and the role of experts within it. Frustrated scientists who argue that they alone have the right political solution to the climate crises start advocating an expert control.

A recent example – one of several we could provide – is the Global Challenges Foundation who argued in an op-ed in Dagens Nyheter that risk of a significant temperature increase requires “effective global decision-making bodies.” In their mission statement, they argue, “We are unable to manage the environmental crises in the current political system.” They go on to identify that a core problem is that politicians have to worry about re-election, a media solely focused on probable and short-term damages, and a lulled public. Instead, the organization wants to create a new political order with legally binding efficient, rational and equitable global legal system, which, in line with their reasoning, would not worry about up-coming re-elections. But re-elections are precisely the essence of a democracy, where the public can decide with a regular reoccurrence how we want society to be governed.

It is evident from the organization’s presentations that the experts believe that the public does not know their own good. Political systems based upon such an assumption are necessarily authoritarian. We believe the solution is not to argue for taking political power from the public and putting the power in the hands of experts. First, which experts should make the call? Scientists are hardly in consensus on social and economic politics. Is it the one advocating restricted economic growth or the one advocating accelerate economic growth focused on innovation?

Second, history gives us many examples where experts argue they have the right cure to a pending catastrophe, where we today may be relieved they are not in power. Take for instance Sweden’s famous food scientist Georg Borgström, who argued that sterilization after the third child would be as natural getting a vaccination. Or Garrett Hardin’s call for a lifeboat ethics where it was better to let millions die than the whole humanity perish. The track record of experts demanding political authority is not so good.

Rather than tackling ineffective climate policies by restricting democratic systems, we believe we should open up debate to other solutions. There are many alternative pathways to accelerating energy innovation and climate adaptation that would pose credible alternatives to those tried so far.

This includes, for example, the rapidly growing interest in integrating mitigation efforts and national development goals and thus facilitating public and political support; investment in low-carbon energy innovation, which would need be at least doubled in order to stimulate alternatives; and carbon taxes, which would likely be more effective than emissions trading in many countries. If we look beyond the state, there are a variety of initiatives, such as cities collaborating on climate action, business and civil society partners on voluntary environmental standards, and an enormous number of other initiatives that can be stimulated, and which together can bear fruit. Ideally, forthcoming IPCC reports on mitigation alternatives will illustrate just how many expert advices there are for the voters to consider.

Scientists and other experts must become more attuned to the different roles that they play in broader society, especially what it means to be facilitators of democracy, not usurpers of it. In practice this means recognizing that the main function of expert advisory bodies is not to tell the public what should be done, but rather what could be done. Experts who claim to speak for “science” and who campaign too aggressively risk their own credibility and that of science more broadly in public debates. Ultimately, a commitment to democratic governance means accepting that power rests with the people and not the experts.

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