Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Democracy and climate policy: A comment in Nature by Nico Stehr

Many of us have heard the argument that non-democratic countries, China above all, have a far greater potential of addressing urgent tasks of climate policy and of implementing drastic measures. In terms of achieving targets, hierarchies seem to be better equipped than democracies. This is so because in democratic settings many points of resistance can be mobilised. Authoritarian forms of government, by contrast, eliminate such veto points. In a recent paper in Nature, Nico Stehr argues that some commentators have wrongly hinted at such a narrative of superior goal attainment of non-democratic societies, and he emphatically objects to it.

He argues:
As governments continue to fail to take appropriate political action, democracy begins to look to some like an inconvenient form of governance. There is a tendency to want to take decisions out of the hands of politicians and the public, and, given the 'exceptional circumstances', put the decisions into the hands of scientists themselves.
The term 'inconvenient democracy' has been introduced by Stehr before, and we had some discussions here on Klimazwiebel in the past.
Democratic nations seem to have failed us in the climate arena so far. ... Academics increasingly point to democracy as a reason for failure.
Stehr quotes Jim Hansen and others for expressing such a view:
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 a special issue of the journal Environmental Politics in 2010, political scientist Mark Beeson argued that forms of 'good' authoritarianism “may become not only justifiable, but essential for the survival of humanity in anything approaching a civilised form”. The title of an opinion piece published earlier this year in The Conversation, an online magazine funded by universities, sums up the issue: 'Hidden crisis of liberal democracy creates climate change paralysis' (see go.nature.com/pqgysr).
What are the reasons for this pessimistic view of democracy, asks Nico:
The depiction of contemporary democracies as ill-equipped to deal with climate change comes from a range of considerations. These include a deep-seated pessimism about the psychological make-up of humans; the disinclination of people to mobilize on issues that seem far removed; and the presumed lack of intellectual competence of people to grasp complex issues. On top of these there is the presumed scientific illiteracy of most politicians and the electorate; the inability of governments locked into short-term voting cycles to address long-term problems; the influence of vested interests on political agendas; the addiction to fossil fuels; and the feeling among the climate-science community that its message falls on the deaf ears of politicians.

Such views can be heard from the highest ranks of climate science. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change, said of the inaction in a 2011 interview with German newspaper Der Spiegel: “comfort and ignorance are the biggest flaws of human character. This is a potentially deadly mix”.
Nico rejects a technocratic alternative which would change the nature of the IPPC's role and function:
What, then, is the alternative? The solution hinted at by many people leans towards a technocracy, in which decisions are made by those with technical knowledge. This can be seen in a shift in the statements of some co-authors of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, who are moving away from a purely advisory role towards policy prescription.
While I share the critique of technocracy I am less certain about Nico's worries that the IPCC might move towards policy prescriptions. In my view the IPCC has suffered from an absence of policy advice that was clear, open and transparent. The IPCC produced scientific reports that had very little policy relevance (despite its slogan of being 'policy-relevant, but not policy prescriptive'). It scientized the debate about climate change which was arguably counter-productive in terms of climate policy. Useful expertise produces knowledge that identifies levers of action, and options for action. To be sure, IPCC protagonists made statements that could be seen as policy prescriptive, and we discussed several examples of 'stealth advocacy' here on this blog. But i don't think that by moving the IPCC towards more practical policy advice a danger to the democratic process would ensue.

 Finally, Nico observes that
The argument for an authoritarian political approach concentrates on a single effect that governance ought to achieve: a reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions. By focusing on that goal, rather than on the economic and social conditions that go hand-in-hand with it, climate policies are reduced to scientific or technical issues. But these are not the sole considerations. Environmental concerns are tightly entangled with other political, economic and cultural issues that both broaden the questions at hand and open up different ways of approaching it. Scientific knowledge is neither immediately performative nor persuasive.
I think this is true, and has been argued by several commentators here.


Werner Krauss said...

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.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

OK I agree the Hansen quote is not the best example that one could use in this context but there are many others, as you know.

The Guardian had an interview a few years ago about James Lovelock in which Lovelock was quoted as saying "I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while".

The question Nico addresses has some substance and be better not ignored.

Werner, you are too polemical when writing, against Nico's argument that "Not everybody who blames lobbyism or corruption is a member of Pegida or an anti-democrat." Read again and you will probably agree that Nico did not write this and that it was not his intention. He merely stated that a feeling of unease about "democracy" is more widespread than commonly assumed.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Spiegel online has a short interview with Nico Stehr which you can read here:


stan said...

The Tea Party in the USA sprang up because elites in power ignored the Constitution and acted illegally. The elites claimed that their illegal and unconstitutional actions were required by unusual circumstances. Millions of people of all political ideologies turned out for rallies all over the country to condemn the illegality and corruption. Don't believe the propaganda smears.

Why slander those who believe in the rule of law? Why side with the powerful and corrupt?

Europeans have an ugly history of embracing ideologies that discard democracy and impose the vision of certain elites on the people. How's that worked for you? About time some people started learning from history.

Werner Krauss said...


I re-read the article, and I guess I am not too polemical:

"Such discontent can be seen in the political far right: the Tea Party movement in the United States, the UK Independence Party, the Pegida (...) demonstrators in Germany, and the National Front in France. More surprisingly, a similar impatience with the political elite is now also present in the scientific community."

Nico Stehr then (mis-)quotes Hansen, placing him in the immediate relationship to those right-wing movements. And he uses the same quote-out-of-context at least since 2009 (in an article in the Spiegel and in a 2010 post on Roger Pielke's blog, both with HvStorch; in an article in Society (2013) and now in the Nature comment). Spiegel, Society and Nature obviously did not check the quote. Even worse, spiegel-online starts his recent interview like this:
"Das Klimaproblem überfordere Demokratien, womöglich wären effizientere Entscheidungswege notwendig, argumentieren unter anderem Star-Klimaforscher James Hansen von der Nasa."

I think, this is not a moment of glory for quality journalism and peer-review. Another problem is the relevance of the topic. Even you, Reiner, have to go back to good ol' James Lovelock. Who exactly wants to suspend democracy in the climate debate before Paris? All quotes here are from 2009 / 2010, as far as I can see. The more often you repeat an argument, the weaker it becomes - the world keeps on turning, while the argument seems to be caught in a time warp.

eduardo said...

Hansen believes that the 'true' (interpretations open) democratic decision process is being hijacked by big-oil or big money. But this is by far not proven, and it rather sounds to me as an excuse to explain the failure to really convince the people at large that emission reductions are necessary even if this goes hand in hand with a reduction of economic growth or with a different life style, for that matter.
I once read that man's best friend is not the dog, but the scape goat. Others are always to blame: either the Jews, the soviets, the immigrants, the banks or, as here, big-oil. This is one of the brand marks of populism, which can be found in all camps of the political spectrum, not only the right.
However, I am sympathetic with Hansen's views on other accounts. By supporting nuclear power as a lesser devil, he is at least consistent with his own beliefs, and to me he is one of the few that are really concerned for the climate for its own sake, and not as a proxy for other political battles.

hvw said...

Werner, thanks for making this very clear.

"Who exactly wants to suspend democracy in the climate debate before Paris?"
Obviously, anybody proposing such a thing would be ignored or derided.
And Stehr couldn't even find one single example. His other to cases are misrepresentative out-of-context quotes, just as the Hansen one.

"I think, this is not a moment of glory for quality journalism and peer-review."

Nobody expects "journalism" or even "quality journalism" from Bojanowski. I think this Nature commentary was not peer-reviewed. You get that published by per academic rank.

Better than warming up the journo/peer-review bashing, this is an opportunity for self-reflection of the scientific establishment. Not "why does that get through?", but "why is it not discussed"? Blunders in a technical paper, if noticed and cared about, are mercilessly exposed. An opinion piece, however misguided, that addresses the public and not so much the scientific community, is conveniently ignored in a fashion that reeks of dog don't eat dog mentality. In this case, chances are that there will be a reply as Stehr pretty unvarnishedly badmouthed peer-group members, but that would be the exception rather than the norm.

hvw said...


"Others are always to blame: either the Jews, the soviets, the immigrants, the banks or, as here, big-oil."

Could you understand it if someone proposed that "blaming the Jews or the immigrants" is something completely different, on all accounts, from blaming "the banks or big-oil"?

I can image that people who are aware of the historical contexts to which you refer will react to your sentence like so:

eduardo said...

Of course, the historical contexts and the consequences are indeed very different. The psychological mindset, of populism makes heavy use, is very similar in all cases: creating a 'concept' onto which one can project all evils because it is not well defined and that serves to justify own failures. The trick is as old as mankind.

Now you probably think they are different because in two cases, like big-oil and the banks, this scapegoating is justified. This is called confirmation bias.

In the context of climate change, I cannot see any sign of the obscure actions of big oil. Of course, we cannot see them because it is a conspiracy , that is exactly the point. In COP55 in 2050, we will still be blaming big-oil.

hvw said...

Eduardo, afraid you don't get it yet.

Collectively blaming a large group of (even underprivileged) individuals for a societal problem requires pathological conspiracy ideation indeed.

"Big-oil" refers to a handful of corporations that wield considerable power. The theory that theses entities try to influence general perception and lawmaking regarding climate change rests on 1) rock-solid empirical evidence as there are well-documented cases in the past, also for other industries and 2) plausible theory: Given that they have the interest and the resources to do so, why wouldn't they?

What is left for discussion is just "how much more is there that we don't know about (yet)?" and "are they effective in pursuing their interests?".

If you can't agree to this you are either an industry-goon (excluded in your case) or we live in different worlds.

Btw., this thread should not discuss Hansen's ideology (old and boring) but rather Stehr's, don't you think?

@ReinerGrundmann said...

The problem with 'big oil' (and 'big coal' and 'big gas') is that they offer a very attractive product: cheap and reliable energy on which many infrastructures run. We are all using their products. When you say that big oil tries to influence lawmaking this does not tell us much. Would you make the stronger claim that they have been successful, and that we would have less fossil fuel dependence if it they had not done their lobbying? Where is the rock solid evidence?

Are you really saying that the problem Nico Stehr addresses is a pseudo problem with no correlates in reality?

Hans von Storch said...

hvw - your write "Nobody expects "journalism" or even "quality journalism" from Bojanowski.".
The assertion is false. I expect him to do so. I consider Bojanowksi a fine journalist, but not a priest or a truth-speaker - simply because journalism is not operating with such claims. Instead, we have the journalism, we deserve and pay for. Depends of course, whom we consider "we".

hvw said...

@Reiner Grundmann

"Would you make the stronger claim that they have been successful, and that we would have less fossil fuel dependence if it they had not done their lobbying?"

As I said, there the discussion starts to become interesting. Need to differentiate where, when, who. How to attribute law-making to lobbying? Is this just lobyying, or are we looking at a different class of influencing? How to attribute fossil-fuel dependence / technical trajectories to law-making and industry/research entanglements? ....

My response was to Eduardo's "In the context of climate change, I cannot see any sign of the obscure actions of big oil." and him paintig all who can see that as conspiracy theorists.

If I remember correctly, you and Hans von Storch have similarly dismissed out of hand the possibility of any significant corporate influence on societies' trajectory w. regard to global warming.

Unless you confirm that we share the common basis on the subject that I layed out in the previous post, I consider it a waste of time to move to the interesting questions.

Btw, you keep changing the subject from your original post. Don't you think it is more interesting to discuss causes and consequences of Stehr's alledged blunders?

hvw said...

@Hans von Storch

"I consider Bojanowksi a fine journalist, ..."

What I believe to know about your standards and what I can't help to deduce about Bojanowski from his product is absolutele irreconcilable with that statement of yours.

For example the degree of distortion that you call a "brazen case of manipulative reporting" in the next post is something I have come to expect on a regular basis from Bojanowski.

Oh well, life would be boring without such little contradictions ...

Werner Krauss said...


we know from the "the merchants of doubt" that they single out specific climate scientists and quote them out of context in order to systematically ruin their reputation in the public (Oreskes / Conway 2010). I am really concerned when my Klimazwiebel fellows see no problem when Nico Stehr misquotes James Hansen in a way that puts him in the corner with anti-democratic and right-wing movements. In the same article, Nico Stehr also quotes H.J. Schellnhuber from an interview in Der Spiegel ("comfort and ignorance are the biggest flaws of human character. This is a potentially deadly mix”.) In the same interview (?Stehr gives no reference) with Der Spiegel, Schellnhuber explicitly states: "Nur demokratische Gesellschaften werden diese Herausforderung letztlich meistern können, trotz aller quälenden Entscheidungsprozesse." ("only demcoratic societies can meet this challenge, despite all difficult decision-processes"). How come that Nico Stehr does not quote this line? Why expose Schellnhuber as an anti-democrat? I have no problems when Nico Stehr and others do not agree with the opinions of H.J. Schellnhuber or James Hansen about climate change or democracy, but we should leave this kind of unfair and selective argumentation to the merchants of doubt. Otherwise, it will ruin the reputation of Klimazwiebel, in the long run.

Hans von Storch said...

hvw - mich stört , dass Sie eine Aussage machen "nobody ....", die Sie als Tatsachenaussage nicht machen können, weil sie es ja gar nicht wissen können. Hätten Sie geschrieben, "meiner Meinung nach kann niemand ...", das wäre etwas anderes gewesen. Aber die Neigung, die eigene Interpretation als von allen anderen geteilt darzustellen und zu implizieren, dass jene, die es nicht tun, Schwachköpfe oder Bösewichte sind, sehen wir hier öfters auf der Klimazwiebel, was in meiner Wahrnehmung auf eine gewisse Rechthaberei des Aussagenden hinweist.

Was nun Bojanowski angeht, ist es gewiss so, dass es eine ganze Reihe von Kollegen gibt, die seine Berichterstattung nicht schätzen. Ich habe andererseits öfters mit ihm zu tun gehabt, und bisher keinen Grund zur Klage gehabt, auch wenn er schlußendlich bisweilen Dinge schrieb, die ich so nicht teilte. Aber ich erwarte das auch nicht; ich erwarte keine Hofberichterstattung, und vielleicht hat er Hinweise und Informationen von anderen bekommen, die inkonsistent mit meinem Wissen und meiner Denke sind.

Tatsächlich bin ich selbst bisher nicht von Medienleuten wirklich unangemessen behandelt worden; grenzwertig war der Fall der Tagesschau, der oben in einem anderes thread behandelt wird (in dem ich aber nur als naher Beobachter beteiligt war), und ein Fall mit der BBC. Also zwei Einrichtungen, die Sie vielleicht mit dem Siegel "Qualitätsjournalismus" auszeichnen würden.

Ich denke, es besteht immer die Gefahr, dass man die "Qualität" von Journalismus danach beurteilt, ob einem die Tendenz der Berichterstattung gefällt, nicht ob journalistisch recherchiert und bewertet worden ist. Ein Problem, dass manche auf mit Wissenschaft haben.

Der guten Ordnung halber merke ich noch an, dass Wissenschaft (im Sinne von Produzent von "Resultaten, die mit der wissenschaftllichen Methode erarbeitet wurden" nicht Verkünder von "Resultate, die von Wissenschaftlern erarbeitet wurden") und Journalismmus verschiedene soziale Akteure und Dienstleister sind, mit verschiedenen Rollen, und verschiedenen Normen von Professionalität, von denen Öffentlichkeit verschiedene Leistungen erwartet. Auch hier mögen andere andere Vorstelllungen und Überzeugungen haben.

Hans von Storch said...

I would like to hear what Nico Stehr has to say on this; if your story is the full story, then the quote of Hansen would indeed be misplaced.

Your use of "they" ("they single out") surprised me. Who is "they"? Is Oreskes and Conway an authorative source?

Werner Krauss said...


who is "they"? You missed the irony of the first lines of my comment. Reiner starts his post here with: "Many of us have heard the argument that non-democratic countries...." This is why I opened with "We know from the merchants of doubt...". So if you really want to discuss rhetorical questions, let us start with Reiner's opening: who is "many of us"? And are they an authorative source?

eduardo said...


I am curious to hear about the rock-solid evidence that lobbying by big-oil is significantly trying to influence public opinion or the decision making process. I cannot see it and I d not think they need it anyway.

But back to the topic, I do not think either that Nico Stehr is misguided. I have heard very clear statements from some climate scientist that can described as anti.democratic. I recall the call by Schellnhuber to grant parliamentary seats to the unborn. Who would decide the votes of those representatives ? probably he himself.
I am not that familiar with Hansen's stance, but I have the felling that his interpretation and mine about what is a democratic society are not the same. The DDR, I recall, was the German Democratic Republic, and the USSR was a Federation of Democratic Republics. China is the People's Democratic Republic. I guess we should ask Hansen about what he considers a democracy, or at least that he gives us an example of what is democratic society. When he says that only democratic societies can deal with climate change, is he referring to the UK or to China ?
Or since we are at it, you could give us an example as well. Is Western Europe a democracy ? Are the decisions on climate taken so far by Western Europe influenced by big-oil?

Hans von Storch said...

Yes, that musts be it. I missed the irony. I thought it was an argument, not a rhetorical device. Sorry for having disturbed your elegant hurling powerful language at your enemies.

Anonymous said...

@ Hans von Storch

Nunja, nochmal zurück auf Bojanowski

Sie schreiben:

"Ich denke, es besteht immer die Gefahr, dass man die "Qualität" von Journalismus danach beurteilt, ob einem die Tendenz der Berichterstattung gefällt, nicht ob journalistisch recherchiert und bewertet worden ist."

Im letzten Artikel von Bojanowski trifft wohl eher schlecht recherchiert zu.

Er schrieb:

"Nachdem Hurrikan "Katrina" vor zehn Jahren New Orleans verwüstet hatte, offenbarte eine Studie Dramatisches: "

Blöd nur, dass wenn man die Verlinkung der "dramatischen Studie" anklickt, dann steht da auch das Datum wann das Paper eingereicht und veröffentlicht wurde und das war alles vor "Katrina"

So wurde also eine Arbeit die vor Katrina veröffentlicht wurde, eine Arbeit nach Katrina. Auch kann ich nicht erkennen wo die Studie dramatisches offenbarte, eher zeigte die Studie eine Erhöhung des Schadenspotenzials unter weiter Erwärmung des Wassers aber dafür muss das Potenzial auch abgegriffen werden.

Insofern sehe ich nicht, wo sich meine Kritik an den Artikel aufgrund der Tendenz der Berichterstattung bezieht, sondern mehr an die unterlassene journalistische Sorgfaltspflicht.

hvw said...


"I am curious to hear about the rock-solid evidence that lobbying by big-oil is significantly trying to influence public opinion or the decision making process. I cannot see it ..."

If some googeling doesn't turn up anything you would consider solid evidence then we won't be able to have a meaningful discussion on that topic.

"But back to the topic I do not think either that Nico Stehr is misguided."

Yes, back to topic. Firstly I believe that whatever both of us can report in terms of anecdotes, feelings, and speculation about whether Hansen thinks China is a democracy worth imitating or how antidemocratic Schellnhuber's "“Global Ombudspeople” are is not relevant for discussing a distinguished professor's Nature publication. Stehr has certainly invested much more in backing up this claim than either of us could or wanted to for the sake of an argument on a blog, don't you think?

Regarding his Hansen-quote, I can't add anything to Werner's exposition.

His second reference for his main claim (Beeson, 2010) appears even more bizarre to me. Stehr conveniently omits the preceding "In such circumstances,", which refer to the preceding 10 pages of the essay, in which Beeson lays out the political, societal and environmental trajectory of South East Asia + China since the 90ies. Very interesting read, btw! To imply that Beeson "point[s] to democracy as a reason for failure" of anything is risible: Beeson is "thinking that authoritarianism is likely to persist or stage a comeback in China and Southeast Asia". He makes a pessimistic prediction, which he characterizes as "depressing" and "dispiriting" multiple times. I can not spell out in a polite fashion what I believe that does to Stehr's credibility.

Stehr's third and last quote in support of his main claim is the title (!) in an online magazine. I find the article quite fluffy but they spell out their list of suggestions about how to improve the democratic process under the heading "What can be done to overcome this crisis?"

Does that sound to you like an "argument for an authoritarian political approach" (Stehr)? To me its sounds more like taking some hints from the Swiss system. To be fair, some of this would go into the direction of a "technocracy", as Stehr claims, if it wouldn't be for the "accountable to parliament" add-ons.

hvw said...

@Hans von Storch #16

When I write in a blog comment "Nobody expects "journalism" or even "quality journalism" from Bojanowski." I obviously used hyperbole and what I really mean is "Neither me nor a lot of other people expect "journalism" or even "quality journalism" from Bojanowski." Sorry for the confusion, I thought that this was clear.

I totally accept that you never had reasons to complain with the outcome after being consulted by Bojanowski. Also apparently many other climate scientists are also happy with how their message is transported by the media. However, this is not necessarily a sign of "quality science journalism". As you say yourself, it is not their job to make their sources happy, but in my opinion to construct something that is consistent with established knowledge but not necessarily perfectly correct. And most importantly relate that in a reasonable way to what their audience is actually interested in.

Often you find detail-correct reports, where it is hard to nail down a flaw, but which are completely wrong in what they transport. Your Tagesschau example: When Claussen says that emission reductions are urgently called for, then indeed this means in a current German politics context expansion of renewable energy sources. So far so good. What is inexcusably shoddy (or manipulative like you put it) is to make it sound as if Climatologists were, in their professional capacity, concerned with such policy advice and had come to this conclusion now.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

Thanks to Werner for sending me here. Just a few quick thoughts based on this interesting exchange.

1. Hansen is a complex figure. His views have evolved toward being more democratic after starting in a position of authoritarianism:
http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2013/04/james-hansen-responsible-scientist-and.html and more here: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v464/n7287/full/464352a.html

2. Hansen aside, there is indeed a strong current of scientific authoritarianism in these discussions, see:

3. Here in the US climate advocates are using the force of the state to try to silence voices that they don't like. I know because I have recently been "investigated" by the US Congress, which is not a lot of fun and pretty much a terminal sentence to being able to participate in the debate. Is that anti-democratic? Yes, I think so.

Paul Matthews said...

Here's a very recent article raising the question,
"If Democracy Can't Respond to Climate Change, Should We Abandon Democracy?"

It doesn't answer the question - in fact it hardly addresses it, but it ends by saying "This moment requires we the people to rethink democracy as a global mechanism for enacting policy for and by the planet."

On twitter today a Guardian writer proclaims
"When political institutions fail, as they have with climate change, it falls upon us to compel social change we need".

Exactly what Hansen might have said or meant is not so vitally important. Anti-democratic, authoritarian voices are quite common, see Roger's points 2 and 3.

Georg Hoffmann said...

I find the discussion about democracy/authoritarian approaches here and in Nico Stehrs article simplifying. It paints everything in black and white. First, there is the risk that the entire point is made only to smear someone else’s position. “He/she said that the climate problem is difficult to solve in a democratic system, so he is a green Stalinist etc etc”. Lets assume that this is not the case here, though some comments…
Then I think we can agree that Democracy is not designed to solve environmental problems, actually it was not designed at all. Democracy as it exists today in the western world is the result of historic developments of which most importantly the rise of the working class in the 19th century is one of the most important drivers. Why should a system that succeeded to smooth out class conflicts find solutions for multi-centennial environmental problems? Nico Stehr says that Democracy is exactly that social machine that somehow takes everyone on board and by compromising permanently find the only viable solution. I don’t think that Democracy is really such a guaranteed problem solver. Juli Zeh said in a discussion on whether societies can learn from their mistakes: “„Demokratie ist kein Verfahren, um wirklich ein gutes Ziel zu erreichen. […] Demokratie ist nicht die Methode zum Ermitteln des besten Ergebnisses, sondern nur eine Methode, um Macht zu zerstreuen.“ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_eBxDneODo
Now dispersing power is certainly a very important objective, but is it THE objective that always overshadows all others?
Stehr mentioned already the example China. He compares the “environmental accomplishments” of the authoritarian regime of China with those of occidental Democracies. But China is not only governed by an authoritarian regime, it is/was also a much poorer country than occidental countries. So, might be the comparison is actually not between two governmental systems but rather between rich and poor countries and their possibilities to handle environmental issues. Given the many constraints China had to respect in its development in the last decades it seems that they are not doing so badly as one would expect. Polemically one could say that Chinese at least are doing clearly better than the democratic Victorian England (which was not only responsible for numerous and wellknown environmental problems, but also for one of the biggest environmental disaster in Europe in the last 200 years, the Irish potato crisis http://scienceblogs.de/primaklima/2010/08/24/an-gorta-mor-die-irische-hungersnot-1845-als-beispiel-einer-umweltkatastrophe/). I feel therefore that Stehr’s statement that only Democracy is able to handle the climate crisis is not particularly well-founded.

Georg Hoffmann said...


In his book “Collapses” Jared Diamond gave a couple of examples of environmental accomplishments of non-democratic societies. Feudal Japan and Europe prevented deforestation (to preserve the hunting grounds of the nobles) as well as the ruthless dictators Raffael Trujillo and its successor Joaquin Belaguer from the Dominican Republic saved the islands original forests by their politics of industrialization and fossil fuel imports http://foreignaffairsreview.co.uk/2013/04/haiti/ . So obviously I am not making a point for the reintroduction of feudalism or ruthless dictatorship, but I want to stress that there are historic cases when democratic solutions almost certainly would have resulted in environmental disasters (Though nobody knows for sure it is very probable that in 17ths century Europe and Japan all the woods would have been burned and in the Dominican Republic all forests were transformed into charcoal.).
In summary I don’t share Stehr’s optimism that democracy is the only solution. It is simply not clear why it should come up with a solution since the effects of climate change do not act on the scales where democracy typically acts (both temporally and spatially). However the same is basically true for authoritarian regimes as well. A more realistic and less euphoric statement therefore might be: Since we don’t know how to tackle the climate problem and which system is best situated to come to satisfying results, also for future generations, lets just continue with democracy.
Also I have a question: As far as one hears about the politics behind the scenes both the shutdown of german nuclear power (I am not so happy with) and the recent opening of the german boarders to receive refugees (I am very happy with) were finally taken astonishingly alone by Angela Merkel. Both decisions seem to have major consequences for a couple of generations in Germany. Were these authoritarian decisions in an otherwise democratic system? And if theses decisions were ok (for Nico Stehr’s democratic gauge) would it also be ok if she decides alone to shut down all German coal fired power plants in the next ten years?
And finally for german readers a fun to read appeal for less democracy by Jan Fleischhauer:

Anonymous said...

Schade, dass wirklich gute Diktatoren so extrem selten sind, sonst könnten wir drüber reden ;-) Aber so, wie es ist, trägt Stehr Eulen (Eulen, keine Euros!) nach Athen.


@ReinerGrundmann said...


thanks for this very detailed and interesting comment. I agree with much of what you say. The analysis of environmental problems and the capacity of societies to act upon them ("solve" them for the more optimistic among us) needs to also take into account the property structure of societies. I have argued a long time ago (Marxism and Ecology) that it is not clear a priori if a regime with private property rights or a regime with collective ownership of resources is in a better position to deal with such issues. The potential for freeriding make the latter less obvious than many may think.

The argument needs to be more fine grained than democracy/authoritarianism or capitalism/socialism. This is why people like Elinor Ostrom have come up with empirical studies about the management of Common Pool Resources.

However, Nico Stehr addresses a rather specific point and alerts us to the point that scientists try to play the card of expertise and technocracy (science knows best). Democracy is the umbrella term to oppose this (one could also say public participation, to refer to a current trend in the social science literature).

Merkel deciding on her own - this is a risk and she could lose office as a result. But she can be voted out, whereas scientists cannot.

Much of political decision-making in representative democracies rests on a permissive consensus by the electorate (but this can break down on occasion).

@ReinerGrundmann said...


Fassbinder in Deutschland im Herbst provokes his mother into saying similar things, around the 20-25min mark



Werner Krauss said...


thanks for linking your blogposts about James Hansen and "planetary boundaries as power grab" - they remind me of how much I miss your climate blog!

In the first post, you do not reason in an abstract way about democracy and climate politics; instead, you respectfully reflect the recent history of the tension between climate science and climate politics at the example of James Hansen. We do not know better than he does - this is what I understand from your article. We have to take decisions and have to take sides, but we cannot easily rely on higher forces like "SCIENCE" and "Democracy" as abstract entities for legitimation. Both are culturally embedded practices under permanent negotiation, and permanently challenged by unexpected events - like a changing climate. There is no mechanism how to deal with this.

The same is true for your second blogpost: here you discuss the question of scientific authoritarianism based on Melissa Leach's report of the tension between her fieldwork in Africa and her experience when presenting the results at a scientific UN expert meeting - like magic, the scientific environment makes the political content of her fieldwork disappear. How to represent other voices, other perspectives, other culturally embedded ways of life, as Melissa Leach demands? Again, this question is not really answered yet. Obviously, James Hansen decided that the answer is no longer inside the halls of science and opts for climate activism. You seem to share sympathy for his decision (which brought him once even into jail!):

"Such overt advocacy for government action, grounded in shared values is the lifeblood of democracy.
Hansen will of course face criticism for his actions and for the specific policies that he advocates, some of it well deserved. However, one thing that Hansen can no longer be accused of is using science as a cover for seeking political ends. Hansen's lifelong journey to passionate advocate has arrived at a place where he shows respect for both democratic practices and for the role of science in democracy."

Your blogpost shows a lot of respect for his activism; contributing to the life blood of democracy is a way to face the challenge of climate change. I hope that your own story of being investigated by US Congress will not be the end of your climate activities - or should I say climate activism, using it in the best sense of the term, as being part of the lifeline of democracy.

MikeR said...

@22 ' "I am curious to hear about the rock-solid evidence that lobbying by big-oil is significantly trying to influence public opinion or the decision making process. I cannot see it ..."
If some googeling doesn't turn up anything you would consider solid evidence then we won't be able to have a meaningful discussion on that topic.'
I have to agree with Eduardo on this one. I see this referred to very often, Googling would produce lots of references, but the actual evidence for it seems very poor. The most effective public faces of anti-climate-action are amateur like Steve McIntyre and wattsupwiththat.
This seems to me to be more of a conspiracy theory, made by and for people who can't imagine that they are having such trouble convincing people of what seems so obvious to them.

Bam said...


What evidence do you have that Steve McIntyre and wattsupwiththat are such effective public faces of anti-climate-action?

If I ask the Americans I know who they consider the public faces of anti-climate-action, the people I hear most frequently mentioned are the Koch brothers, James Inhofe, and Jim Boehner. A decade ago it was mainly Dick Cheney who was mentioned.

Do you not find it ironic that you state there is such weak evidence that "Big Energy" tries to affect public opinion - ignoring the very well documented financing of politicians and think tanks, both of which are opinion makers - and then make such a blanket statement about McIntyre and Watts?

Mathis Hampel said...

This is a really interesting thread. But there's something missing because I thought climate change was an issue/idea that cannot be solved. Remember the "wicked problem"? Climate change is not going to go away, whether we tackle it democratically or technocratically. For me it's a lense through which we can discuss how we want to make decisions together. Yesterday is was an environmental policy issue, today it's predominantly framed as an energy policy issue, tomorrow it's a social policy issue (cf. the Pope's encyclical). It's all of that and more. I can see that as energy policy issue a "green" technocratic dictatorial system can be more effective. As a social policy issue a dictatorial system seems somewhat counter-intuitive but maybe I'm wrong. It's my guess that we will never be able to agree on one ever-lasting framing. To be sure, social scientists (Stehr) need categories to make sense of the subject under investigation but this binary technocracy vs democracy doesn't really do justice to the complexity of climate change, does it?! But we can all state our preferences, which is what Stehr did (apparently weighing in with his authority rather than meticulous scholarship).

Paul Matthews said...

Letter to Nature:

Climate change: Climate justice more vital than democracy

Democratic decision-making involves multiple stakeholders, and democracy emphasizes the mutual roles of actors...

In our view, sound climate and energy planning should not treat all stakeholders in the same way. Instead, preferences and roles should be weighted to consider criteria related to equity, due process, ethics and other justice principles.


Ricoh lens said...

Thanks for this blog is very useful i want to read again and again...

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Nico Stehr has published a longer version of the article in the journal Issues of Science and Technology

In the forum section there are comments from Naomi Oreskes, Dale Jamieson and myself