Helmut Wiesenthal « Debatte

Helmut Wiesenthal

28. April 2010,

Helmut Wiesenthal, born in 1938, is a sociologist and political scientist and was a professor from 1994 to 2003 at the Institute of Social Sciences at the Humboldt-University in Berlin. He specialises in collective actors, industrial relations, institutions of interest intermediation, institutional change, globalisation, policy reform, and social engineering.

What Peter Burnell raises in his well-informed analysis is not exactly encouraging for world leaders concerned about climate change. The connection between development and democratisation in former third world countries appear to be more and more ambiguous. Ever since about 100 “emerging economies” account for half of global output, the links between the triple goals of development, democracy and CO2 reduction have become even more blurred. Burnell’s study cautions the reader against giving too much attention to unfounded doubt, seven of which are outlined here.

1. The discovery of anthropogenic climate change, which is essentially a consequence of fossil fuel exploitation and therefore a by-product of industrial society’s modernisation, is causing the last traces of trust in modernisation, which is already damaged by environmental degradation and the risks of science and technology, to vanish. Of course we want everybody on earth to enjoy the same, or better, quality of life that we have in Europe now. But it is now clear: The road to this goal is becoming ever more risky and the likelihood of reaching this goal is waning.

2. While we observe China’s rise and the accelerated modernisation of many former developing countries with concerned goodwill, we must recognise that as they become the driver of global events and guarantor of low prices for ever more powerful consumer goods, our position as a leader in world affairs erodes to a proportionate degree. No matter how concerned we may be over this, the next situation, or how things will evolve in 20, 50 or 100 years, our view of things will always be less influential and almost irrelevant. Europe, the region where the global modernisation process began, will account for only 5% of world production in less than 30 years – but the rest of the world, which accounts for the majority, will continue to see us as the cause of many global problems.

3. Burnell shows that there is no systematic and reliable connection between the state of democracy and a country’s ability to enact preventative climate policy. He states very plainly: If efforts to prevent climate change were successful, it would certainly be advantageous for the (further) democratisation of many countries. But based on the status quo, progress in democratisation promises no progress in the reduction of greenhouse gases. Politics as presented by democratic media is too focussed on daily news, lobbying interests and attention cycles. And the most important issue is always the next election: Why else would the SPD be so eager to address the temporal interests of so many voters and distance themselves from their 2010 reform agenda? It appears that climate policy is not unlike pension, labour and tax policies in the sense that in the struggle for political power and recognition, more weight is given to short-term impacts than to the long-term and to individual benefits over the common good.

4. Claus Leggewie and Harold Welzer came to a similar conclusion as Peter Burnell in their essay in Transit 36 (“Can democracies deal with climate change?”). Like Burnell, they consider “more democracy”, in the sense of building a participatory framework, helpful in this country when it comes to awakening the understanding of climate policy victims and burdens. While Burnell still assigns the responsibility of helping the poor adapt to climate change to the old industrial countries, Leggewie and Welzer point out that industrially advanced countries consider themselves to be the main player in a game in which they are only spectators with little influence. This also touches on our contribution to climate change. One could imagine which direction the grassroots debate over climate victims would take once people realise how little influence Germany’s emissions behaviour has on the world’s climate. Since Germany contributes less than 4% to global CO2 emissions, an 80% emissions reduction in comparison to 2005 would at most result in a 0.01 degree reduction in global temperature.

5. But are the significant expansion of renewable energies and the willingness of the EU to enter into a global climate agreement not important practical steps to encouraging other countries to follow suit? Yes and no. Some countries with a homogeneous population, deeply ingrained sense of environmental awareness and responsibility, and openness to structural change, such as Sweden, are likely to achieve a decarbonisation of their economy. Others lacking both moral and real capital will not take on the challenge. And quite a few, probably the majority, which includes Germany, will come up with a mix of innovations that will prove to be partially meaningful and insufficient. Economists suggest that meaningful innovations should be identified based on their costs to abate one tonne of CO2, which is currently trading on the European Energy Exchange for about 15 €. Were we to do that, we would have to recognise that the development of renewables is often only about industrial and political symbolism, and not actually about reducing CO2 emissions. Believe it or not, the promotion of photovoltaics would cost 1000 € per tonne of CO2 avoided, if they contribute to emission reductions at all (which is not the case because resulting emission rights are sold to dirty power plants).

6. But are democracies, especially those with a strong environmental movement in the country, not in the best position to provide the international stage a shining example of an engaged negotiating partner for a climate change agreement? The honest answer is no. The good will of rich countries not only lack a plausible argument for why the possible fate of unborn generations should count more than the actual fate of real people in poor countries plagued by livelihood problems. The willingness of the “rich” to make impressive investments and progress in climate mitigation is rendered meaningless due to the (especially under strengthened democratic conditions) self-interest of states to restrain action and to follow the bandwagon. This was made clear by the report entitled “Climate policy between emission mitigation and adaptation” that was filed by Federal Finance Ministry’s Scientific Advisory Board. A recent example is also the ignorance that the envoys of the main emission producing countries within the EU showed at the Copenhagen climate conference. Rational climate policy should be measured against real and achievable outcomes, and not so much against the opinions and emotions that they stir up in their own countries.

7. Finally, there remains the possibility of saving the world through awareness and lifestyle changes, as well as the “greening” of everyday action. It is clear that this option is more likely to have a chance under democratic conditions than authoritarian conditions, where each deviation from the norm risks being persecuted for being inflammatory. And indeed, it is not only the spread of the elite consumerism style LOHAS (Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability) that can be observed, but also the growing interest in energy conservation, green energy and organic products, among others. However, this has not resulted in an encouraging record on emissions reduction. Many well-intentioned activities fizzle out because they do not fit into the institutional framework (such as energy-saving and solar electricity supply under the emissions trading system) or because the cost of energy production exceeds the intended climate benefits.

For Oliver Geden (“Strategic consumption rather than sustainable policy”), “the immense overestimation of politicised everyday practices” is something to complain about – mainly because more effective possibilities to influence policies, as available in democracies, remain in the shadows. Therefore, as discerning adults, citizens finally deserve a sober and honest evaluation of climate policy options and their effects. However, in reality, politics and the media (all channels and parties included, even the greens) all too often treat climate protection as an undeveloped educational topic and provide false information, such as the alleged climate benefits of energy saving light bulbs and solar energy. But precisely because so much needs to be done for effective climate protection, it is essential to focus our action on effective policies and not act indiscriminately.

This posting is also available in German.

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1 Kommentar

  1. Helmut rightly says that the paper claims that while climate change mitigation can be beneficial to the progress of democratisation, the advance of democracy does not necessarily guarantee reduced greenhouse gas emissions. While noting that the emerging economies will have a growing impact on global economic and environmental trends, the main focus of his remarks is on the developed democracies, Germany in particular. It seems paradoxical that although the leadership set by several of the established democracies so far can be deemed inadequate, especially but not only the United States, the chances of securing greater public awareness and understanding and appropriate lifestyle changes in the future must be considered greater in liberal democracies than in non-democracies. This is for the usual reasons to do with the general freedoms of inquiry, thought, expression, association and political mobilisation in support of causes where the power-holders’ immediate political interests and instincts dictate resistance to change. The chances are even better in wealthy democracies, where the legitimacy of the political system rests on popular consent and does not depend on continual increase in economic outputs. But a pertinent question is whether it is acceptable in a democracy for an enlightened government to run ahead of public opinion if that is required in order to meet the urgent climate change challenge, such as by making climate policies ‘off limits’ to political contestation and by removing them from control by majority rule? The capacity of politicians to exercise a benign influence on public opinion may indeed be crucial. Political processes that instil trust and confidence in the politicians have to be considered a plus for this.

    Thank you.

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