Hermann Ott « Debatte

Hermann Ott

28. April 2010,

This comment is not meant to be a thorough and proper review. It therefore does not have to list all the merits of the paper, of which it has some, but can concentrate and focus. And to focus is certainly also one of the main tasks ahead for the author. All the time while reading I was plagued by the persisting question in the back of my head: “What does he want?” And I did not get a conclusive answer throughout the paper.
Analyzing the various contributing factors to successfully tackle climate change is not a trivial task, as the paper clearly demonstrates. And the relationship between effective policies to fight climate change and democracy is certainly a very complex one. It is also a worthwhile endeavour because so much is at stake and progress is so slow.

However, compared with the urgency of this task, some of the conclusions and assumptions of Burnell are pretty academic. Frankly, sometimes they even seem to mock the urgency of the issue in its core assumptions and conclusions. It is undoubtedly theoretically interesting and helpful to analyze the different approaches of different political systems to mitigate climate change. The paper, however, remains inconclusive on whether a democratic system or a dictatorship would be most efficient to counter the effects of global warming.

But what relevance does this question really have? If Burnell had identified non-democratic regimes as being more effective, what would the conclusion be? Surely not strive for a less democratic society (although the author insinuates that this could make sense in some cases). It is therefore not “vital to know, whether democratization helps or hinders an adequate response to climate change”. A non-democratic regime can hardly be the better choice. Especially not, if this transforms into policy advice to developing countries and is coming from western countries which are mostly responsible for the climate change. The implicit policy advice “it is better for us all if your country continues to be unfree with all resulting consequences for the people, e.g. no respect for human rights” is at best academic and certainly a veritable non-policy.
To make this clear: Insinuating that it would be better to halt or slow democratization processes for the benefit of better mitigating climate change is cynical. And it reproduces the imperial attitude that characterized the neoconservative policy of the US in the last decades.

It is also irritating that conclusions of such a magnitude are based on unproven biases. For example, I do not agree at all with the statement, that “non-democracies are said to rely more heavily on their ability to perform”. There are just too many cases where the ruling class could not care less for their performance and the economic development of the country as a whole, as long as this ruling class has all the benefits (e.g. Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Sudan etc.). Legitimacy in the eyes of their own people does not seem what they strive for. Thus, they normally do not give priority to long-term environmental sustainability.

The paper furthermore fails to explore vital issues in the context of environment and development. For example, it is of course important to ask whether policies to mitigate climate change may lead to a widening gap between upper and lower strata of society und may thus unsettle democracies. But Burnell fails to explore whether economic development and mitigating climate change must be outplayed against each other. There are many reasons to conclude that they do not have to. Even on the contrary, mitigating climate change in developing countries is in a sense much easier than in developed countries where certain fatal development paths have been entered many decades ago. For example, energy grids and power plants are often missing in certain countries and regions and renewable energy plus connecting grids in rural areas could be build efficiently from the beginning. Developed countries have a vital role to play in supplying this kind of technology and financial assistance. To demand economic sacrifice from people who sometimes live off 1 USD a day truly is a false policy.

Again, I do not believe that “something has to give: democracy and development, or climate mitigation”. Instead of discussing whether democracy is compatible with efficient and fast climate change mitigation, it would make more sense to discuss the world’s current economic growth model. There is plenty of room for change in the way economic growth is measured and valued without questioning a free market economy. It is not democracy as such that has historically led to an increase in CO2 emissions, but the wrong economic models and instruments (“tragedy of the commons”) and there is no prerequisite why this must be an effect to be seen in newly developing democracies. To the contrary, it was often industrial development in a command economic model (under communist regimes) that had the most adverse environmental effects.
Therefore, the huge task that lies before us – and this is thankfully also mentioned in the paper – can only be to strive for a triple-win situation where development, climate action and democratization would benefit. I would recommend to make this aspect more clear in this paper.

One vital aspect is emphasized in the paper with which I fully agree: “In so far as mitigation slows the trajectory of global warming and reduces the costs of adaptation in the future, the long-run political impact of climate change overall would be lessened, too. In that sense, mitigation should contribute to improving the outlook for democracy and democratization the longer term – so long as the present economic costs of mitigation do not bring pro-poor development to a grinding halt in the meantime”. This is why it is so important that developed countries must do all they can to assist developing countries on a development path that will tackle both poverty and climate change. The current financing proposals are simply not enough to that.

One of the “answers” this paper puts forward in Chapter 6 is as true as it is simple: Democratization does not necessarily make it easier and can make it more difficult for countries to engage with climate mitigation. Naturally, in a dictatorship any decision can be taken faster and easier. But what incentive does a non-democratic countries with a small ruling elite have to tackle climate change? Though mentioned in other paragraphs in his paper, this aspect is missing completely in the answer section of Chapter 6.
To conclude I would state that there is a part of the paper that merits more attention: the exploration of the impacts of climate change and the looming scarcity of natural resources on democracy / democratically structured societies. The other question is at best academic and of no practical relevance.

I find it furthermore irritating that the question of democracy is discussed – even if only academically – in this way in a paper to be published by the Boell Foundation. I would thus recommend a thorough revision before publication. The Boell Foundation as a green foundation is firmly rooted in democratic values and the greatest possible participation of society in decision making. The Copenhagen Summit, even though it failed to address global warming sufficiently, did show how important global civil society is in promoting a sustainable society and in pushing nations to address Global warming And civil society can only thrive in democratic and free nations.

Burnell is in danger of seeking the easy way out of a dilemma when he proposes that a non-democratic system could deal better with fighting climate change. It is much harder to answer the correct question: How can we succeed in convincing society of the urgency and need of combating climate change and the necessary chances in our way of live. How can we design a democratic system that is capable to counteract the massive influence by powerful corporations that distort the will of the people just because they have enormous resources at hand? If you fail to achieve something in a democracy, it is certainly not the system that has failed, but maybe you did not work hard enough inside the system.

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  1. Sorry to disappoint. But the paper has no intention to say what I want, for that is supremely irrelevant. The more important questions concern what does society want?, are the wants reasonable and compatible?; and does society posses the means to realise them? And what policy implications if any follow for the power-holders?

    If the evidence showed that non-democratic regimes are more effective than non-democracies at combating climate change, and if the challenge of combating climate change is very urgent, then society must decide for itself, in the light its own values, on how to prioritise the democracy promotion (where democratic change is known to be hazardous) and combating climate change. My guess is that the people of China- and there are many of them – probably have a different take on this compared to people in Germany or the UK for instance. The line in the comment commencing ‘The implicit policy advice etc’ is not one that I recognise from the paper, and not one that I would identify with. Maybe the paper’s intentions were not communicated very well.

    The paper’s statement that non-democracies are said to rely more heavily on their ability to perform is an accurate representation of the democratization literature. However, note that the claim is not a descriptive statement that all really existing non-democracies actually do perform well and do gain popular support or legitimacy as a consequence. Instead it is a statement that in principle non-democracies have nothing else to rely on if they want to enjoy the support of their people and establish a claim to legitimacy in the people’s eyes, given that popular consent expressed via free and fair competitive elections is not allowed and the use of forcer or the threat of force to coerce obedience hardly count. While the central proposition is contestable in theory (there may be other foundations of support rooted in nationalist and anti-imperialist ideology or religious belief, for example) the reality is that some regimes that are not recognised as liberal democracies do seem to enjoy at least the acquiescence of the people, because the regimes deliver security and prosperity. Singapore is often cited as an example. Of course none of this means that such regimes are bound to be committed to environmental sustainability.

    The paper’s terms of reference did not include exploring ‘whether economic development and mitigating climate change must be outplayed against one another’, although it raises this as one possibility. My impression is that this is a hotly contested area in political debate. Developing countries certainly do have an opportunity to avoid making the mistakes that have been made by the so-called advanced industrial economies during their industrial development. But for many of them the ability to do this requires financial and technical support from the international community. The paper makes this point, and you are right to draw attention to it.

    The observation that ‘It is not democracy as such that has historically led to an increase in CO2 emissions, but the wrong economic models and instruments etc’ is extremely significant and most pertinent. I am not confident that causal responsibility can be laid at the door of just one ‘independent variable’. Politics matters; and although it is true that the communist countries had a generally poorer environmental record than other countries it is non-communist countries that have been mainly responsible for the historical accumulation of carbon emissions, up till now (albeit not being aware of the consequences until fairly recently).

    The ‘huge task that lies before us – …to strive for a triple win situation where development, climate action and democratization’ all occur is indeed extremely important, as other commentators on the paper have drawn attention to as well. In my opinion it merits much more intensive investigation than it has had from anyone so far. It would be great if organisations like the Heinrich Böll Foundation now focus their energy on thinking through how to turn the idea of a ‘triple win’ into reality. As other commentators have pointed out to, it probably requires both interdisciplinarity and constructive collaboration among policy-makers, politicians and other interested parties.

    The importance of helping developing countries to develop in ways that tackle both poverty and climate is undeniable, not least because mitigation there can reduce the chances of political as well as humanitarian and economic disasters occurring there in the future. For sure the current financial proposals are simply not enough to do that.

    The incentive of non-democratic countries with a small ruling elite to tackle climate change poses a very good question. We might equally ask why China appears to be taking more dramatic steps now than many western democracies? And also what kind of democracy will give more weight to the incentive to prioritise climate mitigation (and help poor countries with their mitigation and adaptation), if the majority of the people in a wealthy democracy determines that it is not their priority, and if vested interests opposed to climate action use the legal and legitimate measure that democracy allows to sway public opinion and influence legislators in directions that to satisfy their sectional, or particular interests at the expense of sane action on climate change?

    Finally, the paper does indeed raise the possibility that a non-democratic system – or, more accurately, a system trying to move from a more authoritarian to a less authoritarian system and perhaps encountering difficulties in maintaining political stability and effective governance along the way (e.g, Russia in the 1990s) – could deal better with fighting climate change. It is much less confident that it would do better. And there is no evidence that it would compare favourably against those relatively few democracies that, unlike the majority, have taken a clear and strong lead on climate change.

    The ‘correct question’ – ‘how can we succeed in convincing society of the urgency and need of combating climate change and the necessary changes in our way of life. How can we design a democratic system that is capable of counteracting the massive influence by powerful corporations that distort the will of the people just because they have enormous resources at hand’ are incredibly important, even if they are not the only questions that could be asked and that demand plausible answers. It is heartening to see there are politicians and civil society activists who are committed to taking on the challenge. Why are there not so many more? And why is there still a mountain to climb, notwithstanding the compelling evidence for addressing climate change forcefully and as a matter of urgency. Far from being not ‘correct’ these questions pose conundrums that also merit further consideration.

    Thank you.

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