Konrad Ott « Debatte

Konrad Ott

28. April 2010,

Prof. Dr. Konrad Ott, geb.1959, Philosoph, seit 1997 Professor für Umweltethik an der Universität Greifswald. Forschungsschwerpunkte: Umweltethik, Diskursethik, Theorie nachhaltiger Entwicklung, Naturschutzbegründung, Naturschutzgeschichte, ethische Aspekte des Klimawandels, Bioethik.

The paper is written out of the perspective of political science. This perspective is different from policy making and ethics. Political science in its mainstream is about of how to describe and explain political change (in a broad sense). Explanations rest on concepts of causality being specified according to the peculiar features of human action. Therefore, concepts like influence, impacts, factors, response, incentives are crucial. Such concepts can be organized under the general scheme of dependent and independent variables. This conceptual scheme of political science opens an infinite field of inquiry and investigation in both domestic an international affairs. Clearly, it can be applied to the complex relationship in between climate change, climate change policies, economics, stability of governance regimes, and democratisation. To do so, several highly important topics for policy making can be perceived with more analytical rigor compared to intuitions and narrative evidences. The study of Peter Burnell has many merits in this respect.

The ethical perspective is different. It combines some principles by which the intrinsic worth of a full liberal democracy can be established with some other principles by which general objectives and strategies in environmental policy making can be substantiated. Such combination often results in concepts of deliberate environmental democracy, as authors like J. Dryzek or M. Mason have argued for. Such concepts suppose that further democratization can and should occur in full liberal democracies. Moreover, the ethical perspective can be enlarged with respect to climate change. By doing so, general ethical-political concepts as „Contraction and Convergence“ (C&C) or the „Greenhouse Development Rights Framework“ (GDR) are proposed. Quoting Edward Page, Burnell adopts the GDR approach on ethical grounds. I am sceptical whether Burnell has properly understood the core elements and the overall implications of GDR (p. 24/25). At its core, GDR is not about the „North in the South“ problem, but about allocating the burden of both mitigation and adaptation almost completely to the wealthy people on planet Earth while people living below a certain income level have no obligation whatsoever to mitigate emissions. For the purpose of this comment I wish to leave aside any debate on the merits and shortcomings on C&C and GDR (see Ott & Kraus 2009) and will focus on the scope and outcome of Burnell’s paper.

Any political scientists can blame ethicists for combining principles in such way (for instance: deliberate environmental democracy in conjunction with C&C) since such wishful climate friendly eco-democracy“ looks fine in moral philosophy but might be ignorant against the many conflicts that will occur under real world conditions. As political scientist, Burnell is entitled to abstract away the „more imaginary forms of democracy“ (p. 36) which are still „largely on the drawing board“ (ibid.). Of course, such types of democracy must be established before their performance can be „tested“ empirically. Burnell is right arguing that such concepts of, say, deliberative environmental democracy must overcome their own „decentralization bias“ in order to address global issues as climate change. I completely agree with Burnell that climate change policies can’t wait for the final triumph of such types of democracy that suppose further democratisation within full liberal democracies. I will not go into some problems whether some countries are classified properly. To my, Saudi-Arabia is not a non-liberal democracy (p. 23), but I leave such single topics aside. Reasoning about single states as Kenya, Vietnam, Kyrgistan etc. is misleading.

Burnell is right in claiming that, probably, one can’t have it all: stable and full liberal democracy, further democratisation of electorate democracy or semi-authoritarian regimes, good outcomes of stable governance structures, pro-poor economic development, strong mitigation, sound adaptation that cares especially for vulnerable groups, the emergence of a strong post-Kyoto regime, and the like. He is right in emphasizing conflicts, dilemmas, cruel choices, and the like. By doing so, he is on the edge between political science and ethics. On the one hand, it is a scientific question of how different societies are going to resolve such conflicts (or cope with them) while on the other hand he asked how such conflicts should be resolved. The last question is not about matters of facts but about well-justified priorities and, thus, ultimately an ethical question. Most of the „coordination question“ and some of the „political question“ (p 41/42) are normative ones. Before turning to some ethical problems in more detail, I wish to address more scientific questions.

The questions being stated on p. 7 are of paramount importance for both political scientists and ethicists. Indeed, it would be good or even vital to know how these mutual relationships are to be determined. But can there be robust knowledge at all? If the question is a very broad one, analytical rigor comes at a price. This is true a fortiori for the big global picture of roughly 190 national states being confronted with the impacts of climate change and being challenged and forced to make some mitigation and adaptation policies. The higher the scientific rigor is, the less clear (the more inconclusive) are the outcomes. Burnell seems to be well aware of this relationship. To give just one example: One should distinguish between the effects (impacts) that climate change in itself may have on democratisation (or political stability), and the impacts of climate change policies on democratisation (or political stability). The political impacts of adaptation policies on political regimes can only be guessed. This is true also for the impacts of domestic climate refugees on different political regimes. If one adds economic performance of single countries to this big picture having both impacts on democracy and mitigation, the results of Burnell’s study are, in terms of scientific outcome, meagre. The answers being presented on p. 40 are „very broad generalizations, worded in heavily qualified ways“ (p. 40). This result is not surprising. It rather would have been a surprise to me, if results would have been more specific.

Given the definition of „democratization“ as a movement toward full liberal democracy occurring within all other regimes, including autocratic ones, and given all the caveats (p. 15), it seems clear that democratization in itself does not necessarily make it easier but can make it more difficult for states to engage with climate mitigation. Given the premises, the conclusion can be inferred without many empirical amendments. The same holds for the relation between democratisation and adaptation. The answers being given always entail „can“, „might“, „may“, „could“ and can be, of course, hardly refuted or falsified. The answers being given on p. 40 are clearly not false but come close to some conceptual truisms. The same holds for the two sets of implications being presented on p. 39. Nobody doubts that there is no silver bullet (p. 43). Most of us will agree that many economic factors „in total“ influence GHG emissions more than political structures (p. 30).

All in all, Burnell does not reach robust explanatory „scientific“ knowledge which might be used for reliable predictions, but he presents hypothetical reasoning with a high degree of uncertainty – and he can’t be blamed for doing so. The evidence base is a moving target. Whoever could argue with confidence what kind of impacts climate change or international adaptation policies will have on the process of democratization in, say, Nepal after the end of monarchy? I can also agree that the general rule saying that the overall environmental performance of full liberal (parliamentarian) democracies is better than those of other regimes may have the exception of GHG-emissions. The Environmental-Kuznets-Curve (EKC) may be a correct model for most environmental pollutants but my not apply for GHG. But it might also be the case that in the end EKC turns out the correct model for GHG, too.

Facing all those remaining epistemic uncertainties, ethicists feel permitted to point to some traditions. Immanuel Kant argued that lack of empirical knowledge can make moral commitments even stronger. Hans Jonas argued that precaution should be taken more seriously if foresight is restricted. The obligations to engage in favour of both strong mitigation and prudent mitigation are by no means refuted by Burnell’s paper. I do not agree with some of Burnell’s suggestions that long-term mitigation may infringe the basic structure of full liberal democracies. Some neoliberals see even taxes and legal standards as bureaucratic attacks against individual liberties (economic profit), but this ideological rhetoric should not be taken seriously any more.

At its end, Burnell’s paper touches important ethical and political topics. To my mind, it seems better to debate on only one question in more detail than to address many questions superficially. To my mind, one crucial message of Burnell’s paper is the claim that democratisation is a hazardous, risky enterprise with uncertain outcomes with respect to both mitigation and adaptation. In principle, democratisation can „help and hinder“ climate policies (p. 11). Moreover, democratisation of electorate democracies can result in situation from which even a backlash into autocratic systems is possible.

Good governance and democracy are not the same (p. 33) and therefore it remains an open question whether democratization improves governance. The shift from a semi-autocratic or authoritarian regime towards an electorate democracy can also weaken governance structures. Newly emerging democracies can be fragile ones. Given the premise that democratization can turn a stable non-democratic (semi-authoritarian) system into a fragile one or can destabilize electorate democracies, there could be another cruel choice looming. Stable governance structures are a functional requirement for long-term strategies of mitigation and for adaptation. Any international adaptation funding mechanism supposes governmental structures that spend the money for proper objectives. Mitigation may require stable taxation systems, and the like.

One can even imagine political situations in which the destabilizing impacts of climate change (p. 20) and hazardous ways of democratization meet each other. The worst case might be a compound failure, namely a failure of fragile democracies and a failure of both mitigation and adaptation. Such deeply troubling situations would be water on the mills of the proponents of geopolitics, securitization, and geoengineering.
„Strengthening state capacity and improving governance may (!) be more important for goals of climate adaptation and improving human security“ (p. 37). More important than what? The answer is clear: More important than democratization under all conditions. Ironically, Burnell hands one cruel dilemmatic choice over to us Western supporters of both democracy and climate change policies. But what about the qualifiers in this pattern of reasoning: if „unrealistic“ or could even prove „disruptive“. How much prudence or foresight is needed to assess ongoing processes of democratisation? Many of the coordination and political questions (p. 41) are aspects of this cruel choice.

Probably, we can not escape such choices and questions by making or concepts of deliberative eco-democracy even more attractive. Nevertheless, ethical reasoning has two songlines with respect to moral dilemmas. The first songline takes dilemmas as occurring and searches for solutions. The second songline argues that it is our primary task to consider how dilemmas can be avoided if they are not occurring yet but looming in some future. How a Jewish mother should act if she can rescue only one of her two kids from the Nazi’s, is one of many paradigm cases in moral reasoning under dilemmatic conditions. How people should act to prevent such kinds of situation is another question. Taking Burnell’s cruel choice as real danger, we should imagine how we could prevent such situations.

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1 Kommentar

  1. Yes sir, you are right in that the paper is written out of the perspective of political science. I make no apologies for being trained in this discipline. It is for others, better qualified, to bring in the ethical perspective. The GDR can be seen as both an ethical solution to problems of climate change and as apolitically astute device to persuade people in wealthy countries that they should support this solution. Without the support of the rich countries no global solution will be adopted and put into practice, irrespective of the ethical merits that a scheme might possess. It is the task of politicians (in democracies, anyway) to craft initiatives that will gain popular support.

    Saudi Arabia is neither a democracy nor a very liberal polity, according to most political commentators. Perhaps there is a misunderstanding of the wording in the paper that thinks it call Saudi a democracy but not a liberal democracy – a claim that I would not agree with.

    I agree with the importance of distinguishing between the effects of climate change on political variables and the political effects of measures to combat climate change. If the sum total of our knowledge on this, after incorporating economic performance, climate refugees etc is ‘meagre’, then that is a sad but perhaps well justified reflection on social science’s inability to pose the right questions and devise methodologically sound ways of procuring convincing answers. Contestation of the evidence, of the methods, of the conceptual constructs even, is rife. And as you rightly say, the evidence base is a moving target but still very incomplete. Maybe all this tells us something about the subjects under investigation – their complexity and immensity – as well as about the discipline(s).

    The obligations to engage in favour of both strong mitigation and prudent mitigation are compelling, in my view, and I do not think the paper says otherwise. Indeed, the lengthy penultimate paragraph of the commentary sums up admirably many of the points the paper tries to raise. And it seems to me there are both moral dilemmas right now and also the possibility – some would say the certainty – of even more and bigger dilemmas in the future if humankind does not get its act together pretty soon. How do ethicists trade off present day and likely future moral dilemmas?

    Thank you.

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