Thomas Saretzki « Debatte

Thomas Saretzki

29. Juni 2010,

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Thomas Saretzki, born 1955, is Professor for Political Theory and Public Policy at the Center for the Study of Democracy, Leuphana University of Lueneburg. His primary areas of scholarly interest include democratic theory, political sociology and policy studies with a special focus on the relation of democracy and the environment and on new concepts of policy analysis and deliberation.

Context: trade-offs and identities
In the introductory remarks to the policy paper of Peter Burnell on “Climate change and democratisation”, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung reminds the reader in the first sentence that this paper deals with two points of reference that are anything but peripheral to the foundation or the environmental movement as a whole. “Democracy and ecology constitute – among gender politics – the cornerstones of the work of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.” Add non-violence to the list of cornerstones, then we are dealing with at least two of the four founding principles that political scientists considered to be basic to the environmental movement and to the green party in Germany.

Thinking critically about the basic ideas of one’s own activities can turn out to be a troublesome endeavour for all organisations or institutions. As they matter for their identity, thinking about the relation of some of these basic ideas can be even more troublesome, especially in organisations or institutions where some of these ideas mean more to some members or affiliates then to others. Even exploring possible trade-offs on the level of policies that are supposed to realize the norms and values associated with these basic ideas (such as climate policies vs. democratization policies) can be perceived as having implications for the balance between the “cornerstones” of a green foundation or political party. In this case, debates about the relation of specific environmental policies vis-à-vis democratization policies can raise deeper questions about the identity of the organisation as a whole: Are we primarily green or are we democratic in the first place? If we think about such debates in a frame-reflective way, we can realize that the issues involved in such a debate can not only be described as goal conflicts on the level of policies directed to solve complex political problems. Rather, different arguments and story-lines in the debate are rooted in and refer to different parts of the composite political identity of a collective actor formed out of different social and cultural constituencies. Green parties and their foundations never had a homogenous identity, but served as good examples for collective actors which social scientist conceived as having “multiple selves”.

Debates about possible trade-offs between policies related to different “cornerstones” of a political party with a “multiple self” (like the greens) may turn out to have another bridge to cross if the organisation decides to bring in scientific expertise to clarify political problems and possible policy options to solve these problems. If scientific knowledge about problems, problem solving strategies and their trade-offs is to help policy makers, it needs to be translated and re-interpreted by those engaged in political practices.

From my point of view, the Foundation has to be applauded to start a discussion on the relation of climate change and democratisation with this paper by Peter Burnell – even though some of its members and affiliates may think that such a discussion could be troublesome with regard to the organisation itself. The debate about the relation of climate change and democracy is going on anyway and has already reached various scientific publics and even some of the agenda setting media. The paper by Peter Burnell provides basic information on this complex relationship and raises a number of questions for science and policy makers alike from the perspective of a scholar well known in international relations and democratisation studies. However, this perspective and its specific way of constructing problems, dilemmas and policy choices require some rethinking as I shall try to indicate in the rest of this comment.

Hard evidence?
Although the term is explicitly used only once (p. 27) by Peter Burnell, the notion of “hard evidence” concerning greenhouse gas emissions and their relations to democracy appears at least implicitly as a premise in various lines of reasoning in some parts of the text. In other parts, however, the current status of empirical research on this relation is characterized as delivering very preliminary results at best (see the summary on p. 30). Thus, the whole notion that there is already (or ever could be, cf. p. 40) something like “hard evidence” on the relation of climate change and democracy is called into question: how hard is it really? And can we take that “evidence” as an empirically certain starting point for our debates about policy that is not plagued with the uncertainty and ambiguity we are confronted with in other fields of research on the relationship of man and the environment?
To be sure, this is not meant to join the camp of the climate sceptics who doubt that the climate change meteorologists are observing has anything to do with human activities at all. Rather, it is meant as a reminder that the “evidence” which scientific studies on the relation of climate change and democracy produced so far is anything but certain or unequivocal. Surveys of the field usually speak of “mixed evidence” when the research findings are reviewed. As I was arguing elsewhere, such a characterization remains pretty much on the surface. If we look more closely at the controversies that go on in the field and take the policy implications into account that almost all researchers in the field dwell upon at the end of their statistical studies, then we sooner or later come to realize that this “evidence” on the relation of climate change and democracy is not only “mixed”, but “contested” (Saretzki 2007).

As Burnell points out in his review of the literature, the results and conclusions produced in these studies depend upon the research designs, definitions, methods and indicators, source and quality of data, selection of country samples and time periods under investigation etc. And as I tried to show, the design of the studies often correspond with preferences for certain policy implications that are then presented as a result of an “objective” statistical analysis. In other words: there is no certain and unequivocal statistical basis for generalized conclusions concerning the relation of democracy and climate change. As in any other empirical study of the relation of democracy and the environment, we find not only mixed, but contested evidence. The extent and direction of the “democracy effect” depend on the research design of the studies. Moreover, the policy implications drawn from these studies reflect the policy preferences of the authors and very often also their preferences for or against different models of democracy in general.

Cruel choices?
From the perspective of a frame-reflective policy analysis, we can ask ourselves why certain stages or phases of a policy process are highlighted and how they are characterized in a specific policy approach. Considering Peter Burnell’s analysis of the possible trade-offs between climate and democratisation policy, the concept of “cruel choices” is most striking in that respect. Both words matter. First of all, if there has to be a choice among different policies, why is it characterized with a heavily burdened word like “cruel”? And: Cruel in what respect? Cruel for whom? For the policy makers who make policy decisions in liberal democracies or for some of the addressees of their policies? Here some social and contextual clarification would be helpful. Moreover, a less emotionalizing word is familiar from the notion of “hard choices” which is often used by ethicists who have a preference for framing problems of moral reasoning in the language of economics. However, even the more familiar notion of “hard choices” basically applies to individual moral decisions. Yet Burnell characterizes the policy dilemmas as “moral” (p. 37) without further qualifications. However, thinking about the fields of climate or democratization policy, we are talking about decisions in situations where trade-offs between policies might be expected. These decisions can also be described in a less dramatizing language, e.g. as problems of priority setting. Such policy issues usually involve questions of “more or less” rather than individual moral decisions that present themselves in a simple “either – or” fashion. In a more constructive approach, one might also conceptualize the trade-offs as problems of policy integration.

Secondly, why choice? That is to say: Why focus primarily on the decision phase in the problem solving process? Before we must make a choice, we might want to know what the policy options are that can be chosen? Every choice that is supposed to be a real choice between alternative options requires the formulation of policy options that are or at least can be justified as making a difference. Neglecting this process of formulating and justifying alternative policy options is to fall prey to the TINA-Syndrom (“There Is No Alternative”). To make the point in broader terms: Why not refer to all the stages in a policy process that we can distinguish in most instances where societal or environmental problems are to be treated by political actors and institutions? For instance, it is a well known commonplace in the history of environmental policy that very often implementation is the most relevant problem in terms of actual changes in the environmental situation, rather than decision per se. Focussing on the aspect of choice, we might have a decision but lack a solution. Neglecting the question of how the choices are constructed and justified in a policy process leads into a decisionist concept of democracy. To avoid that pitfall, concepts analyzing and reflecting the process of opinion- and will-formation that precedes choice are required. Such concepts can be found in the family of theories of democracy which are often labelled as deliberative. From a policy perspective, a concept of democracy is required that includes all aspects of problem solving and conflict resolution from deliberation to decision and implementation.

Capacity vs. commitment?
At some point in the text, Burnell wonders whether good governance “may matter much more than democracy per se”. Reading this speculation, however, one is immediately inclined to say: yes, it may, but it can also be the other way round. In other words: the perspective of Burnell’s problematization appears to be one-sided. In the light of this perspective, democracies seem to have the commitment, but not the capacity to act in the field of climate policy (p. 35). However, there may also be cases in which there are democracies having the capacity, but not the commitment to take effective action. Capacity and commitment – both need to be addressed as critical steps towards effective climate and democratization policies.

Coordination vs. political questions?
In his summary, Peter Burnell (2009: 40-42) argues that there are open questions which fall into two broad categories: “coordination questions” (which are supposed to be of “specific relevance to international organizations”) and “larger political questions”. From a policy perspective, this categorization is a little irritating, since the language used in this juxtaposition suggests that the first set of questions is not “political”, but only “coordinative”. Reading the questions closely, most of the sentences use the word “should” or some equivalent. Thus, what is labelled under the heading of “coordination” really turns out as a discussion of rather basic normative or prescriptive questions. This set of questions addresses what international organisations (and other political actors) should do in the two policy fields. While these “coordinative” questions clearly are concerned with an action-orientation addressing actors participating in a political field, the questions labelled “political” read much more like analytical ones to be answered from the perspective of an external observer, i.e. from empirical studies in political science. If we want to distinguish between different (primary) addressees of different sorts of questions and thus assign different tasks to different actors involved (political actors vs. political science), than a different categorization might be helpful for the reader.

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  1. Thomas Saretzki makes a very interesting observation when he notes the relevance of the discussions over climate change and democratisation to the political identity of organisations that have a ‘multiple self’, in addition to the implications the discussions have for trade-offs in public policy. There is an old saying ‘if the cap fits, then wear it’; put differently, does the debate on climate change and its relationships with democracy and democratisation, that the Heinrich Boll Foundation has helped to initiate and move forward, tell us something important about the Foundation, as well as about the subjects of the debate? The author’s cautionary remarks about the contested as well as mixed nature of the evidence about relations between climate change and democratisation are also well made, although they should not inhibit the aspiration to do better – that is to say, to come up with evidence whose mode of production and intrinsic claims are more compelling and universally acknowledged as such. Or is this goal unattainable in such a value-laden field of inquiry as climate change and democracy and democratisation? On the issue of choice that Thomas Saretzi writes about, the processes whereby policy alternatives come to be framed and whereby choices are made – and then implemented well, badly, or not implemented at all – are of course extremely important. The agenda of political questions meriting further inquiry that can be found at the end of the paper Climate Change and Democratization: a Complex Relationship both recognises this point tries to make a start in terms of identifying some specific questions that could be researched in the concrete day-to-day practice of real countries. This is something that in-country experts on the most relevant countries could be urged to do more of and to share their findings with the Foundation. Similarly, if a different way of labelling different sets of questions (‘political’ and ‘co-ordination’ questions) where some convincing answers are needed, or a different basis for categorisation, is thought desirable then go ahead and suggest a better formulation. But clearly this does not necessarily imply – and there seems to be no intention to imply – that the questions themselves have no relevance.

    Thank you.

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