Thomas C. Hilde « Debatte

Thomas C. Hilde

12. Juli 2010,

Tom Hilde is Research Professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. He teaches courses on International Environmental Agreements, Moral Dimensions of Public Policy, Environment & Development, and Environmental Ethics. Prof. Hilde edited The Agrarian Roots of Pragmatism (with Paul B. Thompson) and the recent On Torture. He is currently working on several projects on climate change adaptation as sustainable development, international environmental agreements, and public ethics on environmental issues.

It’s important to keep in mind the nature of the problem of climate change. The mere existence of the hydro-geo-meteorological effects of climate change is in and of itself not the problem. The basic problem is centered on the largely adverse and accelerating effects on people and ecosystems. This core of the problem is compounded by the fact that the countries that are most responsible for anthropogenic climate change, developed nations, have benefited most from GHG-emitting economic activity – industrialization – while those countries that have least benefited are most vulnerable to the negative externality of industrialization that is anthropogenic climate change. Vulnerability is a function of a history of poverty, political and economic exploitation, and weak public institutions as well as geographical location. This is further compounded by the sobering reality that the fastest growing rate of emissions belongs to the major developing countries, with little end in sight. Yet again, this is compounded by the brute reality that climate change mitigation may only be achievable at a global level and that substantial climate change adaptation measures are inevitable and necessary. And, finally, this is all compounded by the common general conceptual framework for understanding climate change that places economic development and energy production and consumption in tension with the environment.  This dualism remains a basic assumption in international climate negotiations. It also provides a simple framework for public understanding of a complex aggregation of phenomena otherwise perceived as overly abstract. The dualism is a conceptual constraint on our ability to generate innovative political and moral answers as well as technological and economic solutions to the string of compounding factors that constitute the general problem of climate change.

Where does democracy fit in all of this? It depends on what we mean by democracy, of course. I’m not so sure, however, that there’s any necessary relation at all between climate stabilization and democratization. As Prof. Burnell shows, liberal democratic government does not necessarily entail more robust climate policy or immunity from the adverse effects of climate change nor, conversely, weak policy or climate vulnerability. We might talk about autocracy and climate change in similar terms. For those involved in the present discussion, however, climate stabilization and democratization are two widely shared and valued goals and we don’t wish to approach this as a zero-sum tradeoff. Although the conclusions of Prof. Burnell’s paper are mixed regarding the fate of democracy in the age of climate change, there is at least potential for more modest forms of democratization in the climate regime that we can and ought to grasp.

As a global public good, climate change mitigation is a global coordination issue or what Scott Barrett calls an aggregative effort good, one whose provision depends on the total effort of all countries (or at least all of the largest GHG-emitting states).  The existing coordinating institution is, of course, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Proposed initiatives are adopted or rejected by the (unanimous) vote of all parties in UNFCCC plenary sessions. Could we say that such an institution therefore functions as a kind of representative democracy? The 50,000-100,000 protestors at the UNFCCC meetings in Copenhagen last December didn’t think so. Despite the increased UNFCCC presence of NGOs representing minority and indigenous groups and various environmental concerns, state economic interests still form the basis of negotiations for each state. This is the case especially for the high emissions states and no less the democratic ones. Critics of the UNFCCC model have proposed alternative architectures for a climate regime, including regional or sectoral approaches. Thus far, however, the climate regime is largely composed of states bargaining with each other to minimize potential economic tradeoffs. Either mitigation or economic growth….

Stabilizing global climate at or below a 2°-Celsius rise in temperature from pre-industrial levels requires basic long-term infrastructural and behavioral changes to each society. It requires rethinking how societies produce and consume energy. And this must all occur under a significant time constraint in order to avert dangerous climate change. This is a tall order, but it can and must be done and Prof. Burnell nicely outlines the problems and promise of large-scale democratic politics and its counter forces at this juncture.

Prof. Burnell also rightly emphasizes the commitment to equality located at the core of liberal democracy. To speak in general terms, democracy is associated with equality, as well as freedom, fairness, and justice. This is partly because it is a method through which individuals add their voice – their own claims to justice and fairness – to the form and content of institutions through which individuals live their lives. These are fundamental elements in the exercise of individual autonomy.

I want here, however, to educe another core feature of what makes democracy such a viable and vital political form – its epistemological dimension – and how it relates to climate change adaptation. Democracy is not solely a means for treating each other as equals, ideally, or a means by which the public participates in crafting institutions and policy. Epistemologically, it is also the means through which the public’s concerns, needs, values, and interests come to be articulated and known in the first place. These needs, values, and interests will evolve of course and undergo revision as time passes. A democratic system allows for experiment and for error and correction. It allows for more flexible policy responses to changing social, economic, and environmental conditions. In the absence of democratic forums the interests of governing elites will naturally set policy priorities. These priorities may respond to what the ruling class and its experts view as the most pressing problems of the day, even sometimes with sincere concern for the well-being of the people. But the necessarily partial knowledge of this perspective may be accompanied by little awareness or understanding of conditions on the ground where environmental problems in particular are most immediately felt. Especially with complex problems such as climate change, any partial perspective is inadequate to the task of problem-solving precisely because it cannot recognize the problem in its full, multi-dimensional complexity. Responses will be partial as a consequence. Local democratic organizations and deliberative forums help fill out the larger picture by generating descriptive and evaluative information that is crucial for understanding the problem of climate change and for crafting and implementing sustainable mitigation and adaptation policy measures.

Local deliberative and participatory democratic approaches and climate change adaptation fit particularly well once we remind ourselves of this epistemological dimension of democracy. Given uncertainty about the effects of climate change, institutions designed to lessen the impact must be flexible enough to respond to unanticipated changes. When changing environmental conditions require institutional responses, adaptive, local democratic approaches may be more responsive in the short-term because comprised of input from those who feel the impacts. Yet, people hold different views on and apply different values to adaptation measures and their tradeoffs. Local democratic approaches to adaptation may be more resilient and legitimate over the longer-term since they comprise people’s different values and goals precisely at the point where individual autonomy meets collective decision-making.

Those who are most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, the poor, need help adapting to new conditions and needs. This is a concrete reality and a moral imperative. At the UNFCCC meetings in Copenhagen, developed countries committed to short-term and some long-term financing of mitigation and adaptation efforts in the most vulnerable developing countries while the Copenhagen Accord calls for the establishment of a Green Climate Fund. These pledges remain modest and vaguely-defined, but this is a start given that there’s nothing easy about the associated two-level games of international and domestic politics. Climate change adaptation, however, must become a full-blown effort connecting the international level of financial and technological obligations to the local level of thousands of adaptive development projects.

There are many cases from which to learn lessons about how to sustain or build adaptive and resilient socio-ecological systems at ground level incorporating democratic means. The capacity of the Balinese rice terrace and water temple system to sustain its functional integrity through adaptive, democratic management provides one particularly fascinating example.  These lessons should interject a greater sense of encouragement into discussions about the geopolitics and macro-trends of climate change and democratization. They can also help the UNFCCC and the Copenhagen Accord parties make their commitments to resolving the problem of climate change more concrete.

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