Monday, June 4, 2012

Climate Change: Democracy and Morality

Malcolm Bull has provided an interesting article appearing in the London Review of Books in which he discusses the political and moral issues associated with climate change: What is the rational response? The occasion for his deliberations is the review of a book by Stephen Gardiner: A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change.

As Gardiner’s title suggests, while there is a scientific side to the global warming issue, any response to scientific evidence must be viewed through the prism of the ordinary citizens of the world who have a voice in determining what response can be taken. Much of the discourse on the topic of climate change consists of elites bleating at each other over scientific nuances, or over political motivations. Bull tells us how these arguments might appear to those being asked to sacrifice their current well-being because of an uncertain future that might apply only to a future generation.

Bull reminds us that the range of uncertainty in climate predictions vary from a major inconvenience to absolute disaster. Since absolute disaster is not a certainty, the argument used to move people into action is rather the opposite of the type that generally results in action.

"Public policy debates are rarely concerned with possibilities so remote in time and uncertain in outcome, and when they are, the policies that result are correspondingly tentative. The peculiarity of climate change is that the seemingly natural relationship of policy to time and certainty is inverted: it is precisely because climate change is so uncertain that we have to consider the possibility that it will bring disaster on a global scale, and it is precisely because its impact is long deferred that we must act decisively now."

The scientific circumstances, and the lack of direct effect on current citizens, provide an environment that invites rationalization on the part of those who would wish to do little or nothing in response. Bull suggests that one sentiment that may be settling in is a fatalistic one.

"As long ago as the 1990s, Al Gore admitted that ‘the minimum that is scientifically necessary’ to combat global warming ‘far exceeds the maximum that is politically feasible’, and many now seem to agree. Aside from the spike created by the Copenhagen summit in 2009, newspaper coverage of climate change has been dropping since 2007. Perhaps we should just acknowledge the problem, try not to exacerbate it too much and hope for the best. That, after all, is what most people have decided to do about the nightmare of the previous generation, nuclear weapons...."

Gardiner and Bull are really interested in examining the moral or ethical issues associated with any response to climate change.

"The real question is whether such fatalism is ethically defensible. The moral argument for preventing further climate change is easily stated. It is not just a matter of protecting the vulnerable from harm, but of taking responsibility for a harm that we in the industrialised North have both caused and benefited from."

If one accepts that climate change is a moral issue, one then has to ask if it is possible for a nation to exact sacrifices from its populace based on a weakly-posed moral issue.

"Climate change creates what Gardiner calls ‘a perfect moral storm’, within which it is difficult to keep one’s bearings. The key elements of this storm, which he enumerates with admirable – if exhausting – clarity, are problems of agency, the temptation to intergenerational buck-passing, and the inapplicability of existing political theories."

The problem with agency is obvious from the failure of any of the great international gatherings to arrive at a mechanism for producing significant results. Bull succinctly summarizes the issue:

"....while it might be collectively rational for nations to co-operate on climate change, it is individually rational for them not to."

The intergenerational problem is also easily expressed.

"The current generation has nothing to gain from reducing emissions and every subsequent one has more at stake than its predecessor. In game-theoretical terms, this means that the current generation has no incentive to co-operate even if every other generation were willing to do so, and that the same will be true of the next generation if the present one has failed to co-operate and passed the buck instead."

Bull argues that the next generation would face a changing climate and whatever circumstances that would bring based on actions that were not its own, but it would also be asked to make ever greater sacrifices in order to aid its successor generation, and its choice, driven by its self-interest, would be equally difficult to make.

Both authors question whether democracies are capable of making the types of long-term decisions that are required to address global warming. For democracies to act they require, ultimately, the approval of a majority of the citizenry. Are humans really capable of the types of moral decisions required?

"....we are not generally as moral as climate change ethics assumes, for if we were we might not make climate change our top priority. If we were concerned about polar bears we would start by not shooting them, rather than worrying about how much ice they had left to stand on, and if we were really worried about the global poor, we could help them now rather than helping their descendants at the end of the century, who will probably be a lot better off anyway."

While Gardiner is merely depressed about the prospects of action, Bull seems to suggest a flaw in the very concept of democracy.

"Gardiner acknowledges that it is doubtful whether democratic political institutions, with their short time horizons, have the capacity to deal with deferred climate impacts, but it does not occur to him that the ‘tyranny of the contemporary’ of which he complains might be coextensive with democracy itself."

Bull suggests that this might be a situation in which it is best preclude from the discussion the technically uninformed.

"Should this shift in the temporality of political thinking be resisted, or is the need for it an indication that the political forms fostered by industrialisation have proved unsuited to dealing with its consequences, and are now obsolete? With its unavoidable reliance on virtual representation, and its insistence on appropriate deliberation about technical matters beyond the grasp of the uninformed, climate change politics suggests that technocratic government, the contemporary version of Burke’s natural elite, is the only appropriate solution."

The question as to whether or not society and the world in which it lives has become too complex for the average citizen to be able to understand the issues, and has thus rendered democracy obsolete, is one worthy of discussion even if it should ultimately be deemed incorrect. The issue was previously discussed in Could Democracy Become Obsolete?

Bull then steps back from this conclusion and tries to turn short-term pessimism into long-term optimism.

"....climate change does not tempt us to be less moral than we might otherwise be; it invites us to be more moral than we could ever have imagined....Climate ethics is not morality applied but morality discovered, a new chapter in the moral education of mankind. It may tell us things we do not wish to know (about democracy, perhaps), but the future development of humanity may depend on what, if anything, it can teach us."

So—it might be that democracy is not obsolete, but it merely needs to evolve. Perhaps, with enough discussion, humanity can learn to accept that it exists with a responsibility for its successor generations. If, as individuals, we can make sacrifices to provide a better life for our own offspring, perhaps, as a member of a society, and as a citizen of the world, we can learn to make decisions based on a broader perspective.

In spite of a lack of supporting evidence, let’s try to be optimistic about the future.

1 comment:

  1. Truth is certainly a branch of morality and a very important one to society.


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