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An Inconvenient Democracy: Knowledge and Climate Change

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  1. The climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber in an interview with DER SPIEGEL (Issue 12, 21. March 2010, p. 29) in response to the question why the messages of science do not reach society.

  2. The atmospheric scientist John M. Wallace of the University of Washington in a recent opinion piece in the Seattle Times (March 26, 2010) under headline of „Beyond climate change: reframing the dialogue over environmental issues“suggests, in the spirit of such disenchantment that „given the limited understanding of the intricacies of climate science, the human tendency to be more concerned with current issues than with what the climate will be like in 100 years from now, and the growing inequities in per capita fossil fuel consumption between countries like the United States an those like India, an enlightened energy policy of the basis of concerns about global warming is a tough sell.“

  3. The general secretary the Friends of Europe, Gilles Merrit speaking on the occasion of the conference „Green Week“, organized annually by the European Commission, emphasized that “our problems are linked to two issues we are most proud of: democracy and free markets”. What he had in mind first and foremost were solutions to environmental issues (cf.

  4. Without passing judgement, one may also note how history repeats itself since the skeptical voices from within the scientific community and the media remind one of a similar kind skepticism in the seventies of the last century as the primary contentious issue then referred to the question of limits to growth and survival of mankind. Scientists warned about the essential slowness and inflexibility of democratic institutions and expressed their preference for authoritarian solutions (e.g. Heilbroner, 1974 and Hardin, 1977). Dennis Meadows (2011), the co-author of the Limits to Growth some 40 years later reiterates his strong suspicion about the barrier to needed action and solutions in the face of growing threats to our civilization by virtue of the “slowness of governance” and the “short-sightedness of governance”.

  5. Michael McCarthy, „Central planning is the only way to hit CO2 targets,“The Independent, December 7, 2010.

  6. A leading U.S. based environmental blog (Grist; January 21, 2011) notes for example: “is a nation ruled somewhat autocratically by engineers and scientists better equipped to confront the 21st century than a nation that has always been suspicious of intellectuals, a nation increasingly ruled by the checkbooks of lobbyists and the entrenched industries they represent? It would be horrible, if it were true, and this is the unconquerable nut of the problem the U.S. now faces: if we can’t get it together to transition to a sustainable resource base, what hope is there for the co-occurrence of both democracy and lasting material civilization?“ (

  7. In an interview with the Guardian’s Leo Hickman (March 29, 2010), James Lovelock argues that among the main obstructions to meaningful action combating climate change are political regimes that are democratic since “even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.“

  8. Jedehdiah Purdy’s (2009: 1137) remarks in this context about the “nature” of human beliefs and world views are closer to the mark: “Such pessimistic arguments have in common that their cogency depends on taking’human nature’ people’s characteristic motives as a permanent fact, at least for practical purposes. When those arguments have failed, it has been partly because’human nature‘has changed, not randomly, but as democratic politics has drawn people’s motives in a relatively egalitarian direction.”

  9. But not only influential commentators reach this conclusion: The central question pertaining to political governance that emerges from discussions of environmental degradation and global warming, as Mark Beeson (2010:289) stresses, is “whether democracy can be sustained in the region [of Southeast Asia]—or anywhere else for that matter—given the unprecedented and unforgiving nature of the challenges we collectively face … In such circumstances, forms of ‘good’ authoritarianism, in which environmentally unsustainable forms of behavior are simply forbidden, may become not only justifiable, but essential for the survival of humanity in anything approaching a civilised form.” Beeson (2010:289) answers his own question by suggesting that in China … an authoritarian regime has arguably done more to mitigate environmental problems than any other government on earth.”

  10. In some ways that is, the dispute about the role of democracy in the face of massive societal problems resonates with the vigorous and contentious debate among scientists about the virtues of economic planning during World War II (e.g. Hayek, 1941).

Further Reading

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  • Boas, Franz (1938), Manifesto on Freedom of Science. The Committee of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science.

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Correspondence to Nico Stehr.

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The excursus on the doubts expressed by some climate scientists and other observers of climate policies was originally written jointly with Hans von Storch. I have added extensive materials and context to the original essay. (Nico Stehr)

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Stehr, N. An Inconvenient Democracy: Knowledge and Climate Change. Soc 50, 55–60 (2013).

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  • Global Warming
  • Climate Policy
  • Carbon Price
  • Climate Scientist
  • Democratic Governance