16 January 2010

Climate and Democracy

The theory has been going around recently that dealing effectively with climate change is impossible due to democracy. I think it may have been triggered by an article in Der Spiegel, published in a translated form at Roger Pielke Jr's blog.

As a sceptic of both global warming and democracy, I have no dog in this fight. If Climate Change means we have to ditch democracy, that's OK with me; on the other hand, if democracy means we can't do anything about climate change, that's just fine too. Nevertheless, the intersection of the two obsessions that this blog seems to have settled on demands my attention.

So let's take the argument, attributed to David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith, that democracy is incapable of taking the collective action made necessary by the threat of climate change. I haven't read their book, so I am dealing with a summary of their ideas, for instance from these articles by Shearman.

The weakness of the global warming argument doesn't necessarily invalidate the claim that democracy is unequal to the challenge it presents. To defeat it on that basis, you would have to show either that catastrophic anthropogenic global warming is not just untrue, but impossible, or else that the determination of democratic governments to take any measures necessary short of action is primarily the result of well-founded doubts about the science.

Take these in order: first, is it possible that some such threat as global warming is claimed to be could actually be true? I would say that it is much less likely that some such threat would materialize than that a false threat would be promoted by opportunists, but I cannot say that it is impossible. The global warming scare itself cannot be dismissed out of hand (despite the attempts of some sceptics to to so), but can only be ruled out on the basis of a close look at the evidence.

So we can go on to ask the second question: if AGW or something like it were actually true, would the political structures that we have make it impossible for the necessary collective action to be taken?

It's plausible, but, at least in the brief articles if not in his book, Shearman does not make that case. He relies on the fact that meaningful action has not, in fact, been taken by democratic governments. That might be, as he says, because they're not capable of it, but it might equally be that the stalemate is the result of opposition from those who, in my view correctly, believe on the basis of the evidence that such meaningful action is not in fact warranted.

Assessment of this issue is complicated by a feature that global warming alarmism shares with other religions: many people even at an individual level say they believe it but act as if they don't. I'm not sure it makes much sense, descending into familiar arguments about cheap talk versus revealed preferences, to ask what such people "really" believe, but I think one has to say that to some degree they are unpersuaded by the evidence, even if they say otherwise. Given that, there is still the possibility that the doubt which they have but deny is not reasonable doubt, but is founded on a psychological unwillingness to internalise inconvenient truths.

If this contradiction were limited to the common people, it would be a point in Shearman's favour. The plebs are not fit to govern, therefore the wise must rule them. However, the inconsistency seems to me to be just as widespread among the powerful as among the mob - I have previously observed, for instance, that investors do not rate sea level rises as significant in their valuations of commercial property.

So for me, Shearman's argument fails, unfortunately. I suspect that, despite its faults, our democratic governments (in the sense of old democracy, of course) would be able to take sufficient action on climate change, were it really necessary. The reason they are not taking such action is that it is not necessary. The reason they say it is necessary, while not actually taking it, is that they are are lying as usual.

The real link between democracy and global warming is quite different, and is adequately summarised by my guru Mencius Moldbug. In short, the global warming scare and its associated bureaucratic outgrowths are the sort of thing you would expect a democracy to produce - indeed, the kind of thing they always have produced.

The scare originated in democratic countries, spread through democratic countries, and has only been accepted by non-democratic countries after they were pressured or bribed to do so by democracies.

1 comment:

neil craig said...

Firstly the class of the wise may not be significantly aligned with the powerful. Indeed having said that Scotland's MSPs, having voted unanimously to cut electricity by 50% in 10 years, are clinicially insane I don't think there is much correlation. Whether this is a point for or against democracy depends on the likely alternatives.

Secondly I very seriously doubt if that many Green politicos really believe their scam. Gore's beachfront property suggests not. So does the "Green" attitude to nuclear. If nuclear can cut CO2 massively, as it can, & CO" really is causing catastrophic damage then a believer would simply have no alternative but to call for a crash programme of nuclear build. Prof Lovelock has done so but very few others. FoE expelled one of their board for drawing this conclusion. I regard this as a touchstone between real environmentalists, with whom I may disagree but can respect & eco-fascists trying to scare us into obedience, who are parasitic scum.