Pesky Bloody Democracy

Yesterday, we had a bit of a go at a philosopher for his naughty, anti-democratic (if unconsciously so) world view when it comes to saving the planet. Well, it turns out that Marc D. Davidson ain’t got nothing on David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith. You don’t need a Rorschach test to tell where they’re coming from. They’ve written a book called The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy. Roger Pielke Jr nails it.

Climate Deniers Are Slaves to Democracy

On the New Scientist (which is neither) blog last week, Catherine Brahic, the rag’s online environment reporter was struck by a paper published in the journal Climatic Change. Brahic summarises:

Davidson claims that historical hindsight shows how preposterous the claims made in favour of slavery were. He suggests they bear striking resemblance to claims made against taking any action on climate change by contemporary members of Congress. 

Like the mag itself, this argument is neither new nor science. It poses as philosophy. Which is fine. But really it’s just a rehash of the climate-denial-equals-holocaust-denial chestnut. Yet it is still interesting, because, just like the climate-denial-equals-holocaust-denial chestnut, it tells us more about the people making it than it does about its subjects. In spite of being ‘not convinced the comparison is helpful’, Brahic is sufficiently sympathetic to finish her article with the cynical words:

Political decisions are based on money, not morals. 

It’s that money argument, again, even though abolition is about as good an example of a political decision based on morality rather than money that you are likely to find. Brahic’s sympathy for Davidson’s thesis appears to be based on the idea that arguments for the continuation of slavery were preposterous, and business-as-usual arguments are preposterous, therefore, denying climate change is as bad as being in favour of slavery. Or something.

The causes of ‘bad science’ in today’s society – such as the rise of alternative therapies, creationism, and new religious movements – are the subject of many a hand-waving thesis. But when that discussion extends to arguments about the role of oil and money in society, people claiming to have science on their side are adding bad politics, bad history and bad philosophy to the mix. And in his paper, Parallels In Reactionary Argumentation In The US Congressional Debates On The Abolition of Slavery And The Kyoto Protocol, Marc D. Davidson certainly claims to have science on his side. In fact, he goes as far as to equate the science of climate with the morality of equality. Well, he has to really, otherwise he wouldn’t have a paper to write. Davidson’s abstract reads:

Today, the United States is as dependent on fossil fuels for its patterns of consumption and production as its South was on slavery in the mid-nineteenth century. That US congressmen tend to rationalise fossil fuel use despite climate risks to future generations just as Southern congressmen rationalised slavery despite ideals of equality is perhaps unsurprising, then. This article explores similarities between the rationalisation of slavery in the abolition debates and the rationalisation of ongoing emissions of greenhouse gases in the US congressional debates on the Kyoto Protocol. 

He then makes equivalents of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 1856 13th Amendment to the US constitution, abolishing slavery. The earlier document, states:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. 

On the UNFCCC agreement, Davidson writes:

Despite this commitment [“to protect the climate system for present and future generations.”], the US Congress has as yet rejected any mandatory regulation of greenhouse gases, including the binding emission targets for the industrialised nations agreed to under the Kyoto Protocol 

But how is using slaves the moral equivalent of using oil? The subtitle of the second section of Davidson’s article – ‘Similarities between slavery and the use of fossil fuels’ – promises to answer the question… but doesn’t. Instead Davidson argues that they are similar because (i) abolition of slavery/oil is not in the interests of the electorate – people who had a vote did not have an economic interest in abolishing slavery, or in the later case, oil; (ii) the electorate shifts costs onto those outside of the electorate – the slaves do all the work in the same way that oil does, and the costs of using that oil (as opposed to labour) are borne by future generations, who are not yet part of the electorate; and (iii) arguments against both the slave trade, and efforts to reduce CO2 are similar because they both resist social change.

Davidson’s problem, it seems, is with democracy – that it does not represent the interests of people who do not yet exist; people in the future are excluded from the process because they aren’t alive yet, just as slaves were denied access to the democratic process. But this does not make equivalents of using slaves and using oil. In order to be deprived of ‘rights’ it is necessary to exist. So to grant rights to people who do not exist, or to claim that they are being denied their rights, or to imply that you somehow speak for them are all totally absurd.

And it’s far from clear that using oil does leave a cost for future generations to pay. This claim cannot be tested until such time as such people exist. It is a significant assumption. Davidson defers the argument to the future, in order to escape being challenged. And he admits that reducing CO2 emissions is not without its detrimental effects: after all, he agrees that it’s not in the electorate’s interests. It is democracy itself which creates slaves out of the humans of the future, according to Davidson; democracy is the means by which social progress is thwarted; it cannot transcend self-interest in favour of the interests of people he has conjured from his imagination. The “social progress” (and it is neither) he has in mind (even though he agrees it’s not in people’s interests) is one where people who don’t exist yet are spoken for by anyone who wants to call the precautionary principle, against the interests of people who actually exist.

More interestingly, especially given that he’s a philosopher, Davidson doesn’t even explain why slavery is wrong. Slavery is wrong, of course. But if you want to show that something else is wrong in a similar way, you have to make it clear why it is wrong. Were we to claim that tap-dancing is the moral equivalent of drug-pushing you’d want to know why. If we answered in terms that failed to connect tap-dancing to drug-pushing, you’d close your browser, never to return.

Phillis Wheatley was a slave from Gambia bought by a wealthy Boston Family at the age of just seven in the mid 1700s. Unusually, the family encouraged her to read and write, especially poetry – for which she became famous on merit.

On being brought from Africa to America

`Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

You don’t need to be a Christian to see the message. Wheatley was grateful for being brought to the USA, and for the opportunities she had, but not for being bought and sold as a slave. This is pertinent because no barrel of oil could ever write a poem which expresses such potential. As her poem suggests, the act of buying, selling, or using slaves is immoral because it creates a relationship between people which degrades humanity, when in fact, slaves were in every respect as capable of achieving as much and contributing to civilisation as their white counterparts.

The trouble for Davidson is that were he to state a principled objection to slavery, he would undermine his own argument. It would fall apart because, of course, people are not oil. It is only by dint of similarities in the shape of certain arguments, without historical and political context, superficially sharing some conceptual space, that slavery and oil usage can be seen as moral equivalents. Morality, for Davidson is more like geometry than an expression of humanity. This reveals far more than any resemblance between arguments against abolition and against climate change mitigation.

Davidson goes on to look for more geometrical congruence between arguments made hundreds of years apart, and finds another six arguments used by both Kyoto sceptics and anti-abolitionists: (i) What is deemed bad is in fact good; (ii) The benefits of the proposed policy are uncertain; (iii) Change brings economic ruin; (iv) Solo action will be ineffective and unfair; (v) Sovereignty will be undermined; (vi) Social change will hit other groups.

This is utterly mundane. What political issue is not debated on these lines? What divides camps on any matter, where one sees a thing as a good, and the other bad, with one arguing for either progressive or retrogressive change, the other for the status quo? Davidson might just as well argue that using oil and using slaves are moral equivalents because arguments in favour of their continuation were both constructed using words and marks of punctuation, arranged into sentences. What he is describing are six questions that will likely be at the centre of any political discussion about change. The closer you look at these six points, the sillier they become. In fact we are starting to seriously wonder whether his paper is some sort of clever spoof.

(i) Opposing political ideas will necessarily always differ about what is bad, and what is good. That’s why we have arguments. From some perspectives, a welfare state is bad, while others maintain that it is a good. Environmentalists argue that industrial society is bad, and deep ecologists argue that nature is itself a good. Others see nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’. Davidson juxtaposes statements by vice president John Caldwell Calhoun, on February 6, 1837 with bogeyman du jour, Senator James Inhofe:

“the Central African race…had never existed in so comfortable, so respectable, or so civilized a condition as that which it now enjoyed in the Southern States”…Slavery was not “an evil. Not at all. It was a good – a great good.”John Caldwell Calhoun 

“Thus far, no one has seriously demonstrated any scientific proof that increased global temperatures would lead to the catastrophic predictions by alarmists. In fact, it appears just the opposite is true, that increases in global temperature have beneficial effect on how we live our lives.” – Sen. James Inhofe.

We know why slavery is wrong. It deprives individuals of their liberty, and the institution limits the development of human society. Meanwhile, Inhofe’s point finds support among among many mainstream climate scientists, such as the Tyndall Centre’s Professor Mike Hulme, who has observed that catastrophe “is not the language of science. And the idea that climate change might produce benefits – however true or false it is – is not a moral argument. By contrast, the ideas that slavery is either right and good or wrong and bad are not testable, are moral arguments, and more to the point, slavery is an idea which disgusts us today not because of scientific investigation, but because of our understanding of humanity. Yet Davidson uses scientific and moral arguments as though they were interchangable.

(ii) The benefits of any proposed policy are always uncertain to any opponent. How can somebody who doesn’t see the policy as good, ever see the benefits as certain?

(iii) No doubt the end of slavery did bring economic problems, and yes, sceptics do worry about the economic costs of policies to mitigate climate change. But anyone who cites the Stern report in support of immediate mitigation also makes an economic argument. Does that make them the moral equivalent of slave traders, too? And even Davidson agrees that the economic effects of Kyoto would cause economic problems.

Although economic forecasts vary widely, there are few studies predicting that climate policy will benefit employment or economic growth. 

(iv) It is precisely the environmentalists who are arguing that solo action will be ineffective and unfair. That is why they – and Davidson – are calling for international frameworks.

(v) Sovereignty is not only a key concept in most political theories, it was also at the heart of the abolitionist argument, for slavery denies personal sovereignty. Davidson contrasts the argument that it is for individual states to decide the legal status of slavery in the 1800s with more recent complaints about supranational organisations (IPCC) creating policy frameworks.

As sincere as this fear of supranational bodies may be, however, the arguments become suspect if they are not accompanied by proposals for unilateral action. 

And yet he’s already claimed that the “solo action will be ineffective and unfair” argument is “reactionary”! Only, it seems, if it doesn’t conform to climate orthodoxy. Again, Davidson’s contempt for democracy is palpable.

(vi) All change creates winners and losers. Whether that change is progressive, or retrogressive, is, of course, the point. And as political scientist Harold D. Lasswell explained, “
Politics is who gets what, when, and how.” Even Davidson recognises this…

Apart from specific groups like manufacturers of solar cells or windmills, few people have a personal interest in rising energy prices.  

For Davidson, Kyoto sceptics are “reactionaries”, but it is Davidson who shows contempt for democracy, and for politics. He is unable to make moral equivalents of slavery and using oil, and so searches for abstract ways to connect them that bear no scrutiny. In doing so, he also shows contempt for humans. The relationship between slave and master is vicious, exploitative, and deliberate. The link between slaves and not-yet-existing-slave-like-people-of-the-future is merely tortured. The only person deliberately exploiting future generations is Davidson. The irony is that it is people in the present who suffer.

Friend (of Democracy) or FoE?

A single press release; double standards. Yesterday, in response to the UK’s proposed climate change bill, Friends of the Earth UK director, Tony Juniper said:

We’re delighted that the UK is set to become the first nation to introduce legislation to cut its contribution to climate change. But the Government must strengthen its proposed legislation if it is to be truly effective and deliver the scale of action that scientists are now calling for. This means setting annual milestones that will deliver at least an 80 per cent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, and including Britain’s share of emissions from international aviation and shipping. If Gordon Brown toughens up this legislation, his visions of becoming a world-leader in developing a low carbon future can become a reality.

But responding to proposed changes in planning law, also outlined in the Queen’s Speech, in the same press release, Friends of the Earth’s Planning coordinator, Naomi Luhde Thompson said:

Government plans to overhaul the planning system are bad news for democracy and bad news for the environment. Its proposals will strip away one of the public’s key democratic rights to have a say on how their area is developed, easing the way for a whole range of climate-damaging developments. These proposals are undemocratic, environmentally-damaging and – according to recent legal advice – likely to be unlawful.

So, it’s a Good Thing for political decisions to be made by unaccountable bodies, without either debate or due democratic process, if it will lead to a reduction in CO2 – because “scientists say so” – but it’s “undemocratic” to loosen planning law (if that is what is being proposed) so that new houses and civil infrastructure can be built without interruption from organisations such as itself.

As we pointed out last week, environmentalism has never been tested by UK politics, and there has not been a debate about how best to respond to scientific evidence. Juniper conjures scientific opinion out of his hat in order to close down the possibility of debate by saying “scientists are now calling for” 80% cuts in emissions by 2050, but where do scientists actually say that? Where has this figure come from? Many scientists challenge the idea that the only way to face climate change is to reduce CO2 emissions, arguing instead for adaptation.

If there were to be a proper debate, it would reveal that our interests are frequently not the same as the “environment’s”. FoE don’t want development to happen, yet most people acknowledge the need for more houses, and better transport and energy infrastructure. It may well be that people don’t want these developments in their backyard, but that is quite a different thing to not wanting the development to happen because of the damage it might do the the environment – the enemy of my enemy is the FoE.

Emissions Policy Policy Omission

Hilary Benn, Environment Secretary, son of Tony, successor to David Miliband, announced on Monday that the target of 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 set by his predecessor may not be enough. This comes in the wake of the Tories trumping the 60% figure, with 80%. This has been trumped in turn by the Liberal Democrats, who announced their plans for a zero carbon Britain.

This latest development isn’t yet the promise of a carbon negative Britain we have predicted, and there’s not much wriggle room after the Lib’s 100%. So how does Benn answer the other parties’ offers?

The changes to the draft Bill, set out in a Command Paper entitled ‘Taking Forward the UK Climate Change Bill’ published today, include:

  • As announced by the Prime Minister in September, asking the Committee on Climate Change to report on whether the Government’s target to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 60 percent by 2050 should be strengthened further;
  • Asking the Committee to look at the implications of including other greenhouse gases and emissions from international aviation and shipping in the UK’s targets as part of this review;
  • Strengthening the role and responsibilities of the Committee on Climate Change, including by requiring the Government to seek the Committee’s advice before amending the 2020 or 2050 targets in the Bill;
  • Strengthening the Committee’s independence from Government, by confirming that it will appoint its own chief executive and staff, and increasing its analytical resources;

… (our emphasis).

In other words, the latest policy is that there is no policy. Emissions targets in the future will be determined not by politicians (you know, those people we elect once every few years to make decisions), but deferred from politics, to a committee. According to the DEFRA website,

The Committee will be comprised of 5-8 members including the Chair, supported by a standing secretariat of staff to conduct in-depth analysis into the issues being considered.

To ensure its credibility, it is important that the Committee is able to clearly and rationally present the economics of the costs, benefits and risks of abatement decisions. This means that the Committee’s members should be experts in their field, rather than representing specific stakeholder groups. The following list provides an indication of the types of expertise that will be desirable in the overall composition of the Committee:

  • business competitiveness;
  • climate change policy in particular its social impacts.
  • climate science;
  • economic analysis and forecasting;
  • emissions trading;
  • energy production and supply;
  • financial investment; and
  • technology development and diffusion.

If passed, the Climate Change bill will force the government to “explain its reasons to Parliament if it does not accept the Committee’s advice on the level of the carbon budget, or if it does not meet a budget or target”, but won’t let us challenge the decisions made by this committee democratically. This is because, according to DEFRA:

The debate on climate change has shifted, from whether we need to act towards how much we need to do by when, and the economic implications of doing so. The time is therefore right for the introduction of a strong legal framework in the UK for tackling climate change.

When did the UK ever have a debate about “whether we need to act”? And when was it settled? Over the last ten or twenty years, the “debate” has been dominated by climate orthodoxy, not by differences of opinion. Political environmentalism has never been challenged by any UK party, let alone the climate science questioned. But this is because dissenting views have been excluded from debate far more than they have been invited, not because a debate has been had. We can tell this is the case because of the disparity between statements made by politicians, and statements made by scientists. Furthermore, this orthodoxy has thrived and gone mostly unchallenged because of a profound lack of defining political ideas across the political parties. As we have pointed out before, fears about climate change serve to provide a direction for directionless politics, and the sense of crisis evoked by alarmism provides political parties with legitimacy. With no crisis to manage, politicians face an existential crisis – “why am I here? What is my purpose?”. That is why we see this policy which misses something… politics. Even though what we decide to do with scientific evidence is ALL about politics.

But this move to put decisions which affect us outside of politics is not new. One of Gordon Brown’s first acts as Chancellor of the Exchequer was to put the Bank of England outside of political control, giving it responsibility for setting interest rates. As soon as a “debate” or an issue becomes inconvenient or just difficult for the government, it simply prevents it from being a political matter. So why not simply manage the country by committee? What is the point of politics? Don’t ask Mr Benn.

Carbon Neutral Policy Surfeit

Apologies for being off-line recently. It’s been summer, we’ve been busy, and there’s been less news around. Now that the Summer is over (did it ever really begin?), we’ll be back with more regular postings.


The Liberal Democrats announced last week their plans for a ‘zero carbon Britain‘ – including banning all petrol cars from UK roads by 2040, and the end of atomic power. As they tell us,

The measures, which will be debated at the party’s conference in Brighton next month, strengthen the Liberal Democrats’ position as the only major political party with specific proposals designed to face the challenge of climate change.

This indeed trumps the Labour Party’s 60% cut of CO2 by 2050, and the Tory’s 80%, and even the Climate Camp protesters’ 90%. All you need to be radical these days is to add a few percentage points more than you opponents. But this is politics by numbers, and is better explained not by some new-found commitment to environmental politics or even the consequence of scientific research, but a need to find a new niche in the face of poor ratings. There are no ideas, no principles, no philosophy, and no matters of substance separating these parties. And there are barely any differences of approach to what the Lib-Dems are calling ‘the number one challenge facing the world today‘.

If the parties only offer differences of degree, all citing the same “science” (Stern, IPCC, Tyndall – none of which are “the science”), what science can they possibly be deferring to? Where is the science which tells us what percentage cut of CO2 will save the planet? How can four readings of the same research produce such “different” policies?

The answer is, of course, that the science has little to do with it. And in spite of this being ‘the number one challenge facing the world’, as we reported before, 56% of the UK public don’t seem to see things the same way. Perhaps that’s because, in spite of the poll’s authors’ contempt for them, the public are fairly good at spotting nonsense. Which is a problem for the Lib Dems, and the political parties generally, because in their bids to out-do each other, none dare to challenge the consensus or the political orthodoxy , but attempt to demonstrate that they better represent it. What appears to be the most radical figure – the 100% – is in fact the most cowardly. The Lib-Dems are, after all, yellow.

Which party will be the first to offer a carbon negative UK? Place your bets, it’s only a matter of time, and it’s the only way to go for the exhausted party politics of “the mother of all democracies”.

A Nation all Trussed

The Guardian reports that the National Trust – a conservation charity that owns 1.5% of England, Wales and Northern Ireland – is to jump on the bandwagon reinvent itself by turning its membership into “the largest green movement in the world”.

Founded in 1895 by Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley to protect the nation’s character against the transforming effects of industrialisation, the trust’s new aim seems to be to lock the entire UK – not just the odd stately home – into the preindustrial age it celebrates.

In the past we have been cautious about expressing our voice loudly. Now we recognise that we have to engage in public debate on a very wide scale. If our knowledge tells us, say, that expanding airports leads to problems, then it is right we should say so,” said Peter Nixon, the trust’s director of conservation. “If you have 3.5m members you can go to government with a different kind of authority.” 

Does the membership of 3.5 million picnickers and elderly stately home enthusiasts make the NT a political force, let alone legitimise the grandstanding atop bandwagons of its senior members? Its membership have not subscribed to a political ideology, yet the NT seems to imagine that it has a mandate ‘to drive conservation and quality of life agendas, and in particular to combat climate change’.

From now on, said director-general Fiona Reynolds, the trust will advise people how to adapt their lifestyles to climate change and challenge government to be more ecologically aware. “If we think that public policy is not right, then we will say so.” 

What the Trust perhaps hasn’t considered is that its membership is not quite as convinced that climate change is the problem that Reynolds et al believe it to be. Whatever. The National Trust is no more a legitimate political force than The Dennis the Menace fan club.