Hansen On ‘Democracy’

by | Mar 25, 2009

Our last post was about Guardian journalist, David Adam, and his inability to reflect critically and impartially on the climate debate. That’s not to say he’s biased… That would miss the point. Which is precisely what Adam does. Adam believes that ‘the science’ is instructive – it tells us what to do.

Adam now produces an article with the headline:

Leading climate scientist: ‘democratic process isn’t working’

Let’s not look at the article for a moment, but just consider the headline (which we accept is not necessarily Adam’s responsibility). It is a scientist’s view that the ‘democratic process isn’t working’. So what? What does a scientist know about democracy that anyone plucked off the street doesn’t know? You might be lucky and pluck a professor of political theory off the street, and he might be able to give you a detailed account of theories of democracy. But could he tell you that democracy was working? What would it mean?

Luckily, the next man walking down the street is a climate scientist. He can tell you whether democracy is working or not. He takes out his laptop, and shows you a Hockey-Stick graph. This proves that democracy is not working.

Or does it? The Penguin Dictionary of Politics begins its definition of ‘democracy’ like this:

Democracy is the most valued and also the vaguest of political terms in the modern world.

Useful, eh? The point here is that ‘democracy’ by itself isn’t a term that carries a lot of meaning, but that we’re all supposed to value. It can be weilded by someone ignorant of its many possible interpretations. Indeed, it can be an entirely meaningless concept. ‘Democracy is under attack’ is suposed to rush us to action, in the same way that the ‘cat is drowning’ is. But while we all know what a cat is, and we can all call a cat a cat, do we share the same understanding of ‘democracy’?

That is not to relativise the concept of democracy, but to point out that that its use in this case is desperately hollow. In this way, environmentalists have sought to hide their ideology behind the objectivity of ‘science’. For instance, according to many greens, climate change creates moral imperatives. Failure to act to prevent climate change by reducing your ‘carbon footprint’ makes you ‘unethical’. In this view, the morality of an action is calculated according to its consequences, not as they are experienced by humans, but to or through the ‘environment’. The environment is like a kind of karmic aether, through which moral acts are transmitted.

As with ‘democracy’, this is a much degraded form of ‘ethics’. For instance, if a person was to generally behave badly – let’s say they were inclined to assert their will violently – we can understand this ‘ethically’ in terms of the relationship that person has with others. We could say his actions prevented others from expressing themselves, or made them unhappy, or that there is something wrong in principle with violence. But we cannot do the same with CO2. A moral actor might use a gas guzzling 4×4 to make an ‘unnecessary journey’. On the other hand, he or she might use it to save a life. But both, according to the logic of environmental ethics, are as bad as the other. They leave a legacy, which will be visited on our children’s children’s children’s children. The moral actor is removed in space and time from his victim. The ghost of his action may strike thousands of miles away, hundreds of years into the future.

In other words, environmental ethics are utter bullshit.

The environmentalists’ need to naturalise ethics with climate science speaks about their inability to construct a coherent ethical perspective in human terms, with human values. It is a lack of self-confidence which forces them to seek authority in a greater force or power than humanity itself. It’s not enough to talk about how humans ought to relate to each other… the environmentalist wants to say how we should relate to the environment. That’s not because we understand how to relate to each other, it’s because the environmentalist believes that the environment exists between us as a moral fact.

What has this got to do with politics?

The same is true of ‘democracy’ as it is with ‘ethics’. Environmentalists simply don’t understand what they mean by the term. Just as the term ‘unethical’ is interchangeable with the word ‘wrong’ in environmental rhetoric, so too the term ‘democracy’ does not refer to a system of values and principles in which ideas are negotiated. It just means ‘my way’. To the article:

James Hansen, a climate modeller with Nasa, told the Guardian today that corporate lobbying has undermined democratic attempts to curb carbon pollution. “The democratic process doesn’t quite seem to be working,” he said.

What does James Hansen know about which corporate lobbying? Is it something that only the ‘other side’ do? Forget the vast lobbying power of dedicated green multinationals such as Greenpeace and WWF, do corporate interests – <cough>Enron</cough> – never lobby for environmental policies?

Speaking on the eve of joining a protest against the headquarters of power firm E.ON in Coventry, Hansen said: “The first action that people should take is to use the democratic process. What is frustrating people, me included, is that democratic action affects elections but what we get then from political leaders is greenwash.

“The democratic process is supposed to be one person one vote, but it turns out that money is talking louder than the votes. So, I’m not surprised that people are getting frustrated. I think that peaceful demonstration is not out of order, because we’re running out of time.”

What money is talking louder than which votes? Votes for whom? Votes for which party? Did someone launch a James Hansen Party, while we weren’t looking?

Hansen’s unsuitability for commenting on matters of democracy is reinforced throughout Adam’s article – even if the author himself doesn’t realise it:

“I think that peaceful actions that attempt to draw society’s attention to the issue are not inappropriate,” Hansen said.

So is it democracy that has failed the environment, or environmentalism that fails democratically? Hansen doesn’t seem to know. Why the need to draw attention to a problem that the electorate is supposedly pushing for? As we’ve argued at length on this site, there is no popular environmentalist movement, and the problem for democracy is that there is nobody for the non-environmentalist majority to vote for.

Hansen said: “What’s being talked about for Copenhagen is a strenghening of Kyoto [protocol] approach, a cap and trade with offsets and escape hatches which will be gauranteed to fail in terms of getting the required rapid reduction in emissions. They talk about goals which sound impressive, but when you see the actions are such that it will be impossible to reach those goals, then I can understand the informed public getting frustrated.”

That ‘informed public’ is perhaps the most telling of Hansen’s democratic ideals, especially when set against his complaint that corporate lobbying swamps the power of ‘one person one vote’.

Hansen’s understanding of democracy seems to be limited to the idea that a society that doesn’t get what he wants is undemocratic. And yet, Adam has again reported the mere opinion of one vociferous climate scientist, as though it automatically had authority – even on matters completely outwith his field of expertise. This is surely only possible in an arena such as climate change, where ‘the science’ not only determines policy, but also, apparently, the very definition of democracy.

Adam also simultaneously ignores the context in which that opinion is expressed. This is the same James Hansen who has, since 2007, publicly stated: A) that he has been muzzled by his superiors; B) that nobody listens to him; C) that he thinks he should perhaps try to refrain from spouting his mouth off so much in the media; D) that we have only four years left to save the planet; E) that everything is much much worse than anybody else seems to think. To name but a few. And who is now, in the popular media, calling for an (un)popular revolution.

Individually, each of these claims is silly enough. Taken together, they map a spectacular act of scientific and political self-destruction. We can only hope that he also takes those who uncritically report his pronouncements down with him.


  1. xj550

    Heard hansen on the today program , a very odd man !.
    love the article !.

  2. Pete S

    xj550 I agree. I heard him as well and complained to the BBC about failing to provide anyone to counter his arguments.

  3. Editors

    Do you guys know roughly what time he was on? It’s not listed on the schedule. Ta

  4. Alex Cull

    Good post. Democracy is obviously not perfect, as we all well know. Nothing ever is. But what would James Hansen prefer to have in its place? I like this quote from Winston Churchill: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Still true.

    And it works. Not well, not smoothly, not quickly, but it does. The UK has a political party, the Greens, which stand for the things that James Hansen believes in, and if he was a UK citizen he could vote for them at every opportunity. If their stated policies were what the majority of people wanted, the political map would be somewhat different – Sian Berry would be Mayor of London and Caroline Lucas would probably be in line to be our next PM.

    However, this is not the case. Neither are we likely to have the BNP in power, or the Monster Raving Loonies. Even if, by some incredible quirk of fate, the Greens swept the board in the next general election and immediately got to work dismantling all coal and nuclear power stations and introducing stringent carbon rationing for us all, in my opinion they would incur a backlash which would sweep them back out of power just as soon as their time was up. I think the measures they are likely to want to take would make them unpopular, more so than anything perpetrated by Blair or Brown, and it would cost them.

    But they are welcome to try to be elected. And people are welcome to vote for them.

    Or not, as the case may be.

  5. Robert Wood

    I can’t really add anything to this excellent article. But that’s never stopped me before :-)

    He thinks he is one of Plato’s philosopher kings; it has nothing to do with democracy.

    It’s rather alarming tos ee how “the green movement” could very erasily turn into some kind of totalitarian eviromentalism.

  6. Robert Wood

    It’s rather alarming tos see how “the green movement” could very easily turn into some kind of totalitarian eviromentalism. Green shirts marching door to door, checking you aren’t running an extra beer fridge in the basement.

    Sorry. Typos.

  7. Ian Wilson

    Re Robert Wood’s comment above. Yes its pretty easy to see how they could do such a thing. Check out http://www.earthhour.org/ for a laughable (if it were not so damn sad) attempt by WWF to get 1 billion people to switch off their lights for 1 hour.

    I’m not going to bother asking how they can prove that, given the statistics are all mis-interpreted or made up anyway.

    I personally like tip number 10 as to what you can do during this 1 hour of darkness. “10. Upload your ‘on the night’ photos and videos to flickr and YouTube respectively,…”.

    Switch the lights off and use your computer instead…nice.

  8. Alex Cull

    On the South African Earth Hour site (http://www.earthhour.org.za/about.php) it says: “Earth Hour 2009 has one major aim: to unite the citizens of the world in the fight against climate change in order to convince governments and world leaders that our planet cannot wait any longer. There simply isn’t enough time, and therefore 2009 is a colossally important, if not the most critical year, to take action on climate change. 2009 is the year we decide the future of our planet.”

    I’m interested in what they will say a year from now. Logically, if the fate of the entire world is decided in 2009, then either it will be saved or doomed, so there shouldn’t be any need for Earth Hour 2010. (Somehow, though, I’m sure it will come round again, and that 2010 will turn out to be utterly crucial and the very last chance for the planet, as will 2011, 2012, 2013, etc, and so on …)

    Here in the UK, looks like Saturday will be cold, with some rain or sleet. Seems like it will be a good evening to keep the lights of civilisation burning (and the heating on!)

  9. joe

    Hansen works for NASA.

    Type : TYPE : www dot ITANIMULLI dot com into your browser (aka : the word ILLUMINATI spelt backwards) then it leads to the NASA website.

    NASA and SAtAN – names sound too much alike for my liking.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.