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Climate change, is democracy enough?

So runs the title of a recent op-ed by David Shearman (professor of medicine in Australia) who recently co-authored the book The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy, with Joseph Wayne Smith (a US lawyer), in a series from the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy. 

The op-ed and the book make a muddle-headed case for the need for “authoritarian decisions based on consensus science”; the op-ed applauds the recently announced decision of the Chinese government to ban plastic bags as an example of the type of decisve action on climate change that authoritarian governments seem more capable of than Western democracies.  The op-ed is here: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=6878; a link to the book description is here: http://www.greenwood.com/catalog/C34504.aspx.

Somehow this caught the eye of Roger Pielke, Jr., a political scientist and climate change commentator at the University of Colorado/Boulder.  Roger has summarized Shearman and Smith’s thesis and his reactions to it over at his Prometheus blog; http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/prometheus/archives/science_politics/001333the_authoritarianism.html.  I copy below my comments that I posted at Roger’s blog:

Roger, perhaps a more appropriate and fairer title would have been “the naivete of experts”.

David Shearman sees a problem that he thinks needs urgent action (on which he might be absolutely right), but he despairs when he sees the nations of the world – and primarily the wealthy Western democracies – dawdling, and suggests that it is liberal democracy itself that is at fault. Is he wrong to be frustrated? I’d say not. However, Shearman clearly misunderstand the reasons for the delay, which lie not with the nature of democracy or its supposed deficiencies vis-a-vis an authoritarian order, but simply with the nature of our interaction with the atmosphere.

Simply, the problem is a classic tragedy of the commons resulting from the incentives that face multiple users of a resource that none of them own and from which they cannot easily exclude others. The current lack of process has nothing at all to do with the political structure of any of the countries of the world, but rather with the difficulty that all nations face in reaching a shared understanding of the problem and in negotiating an enforceable agreement of how to balance potential collective future gains and future costs in controlling emissions of and bringing down atmospheric levels of GHGs. Even if all the countries of the world were authoritarian, they would still have the same difficulty in reaching a joint decision, and none of Shearman’s wishful thinking would make things any different.

Of course, form of government matters in various ways, all of which cut against Dr. Shearman. Like the natural world, governments themselves are a form of commons in which different interest groups compete. While the Western governments are still plagued by rent-seeking from powerful insiders and elites who more or less effectively manipulate politicians and bureaucrats to obtain gains, authoritarian systems are orders of magnitude worse. Pollution problems in dictatorships are much worse, because the elites can live by fiat and have very little effective check from others in terms of property rights or laws/regulations. , and Shearman should be embarrassed to wish any of that kind of corruption on anyone.

But perhaps Shearman has a slight glimpse of the real problem, which is that there are no effective owners of the atmosphere, and thus no one (or even a few) who can say hey! I like the world’s thermostat right where it is, any I’m willing to suffer the consequences of paying more for sequestration, conservation or different energy sources.

Instead, we are stuck with the twin problems of international negotiations between a multiplicity of governments that have different interests (with no one from the future voting) and, across all nations, domestic struggles between interest groups to persuade government to choose the policies that benefit their interest group the most.

Shearman’s not wrong to speak out, but he needs to do a little more reading on externalities and prisoners’ dilemmas. 

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