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The fundamental uncertainties that are the essence of the climate problem require new forms of politics. You could see the Paris agreement as such a new form. Maybe it is not ideal, but it’s a start. However, in the implementation of this agreement at national levels, ‘old politics’ seem to be taking over again, as a detailed technocratic approach become dominant. Such an approach fails to account for the character of the climate problem as a problem that concerns the justice of the burden being shared and the unpredictability of the technological system that will be leading in the end. It is therefore not surprising that this kind of policy is criticized, often this criticism is fierce, sometimes unsubstantiated and almost always incoherent – even if they make some sense. Likewise, the policy responses to this criticism are also not very constructive. In the end, it is important that the plurality of values and insights is taken into account in the debate on climate measures, while it is certainly not the case that international treaties stand in the way of such a debate.
A characteristic of the climate problem is that it is both a technical issue and a justice issue. It is technical because new technologies are needed to enable the energy transition that can reduce carbon emissions to an acceptable level. It is about justice because there is a loss of prosperity in the short term, which will most certainly not distributed evenly. At the same time there are fundamental uncertainties. Which technological system will eventually become the standard? How successful is that system? The costs of climate change will be much higher in the long term than the costs in the short term, but how much higher? Nobody knows.
Politics by treaty
In order to be able to conquer such problems, which are at the same time elusive and urgent, agreements are needed between many, many parties. A treaty can thereby provide a commitment for each party to tackle part of the larger problem. The prime example of this ‘political by treaty’ is the Paris agreement on the reduction of carbon emissions so that the global temperature rises by no more than two degrees Celsius.
The climate problem does is not an isolated case. In fact, you could see the Paris agreement as representative of how politics can deal with similar problems. Consider, for example, migration, also a case in which national borders have no control over socio-economic and technological developments.
Not that doing politics by treaty is ideal, especially when it comes to treaties between countries. Countries differ in geographical condition, commitment, implementation and enforcement. But sometimes it is not possible to choose the ideal.
In any case, problems such as the climate problem are characterized by uncertainties that cannot be dealt with within existing institutional frameworks. New ways are needed to deal with these situations in which nobody knows who will be the winners and losers.
What you can see in the case of Paris is that the result of the negotiations is a rather arbitrary one. A number that is nice and round: a temperature rise of no more than 2 degrees Celsius has been established as acceptable. Whether it would make a big difference whether 1.9 or 2.1 degrees had been chosen is doubtful, but it is simply necessary to draw such a hard line.
Then such a randomly chosen limit is given an absolute value. It is going to be the starting point of policy and above all it is about parties being able to hold each other liable for whether or not the agreements made are met. The stated commitment is not without obligation, the parties commit themselves (especially internally) to certain objectives. The essential thing here is that how this commitment is fulfilled is not specified, allowing room to maneuver for the parties.
Not only does such a boundary that is agreed upon have an arbitrary nature, also the required knowledge is uncertain. After all, it’s about the future and nothing is as unpredictable as the future. That the climate changes due to human actions is more than likely, but we could still be wrong. The best clue we have is the accumulation of weather records that we have had to deal with in recent years, but even those could be the result of accidental fluctuations. That has nothing to do with bad or biased science, but with the simple fact that science relies on the past to make statements about the future. To make the future is up to the politicians and to ourselves.
At the same time, the complexity of these kinds of problems is so immense that we need science. Without having the right knowledge, we would have had no idea of a climate problem, no idea of the dangers that it brings with it, and no idea of possible solutions.
Old or new politics?
The Paris agreement is about agreements between countries. Within those countries, new agreements must be settled again, between companies and governments, between different layers of government or between companies. Just think of the climate tables in the Netherlands. But you can also think of the American cities that have started an initiative to combat climate change, despite the federal government stepping out of the Paris agreement (The American cities climate challenge).
Making treaties does not immediately give rise to a new situation. Certainly in the Netherlands it is customary to come to policy agreements through consultation. Moreover, since the 1990’s people have increasingly started to think in terms of ‘governance’ instead of government. Making collective arrangements (what we used to call ‘policy’) no longer is the exclusive right of the state, but it is the cooperation of a network of organizations from the public and private sectors and civil society.
And also this was not very novel. One may think about the so-called military-industrial complex or corruption as earlier forms of ‘public-private cooperation’.
Because making treaties is so similar to established practices of policy-making, you often see parties working on the basis of those ingrained practices. Gather in a room, do some exploration about what each other’s stakes are and then try to get as much out of the negotiations as possible. Once there is an agreement write everything down in detail as soon as possible, before anyone can change their mind.
But making agreements in this way is a misconception. It leads to a technocratic approach, whereby a clear solution to the problem is implemented. This is impossible in case of the climate problem, because nobody knows what the solution should be. We cannot pick the technology from the shelf and simply apply it.
Moreover, it is not at all clear what the stakes are, when it comes to agreements on climate policy. There are too many uncertainties and the situation is way too complex. What those interests are only becomes clear long after an agreement has been settled: when we know what the winning technology is and when it becomes clear who the winners and losers of the new situation are. This does not mean that existing interests are not included in the negotiations – all negotiations involve strategy – but that interests have a character that is diffuse and conditional.
All this makes the commitment mentioned above a new kind of commitment. The bottom line is that all parties more or less realize that climate change and the energy transition can have major and unpredictable consequences for everyone and that the agreements are ultimately aimed at making these consequences a little bit more manageable.
As said, this awareness seem to disappear once the parties are at the negotiating table. Being creatures of habit, we quickly fall back into conventional patterns and agreements are made about who should do what and who will be blamed if things go wrong. This requires extensive specification of tasks and functions. But such an approach does not work when it comes to a problem that revolves around choices that revolve around technology and justice. The old policy takes over, resulting in a policy that cannot help but miss its goal.
Old or new resistance?
Making policy is only one side of the coin. The other side is that of social resistance – and it is here that the shortcomings of conventional policy come to the fore most clearly. The core of democracy is that every decision can be challenged. Whether it concerns parliamentary opposition, strikes, demonstrations, letters to the newspaper, banners from the window. Resistance has been organized in all institutions and decisions can be challenged everywhere. That keeps administrators on their toes and ensures democratic legitimacy.
But how to argue against a treaty to which a state has committed itself that deals with a problem that exceeds any national boundary?
To begin with, there are opponents who think that we should not make such international treaties. The international nature of treaties is seen as a violation of national sovereignty. As if the climate problem stops at the border. Such criticism is difficult to take seriously, it assumes a world that no longer exists.
Another argument is that the contribution to the climate problem of a small country such as the Netherlands is so small that it makes no sense to do something about it as a country. Duh! That was the whole idea of making an agreement to start with (the fact that sometimes it is not the most effective to make policies per country is another point, which is a serious shortcoming of most international treaties).
Then there are the climate deniers. Often people who, as can be deduced from what I have written above, either do not know how science works or do not know how politics works (or indeed they do and function as lobbyists for a very short-sighted business community).
But not all forms of resistance can be said to be fully nonsensical. Such legitimate forms of protest appears to be focus primarily on old politics in which agreements are worked out in much too detailed terms. One form of criticism is that this kind of agreements imposes a singular ‘truth’, which undermines the pluralism that is the essence of a democratic policy. In such a case, a dictatorship of expertise would arise, in which moral questions are answered in a technocratic way.
In line with this are the protests that turn against the measures that have been decided on the basis of such treaties. Wind farms that ruin the view, subsidies for electric cars, the obligation to use a new heating system and so on. Most rowdy are the yellow vests in France, which express their dissatisfaction with the increase in petrol prices. With the violent nature of their protest, the yellow vests cannot be seen as legitimate – violence is simply unacceptable within a democracy. But apart from the violence and the rudeness with which arguments are put forward, it is instructive to look at the underlying motivations of these protests.
First of all, they are about the justice of the decisions. What is the distribution of burdens, who is spared and who even benefits from these decisions? For someone with a good income, an increase in the gas price is not a big problem, but for a poor truck driver it is. For those who don’t have to look at a wind turbine, it is a wonderful source of green energy, for it is a different story for those who are confronted by the shadow and the buzz of the rotor blades.
Secondly, these protests concern new groups. It is no longer trade unions or NGOs taking the lead, but groups of activists that did not exist before and that organize their protest in new ways – via social media, temporary coalitions or global networks, for example. This makes it difficult for policy makers to anticipate their wishes or to consult them.
It is not easy retrieve such criticism though , because it is usually hidden between the forms of protest that I mentioned above. Much protest is inconsistent or reactionary, but that is beside the point that I want to make here: the value of a protest is not that a fully-fledged alternative is offered, but that new concerns, values, insights are brought in as part of the public debate about new policies.
It is not the case that these new points have to be straightforwardly taken on by policymakers. The point is that they should become part of the policy debate. Does that happen? Hardly. To start with, there is the mantra of more information, better knowledge that can be used to fight with fake news, conspiracy theories and climate skepticism.
A second reaction already has an equally high Pavlov content: if there is protest, there more support needs to be creation. Set up more consultation bodies, invite as many people as possible, and talk until everyone agrees.
But who speaks for the yellow vests? And could there not be other protest movements in the future? The green, blue, gray vests? How do you know that you have everyone sitting at the table? You don’t know that and you can’t know that. Democracy is a dynamic process in which new groups can always mobilize around new interests, insights or ideals. It is the core of democracy to be open to this.
The problem is that policymakers here too easily assume patterns that seemed to work at a time when society was stable, people felt presented by political parties, trade unions, or other organizations. But that is no longer the case, most people no longer recognize themselves in these types of organizations, even if they commit themselves to societal goals and concerns, they will not commit themselves permanently to a specific organization.
Just give in to the demands of the protestors? Out of fear of populism or out of political opportunism. Instead of expensive measures, take the route of the least resistance. That might help for a while. But it doesn’t solve the climate problem.
Ultimately, measures to reduce emissions will hurt. Some perhaps more than others. The question is what we consider to be a fair distribution of pain. This is what the debate should be about.
The essence of politics by per treaty is that a chosen starting point cannot be renegotiated. Those 2 degrees Celsius stand and will be maintained. But that does not necessarily mean that there is no room for raising new concerns, recognizing new interests, or investigating alternative justice claims.