Democracy under strain

I have recently often found myself thinking of a sentence in the late Stephen Schneider’s book Science as a Contact Sport, reviewed on Hot Topic a year ago. Towards the end of the book he reflected on the greed and short-term thinking which has led business interests to advance a campaign of confusion and doubt on the science of climate change, aimed at stalling action. It didn’t surprise him, but what worried him was that so many decent people are still taken in by it. Then came the sentence which reverberates almost daily for me:

What keeps me up at night is a disquieting thought: ‘Can democracy survive complexity?’


It is the run-up to the US mid-term elections which has ensured Schneider’s sentence nags so insistently. Candidate after candidate (mostly Republican) asseverates “I don’t believe in manmade global warming” or “I have not been convinced” or “I am sceptical about the science” or any of numerous similar positions which can be coupled with an assurance that he or she won’t back action to reduce emissions, and may even move aggressively to prevent it. As I read or, if I can bear it, listen, to these confident deniers, many of them articulate and well presented, I wonder where they find their assurance. Generally speaking they seem ignorant of the science. In fact their confidence seems in inverse proportion to their knowledge.

The clear message from the science simply doesn’t flow through society to these would-be decision makers. It is intercepted and at best muddied, at worst completely blocked. What is a coherent picture, supported by the vast majority of scientists with expertise in relevant fields, attested by highly reputable national academies of science and international  science organisations, somehow emerges in the hands of political candidates as variously highly debatable, deeply uncertain, or even the product of a vast conspiracy.

It is tempting to dismiss the candidates as a bunch of contemptible liars who cynically set the goal of gaining power well ahead of any regard for truth or human welfare. Maybe some of them are. But some of them no doubt genuinely think they are speaking truthfully when they voice their scepticism. They inhabit an intellectual world from which the real science has been excluded and they are unaware of the fact. The misinformers have done their work and constructed an alternative reality undisturbed by the need to take action against the threat of rising carbon emissions.

It’s a temporary alternative, and it only appears real.  Sooner or later the bitter truth will assert itself. But in the meantime the country on whom so much depends for effective action against global warming appears likely to spend a few more years in delay to the perceived benefit of vested interests.

To be elected these politicians need voters. They wouldn’t be saying the things they are about climate change if their sentiments weren’t shared by a wide slice of their constituencies.  Whole sectors of society have been taken in by the misinformation industry and its false assurances.

Climate science and the policies to respond to its message are complex, but hardly to the extent that they are incommunicable to the public at large. It is the “deliberate special interest distortion” and the “knee-jerk media balance” which Schneider saw as compounding the complexity and making it hard for democracy to deal with. Too hard, he sometimes feared. Many in America are probably sharing that anxiety right now.

I don’t know of any clever strategy to counter what we are seeing in the US. One hopes it will be largely confined there, though even if it is its effects will be felt throughout the world. All I can see is the need to continue to assert the key points, which were recently splendidly summarised by climatologist Richard Somerville, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Joe Romm at Climate Progress reproduced them from the original essay in the journal Climatic Change. Somerville makes six points:

  1. The essential findings of mainstream climate change science are firm.
  2. The greenhouse effect is well understood. It is as real as gravity.
  3. Our climate predictions are coming true.
  4. The standard skeptical arguments have been refuted many times over.
  5. Science has its own high standards. It does not work by unqualified people making claims on television or the Internet. It works by expert scientists doing research and publishing it in carefully reviewed research journals.
  6. The leading scientific organisations of the world, like national academies of science and professional scientific societies, have carefully examined the results of climate science and endorsed these results.

These are the bare bones. You can read the fuller and eloquent statements on Climate Progress or in the original longer essay. But the essential logic and plain good sense is apparent in the extract I have made. It seems to me to display the framework of what must be reiterated for as long as it takes for a democratic society to see clearly where the science is at and decide what should be done to address the threat it points to. Misinformation can only be answered with the truth of the matter.

48 thoughts on “Democracy under strain”

    1. Le Chat Noir, I have no argument with alternative approaches such as those discussed in your links. All power to those pursuing them. But I suspect I am a creature of the enlightenment myself, even in my values (which incidentally were considerably influenced in my youth by Tolstoy). Any contribution I might offer has to centre on the persuasiveness of the scientific case and the reality of the disaster looming ahead.

      1. So let me see if I have this right.

        When the science tells you that you should reduce your CO2 emissions and encourage others to do so you act accordingly.

        When the science tells you that you are unlikely to be able to change people’s minds by presenting them with facts, you ignore it.

        By the way, do you eat milk, cheese or meat?

        1. I would argue that a continual presentation of evidence in a sober, quiet, polite, authoritative yet plain-spoken, and consistent fashion is necessary. This will in the long-term prevail. Parallel and complementary strategies involving humour and the lampooning of denier logic may also need to be developed but we cannot give up on delivering the evidence as you suggest. If scientists are perceived wrongly as being arrogant – this needs to be addressed.

          In terms of a response, the achievability of making the necessary personal and societal changes needs to be emphasized more.

    1. As the statistics in the post you point to makes abundantly clear: scientific literacy can not be assumed of the masses.
      In the past – when science brought mostly great new toys to the table – this posed no problem. You can use an iPhone without knowing anything about quantum physics. You need quantum physics to design the semiconductors that power it.

      But when it comes to tasks thrown by the same science onto the table of the political system then even those who do not qualify to make an educated contribution to the debate on the facts of science are still voters. However now there is a vested group of interests, libertarians who are anti government and see AGW as a no-no because it might imply government action which for them always has the whiff of communism, industrialists who are anti regulation of any of their affairs to preserve profit and old style investors who have shares in old style businesses to all conspire to oppose the findings of science, we have now a tug of war between the scientifically literate and the ethically compromised over the vote of the scientifically illiterate.
      This is the essence of the entire AGW debate.

      Democracy when 21st century science questions are of importance in a country where almost half of the population believes in one way
      or the other in a young Earth and doubts Evolution will be a rather questionable exercise indeed. And for those who know better, the ugly question beckons if it is PC to allow the scientifically illiterate to wreck the planet by voting for morons because, well, its politically correct to let them to their (our) demise….

      As humanity outgrows the bounds set to it by nature – many believe we passed that point mid last century – these questions will only get harder to answer. And the Internet where anybody can find a home corner for their pet delusions outfitted with home grown ‘experts’ on just about anything would appear to become a double edged sword….

      We do live in interesting times….

      1. the ugly question beckons if it is PC to allow the scientifically illiterate to wreck the planet by voting for morons

        Well, we can see where this is heading, can’t we?

        1. What do you suggest John if ignorant people manipulated by special interests wreck the prospects for a peaceful world with a livable environment for future generations. Do you have an answer yourself?

    2. John, I don’t think I called anyone stupid. Ignorant yes, though I tried to suggest why. I’ve already indicated elsewhere what I think of Roger Pielke jr, who snipes comfortably and constantly from the sideline. He successfully demolishes a strawman in the post you link to.

    3. Interesting use of the word “counter-productive”. Productive is a good word I take it. So you think being polite and talking in a level headed fashion to deniers woud be productive in that it would make them see the error of their ways. I’m so glad you are coming around to my point of view.

  1. Perhaps I’m too cynical or too long a student of US politics (two possibilities which converge over time, I admit), but I would not assume there’s anything more than naked opportunism at work. I’m painfully aware of how immersing oneself in ideology can lead to one actually believing that it’s the sole, accurate description of reality. Still, I think the incentives for many politicians on the right and wherever the TPers fall to pander to the rage and the anti-government sentiment in the US make embracing an anti-science, CC denier view too tempting to pass up.

    The people doing this surely have ways to rationalize it — serious impacts are so far off that humanity has plenty of time to fix them later, etc. Of course, this is a grotesque misreading of the situation, as it ignores the mounting evidence that “it’s worse than we thought”, as well as the lock–in effect of CO2’s longevity in the atmosphere. I don’t think for a second that telling these politicians about such details would have any chance whatsoever of changing their positions.

    1. Agree with you ,Lou. These politicians are confident they are singing the song that their constituents want to hear; they’d be quite capable of changing the message to suit the polling. They’ve judged that they can delay because of the immediacy of the behavioral implications of decarbonising versus the slow unfolding of climate change behind a world of noisy weather.

      It’s not a failure of science communication. There has never been a better time for accessible,comprehensive science. The GOP is confident that they’ve read the electoral mood correctly for now.

  2. An unfortunate aspect of democracy is that many voters are ignorant of the issues, some willfully so. As others have noted, knowledge is not sufficient in itself to change deeply held views. So the question is this: what is it worth to try to change such opinions? If you draw the line at giving up your personal integrity, then politics is not your game.

    In the not too distant future, climate and related ocean changes are going to get bad and those responsible for delaying efforts to mitigate will no longer be able to hide. Let’s hope enough of the history of the present survives so that humans get it right (not Right) in the next iteration.

  3. When people make dumb decisions, behave badly and harm others we have a justice system for ensuring that they stop what they are doing, and others are deterred from emulating them.

    This works well for behaviors that directly cause harmful consequences in the short-term. For instance if I feed you rat-poison and you die within hours…it’s a clear cut case of murder. If I feed you a nicotine based poison that takes 40yrs or more to kill you…I’m a successful, well-paid tobacco company executive.

    The problem with long-term consequences is, one it is easy to create misinformation and pretense about them and secondly for this reason they are intrinsically more difficult to determine in a court of law. Our legal systems as we currently conceive them struggle to respond effectively to globalised, inter-generational crime.

    And even if we did create such a jurisprudence, there remains a concommittent task of challenge in building in protections against the abuse of such powerful laws and miscarriages of justice.

    Democracy can and does work, as long as the criminally greedy are discouraged from perverting the public discourse with lies that they concoct for their own self-interest. But how to hold them to account when the incontrovertible evidence of their crime might not be available until generations after their death? It’s a deep and apparently intractable problem. Prosecuting their children and descendants is by widely held convention fundamentally unjust which closes the door to that sanction.

    How can the future reach back and hold to account the sins of the forefathers?

    Maybe when the modern world abandoned the notion of eternal life, and the possibility of eternal damnation, we placed a little too much faith in the power of reason as a substitute. A discomforting thought.

    1. Last weeks New Scientist magazine had an article on exactly this issue and presented the first wave of law suits now coming from climate change victims through the US court systems against the main local polluters.
      The tobacco wars were not won in the arena of the public debate but at court where the victims of tobacco companies sue successfully in a court of intelligent and literate peers.
      I think with the stubborn attitude of the liberal capitalist deniers this may well be the way that the US will sort out their policy issues.

  4. This isn’t about science, or facts. This is about politics and “freedom”. It’s about culture. It’s about a systematic, 20-year campaign to undermine the science – a campaign by those whose very product causes the problem.

    Facts don’t stand a chance in the face of big oil and big oil money.

    1. Asbestos, tobacco, CFCs – the facts won the day eventually.

      Trouble with climate is that there’s a whole heap more people involved and now committed in a way they wouldn’t have been if sensible policies and programs had begun 20-30 years ago. They’re now more entrenched than ever.

      1. Somehow I think that China might evolve much quicker than anybody might have thought into a nation that recognizes pragmatically what is right and what is wrong and will embrace a path to sustainable future (at least trying) where others (notably the USA) will fail.
        China is a nation of well educated and scientifically literate people and free from the fallacies and nonsense that keeps the US political system in constant paralysis and at the hand of jokers like the Tea Party folk. China has shown a remarkable resilience over thousands of years.
        The US in comparison looks like a naughty teenager on a drinking binge. Perhaps one should simply leave them to their fate of self destruction and concentrate to walking forward with those who are keen to do so towards the technology and the living of the future.

        1. China is free of many distractions, like freedom and the rule of law. And it remains the as the largest CO2 polluting nation with no slow down in coal-burning anywhere in sight. It is NOT the model to follow.

          1. Mike, I’d be inclined to agree with Thomas in one respect, China is probably more likely to respond to the threat of global warming than the US.

            Neither are role models, however countries like NZ don’t help by moving much of their manufacturing to China and then pointing the finger of blame at them.

            1. I know that China is in a coal boom etc. but likewise they are in a boom of alternative energy development the likes can not be found anywhere else.

              Just look at the staggering number of electric car manufacturers in China:

              Or solar collector manufacturers:

              This is just a rather small example.

              China is not a democracy. But when I look at the USA today I really wonder what that word actually means in the context of today’s issues….

          2. This data estimates that between 1900 and 2004 the United States emitted 314,772 million metric tonnes of CO2. Over the same period Russia and China emitted 89,000 million tonnes each. In 2007 China emitted 6,284 million tonnes while the US emitted 6,007 million tonnes and this was the first year that China became the largest emitter. On a per capita basis US citizens are responsible for 19.8 metric tonnes per person while the average Chinese citizen emits 4.6 tonnes. Seems unfair to beat on the panda when there’s an elephant in the room.

            Finally, and most importantly, as Dappledwater points out, developed countries have outsourced their emissions intensive activities to China so we can enjoy “cheap” consumption. When emissions are accounted for on a consumption rather than a production basis the picture looks different.  In Britain David MacKay estimates that CO2 emissions are twice as bad as official figures suggest and that half of the UK’s energy footprint lies overseas.

            1. Has anyone here actually been to China and witnessed the wanton consumerism that is growing there?

            2. I’ve been to China, and witnessed the huge growth in use of solar hot water systems. And electric bikes are so common that they’re a health hazard on the streets (so quiet…).

            3. And electric bikes are so common that they’re a health hazard on the streets

              I’d agree on that, and add to that the interesting Chinese driving style and they are indeed a health hazard, even on the rare occasions that the scooters are actually on the road!

              Did you see the hypermarts, teeming with upwardly mobile Chinese eager to buy goods, all hours of the day?

              To suggest that all China’s emissions are the West’s fault is missing the obvious I think.

            4. You are 100% correct that the system of accounting ‘per capita emissions’ based on emissions production is wrong. All this does is benefit economies that are naturally geared to service sectors and falsly a blame economies that are naturally geared to primary industries (like NZ and Aussie).

              This paper is also good:


              Note New Zealand’s emissions per capita are a lot lower on a consumption basis than a production basis.

            5. But the point is that China’s current greenhouse gas emissions are accelerating. If you want to bring an absolute no doubt about it deal breaker to the table, then allude to potential reparations for past emissions to any politician from a western democracy. We must start dealing with the here and now. The first thing to do is to forego any new fossil-fuel powered electrical generation stations anywhere, USA, NZ China or India.

            6. China is building 2 new coal fired power stations a week, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

      2. In the case of tobacco, the evidence is clear that it is for their own good and the greater good that they quit and yet people still smoke. Kind of suggests that simply telling people/governments what the evidence suggests is for the greater good is not going to work. Personally, I think that environmental organisations need to show some unity, give this issue top priority, and crank their activities up to the next level. Simply asking politely and hope that someone will take notice is not going to get far, it certainly didn’t work for the suffragette movement, nor the abolition of slavery…..

  5. Mike, I don’t know who is perpetuating that myth about China, it certainly isn’t me – they have an appalling environmental record. You miss the point. It’s because of their political system (no democracy) that they can respond quickly should they decide to do so.

    I also notice few people seem to accept that many of those Chinese emissions are actually ours (western societies).

  6. “Democracy assumes disagreement”

    This is not just about climate change:

    “And the vitriol emanating at all hours from rage radio, yell television, and Fox News — against immigrants, intellectuals, “coastal elites,” gays, and the President.

    We’re better than this.

    This is not respectful disagreement. It’s thuggery. It has no legitimate role in a democracy. And most Americans are fed up with it.”

    Just as their are brands of milk or fuel, their are brands of democracy.

  7. I run several online email lists. On one, there was a strong and often nasty attack on the idea of man-made Global Warming, by people who had been long time members. As a moderator I found this very difficult to deal with. We were flooded with hundreds of pages of posts, that were sourced elsewhere. I at least needed to read them. They raised hundreds of false trails each demanding a “reply”. It quickly became an impossible situation.

    In response to bullying, other participants on the network went quiet. As moderator it was up to me. I decided to take on the main poster directly. Telling him that I would only read his ideas, the concepts he personally felt that he could defend. That any articles re-posted from elsewhere would be deleted.

    He posted one post. I immediately took him to task for the nonsense, he “believed”. Several other members chipped in to support me. Very quickly he went silent. My experience tells me bullies need to be tackled directly. Democracy works, but sometimes it needs a bit of leadership.

    1. Leadership. Absolutely. Democracy requires that every vote counts.

      It does n.o.t. require that the opinions underlying some of those votes be given any oxygen. The foolish old dears who thought that daylight saving would fade the curtains were entitled to vote on that basis. But anyone publicly espousing that view can fully expect to be refuted or ridiculed for expressing it.

      Democracy does not abandon leadership. It’s just not the same kind of leadership as dictators or monarchs employ. Bad leaders exacerbate the worst in their culture. Good leaders bring out the best. That often requires education and a very firm statement of what’s required. Think Churchill, JFK, Martin Luther King.

      The idea that democracy is the same thing as anyone’s-opinion-is-as-good-as-anyone-else’s or trivial individualism or other such nonsense is completely misguided. Democratic leadership sets the tone for civil discourse and for civilised culture.

      1. I agree totally.

        Somehow the intellectual left has gone rather weak over the past decades. The rise of bigotry has much to do with the relative silence of the progressive. We need good and honest leadership more than ever if want to steer the ship out of the fatal course its all on.

  8. The more I read about America the more depressed I become over what was a great country. They are not alone as I have friends who believe what Ian Wishart writes and also believe that the world is only 10,000 years old as written in the Bible.
    I some way I feel sorry for the Chinese who are an intelligent race of people. They spent 100 years fooling about with communism and just when they get going on a new way of life, the oil runs out and the climate collapses.
    We have lived in a golden age.

    1. Wishart believers and their ilk have so clogged up the “Your Voice” page of the Southland Times that the editor has called it a day on discussion about global warming. I was one of the very very few writing from the science angle. It was a lonely battle and I am glad of the rest, but sad that such an important issue now lacks a voice in the paper. Democracy derailed by denialism.

      1. Well Wishart seems now to be switching his attention to speculation about past infamous murder cases in NZ with quite an anti-police slant. He just seems to be motivated by an anti-establishment bias and sees a world-government conspiracy everywhere. If tomorrow scientists said there was no reason to worry about climate change Wishart would start to worry and begin agitating for the case for AGW.

        1. Off topic I know, but being an ex- police officer, it really hacks me off reading people like Ross Meurant trying to lend him credibility. Meurant’s as nutty as Wishart.

          I laughed when I read Meurant’s article in the Herald, he really was in awe of himself. Trouble is the public don’t know any better. Now where have we run across that before?.

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