Landemore: No Decarbonization Without Democratization

Hélène Landemore writes in Project Syndicate:

The planet is burning. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s warnings about the consequences of rising temperatures are becoming increasingly dire. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has set off a race in Europe and elsewhere to achieve energy independence through rapid transformations of the economy.

With decarbonization becoming such an urgent priority, it is tempting to consider political shortcuts. Why not try enlightened despotism or “epistocracy” (rule by experts), picking the best climate scientists and engineers and empowering them to make the decisions for us? Why not embrace the Chinese method of forcing through sweeping changes and swatting away any misguided resistance from below?

This opening has at least three standard features of Western elite political discourse. First, it puts climate change front and center – a problem that is widely recognized in elite circles not only as an issue that should be at the top of the governance agenda, but also one where the elite, duly concerned about the upcoming catastrophe, find themselves at the forefront of moral thought, desperately trying to lead a reluctant, obtuse public. The single issue of climate change is the only issue that matters in the article and other issues, issues that affect the public at large but are of no concern to the elite (most urgently recently, for example, the rising costs of energy, but many perennial issues as well), are considered only to the extent that they bear on the issue of climate change.

Second, these two paragraphs make reference to two geopolitical opponents of the West – Russia and China – making it clear that whatever analysis is going to be offered, it is part of the struggle of the West against those intransigent foes and their wicked ways. The mention of China and its “method of forcing through sweeping changes and swatting away any misguided resistance from below” is particularly useful as anticipating and cutting at the root “skeptical” responses to Landemore’s upcoming proposals for democratization as a way to handle the issue of climate change.

Finally, mentioning of “epistocracy” as a “temptation” is a recurring theme of modern elite political discussion. Classically, epistocracy used to be, of course, not merely a temptation but the ideal political structure ever since political theory was first written down in Athens around 500 BCE. But as democratic ideology has been gaining ground over the last 250 years, this ideal has been relegated to the status of a temptation to be resisted. (Or, in some cases, to be indulged in.)

Landemore’s explanation of why “rule by experts” should be resisted is, as it always is in elite discourse, a matter of expediency:

Even if we accept that epistocracy can reach decisions faster, this is an advantage only if decisions face no resistance. But that will almost never be the case. What good is a swiftly implemented carbon tax if it triggers massive social protests that paralyze the country for months? When the yellow vests stormed the streets of Paris, the authorities had to resort to police repression. In the end, the government caved in to popular pressure and took the only other viable option: talking and listening.

This alternative took two complementary forms: a “Great National Debate” that lasted two months and involved around two million people, and the Citizens’ Convention, where 150 randomly selected citizens generated 149 provisions to curb emissions and address related issues. On the basis of these proposals, the French parliament then produced its most ambitious climate bill ever. The lesson is that even an elected government with some degree of legitimacy cannot force through a policy that the public deems profoundly unfair. The early-stage efficiency of a vertical approach to climate policymaking soon gets canceled out by the long process of addressing popular opposition and restoring lost public trust.

The elite must prioritize public perceptions of fairness, Landemore says, because whether those perceptions are relevant or not, without addressing them progress on the critical issue at hand – climate change – will be seriously slowed down.

By contrast, Landemore says, empowering allotted bodies to make climate policy would result in the desired outcomes:

Two recent examples illustrate how ordinary citizens’ deliberations have moved politicians on environmental justice issues. In 2010, an assembly of 25 elected Icelanders considered recommendations from the broader public and ultimately produced a constitutional proposal that contains landmark provisions to protect the environment.

The French Citizens’ Convention also showed that ordinary citizens can outperform both experts and elected officials. Its members heeded many expert recommendations, but they made them more compatible with social-justice goals. They also rejected some expert recommendations, including the carbon tax, deemed both too unfair and controversial. And in delivering a cogent set of proposals, they outperformed the French parliament, which had never been able to produce an ambitious climate bill.

The question now, of course, is whether the rest of the population will endorse proposals made by fellow citizens who were temporarily placed in the position of lottocratic representatives. In Iceland’s case, a referendum on the citizen assembly’s constitutional proposal was approved by two-thirds of the voting population (and on the specific question of whether natural resources should be nationalized, 80% responded yes).

In the French case, convention members were scared at the last minute into rejecting the option of submitting their proposals to a referendum; but a June 2020 poll established that all but one of their proposals enjoyed majority support. The retrofitting mandate, which was both the best lever to reduce CO2 emissions yet also one of the most coercive and individually costly proposals, met with surprisingly high 74% approval.

In an era of declining trust, people are unlikely to accept solutions to climate change from politicians and experts who seem remote and blind to their experiences. But real-world deliberative processes suggest that they will support the recommendations of mini-publics that look and think like them. In France, three out of five people deemed the Convention legitimate to make proposals in their name.

Landemore seems then to put her faith in the sense of urgency of her elite audience regarding climate change. Facing this emergency, she seems to think, the elite would be willing to entrust political power to the masses since the alternative is global destruction. But when having to decide between global destruction and nationalization of natural resources (and who knows what other unpalatable potential decisions), it seems far from a sure bet that the latter option would seem more appealing to those privileged by the status quo.

2 Responses

  1. A somewhat different approach to climate-change-centered advocacy of allotted bodies is here.


  2. […] papers and opinions on the pros and cons of sortition (unfortunately often rehashing very well hashed material) but applications of sortition have been fading in prominence since the zenith of […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: