Category Archives: Deliberative Democracy & Ways to Legally Implement Intergenerational Justice

One Worry about Representatives for Future Generations

Future generations are affected by present-day decisions but the choices they would make if they could participate in these decisions obviously cannot enter the present-day democratic process. However, their interests can enter the present democratic process and they can do so in at least two ways:

  1. There can be special representatives for future generations in parliament. For example, 10% of the seats in parliament could be reserved for such representatives of future generations with the right to vote.
  2. The normal MPs can incorporate the interests of future generations in their normal decision-making. That’s what we currently do (though we could improve the current model by supporting the incorporation of the interests of future  generations by an ombudsman laying out the interest of future generations for MPs  and exhorting them to take account of them).

There are further options – such as constitutional provisions that put limits on what can be done to future generations – but I want to focus on one specific problem that the first option (representatives for future generations) has in contrast to the second option (expecting normal MPs to incorporate the interests of future generations in their choices).

If a country were to introduce special representatives for future generations in parliament by reserving 10% of the seats for them, then there are three effects:

  1. The interests of future generations enter the present democratic process better because 10% of MPs are supposed to incorporate and represent exclusively those future interests.
  2. The interests of future generations enter the present democratic process better because 10% of the MPs constantly remind the other 90% of the concerns of future generations.
  3. The interests of future generations enter the present democratic process worse because the 90% “normal” MPs might give less weight to the interests of future generations than they would do if there were no 10% special representatives. In other words: The fact that there are special representatives for future generations “crowds out” the motivation in normal MPs to take account of future generations. They can tell themselves that the concerns of future generations are already taken care of (by the 10% special representatives) and thus they can stop worrying about the future themselves.

I am worried that the third effect might outweigh the first two (and countervailing) effects. Even though it seems that reserving a certain number of seats in parliament for future generations would serve future generations well, the opposite might possibly happen. If special representatives mean that everyone else stops considering the future their own responsibility, then it’s better not to have special representatives.

Rosia Montana: Are We Drawing to a Close?

On the 9th of December, a referendum was organized in 35 small Romanian localities within the mining region where the Roşia Montană project is supposed to take place. The decision to hold the referendum on the same day as the legislative elections was obviously neither coincidental, nor just a sensible cost-savings measure. Rather,the not-so-secret hope was that merging two deliberative issues for the same ballot would secure a good turnout and push the controversial project beneath the door and then up the decision makers’ table. After all, there are other examples from the recent past that consolidated this mechanism. But it so happened that the referendum had to be invalidated due to an insufficient turnout.

In the event that the referendum expressed the will of the local people to restart mining in the area, the corporation, project advocates, and politicians who have over the last years been reciting the mantra of job creation would have hailed its outcome as a clear triumph of democracy over demagogy and misinformation. But would it have really been so?

If, in 2002, when the Local Council voted that Roşia Montană should be transformed from a residential area into an industrial area, thus making it virtually impossible for any alternative economic activity to develop there, a referendum had been organized and the ‘will of people’ had spoken in one voice, it would have been more difficult to criticize now this proof of sham democracy.  But the major questions still remain, and, moreover, no significant effort is being made to answer them. Why should this project be simply a matter of securing jobs and temporary welfare for a community who is indeed very poor? After all, there should be more talk about non-renewable resources, environmental and legal protection mechanisms, and fair distribution of stakeholder responsibilities. Such issues are not strictly of local interest, but if the referendum had been held at national level, it is very plausible to say that not only  it would have been valid, but the project itself would had been rejected. It is still unclear to me whether a referendum, be it national, would be the best alternative to decide on such an issue. From one angle, it would just serve to cover decision makers in the voice and authority of the ‘people’, while preserving the same hazy distribution of responsibilities at policy level.

If, at the beginning of my posts on Roşia Montană, I saw this research topic riddled with questions, the answers to which would really make a difference, I rather tend to believe now that this project poses deep structural problems which must be addressed at their core, and not on a case-to-case basis.  Even if for the moment there is no definite answer on what is going to happen in that area, the fact that the referendum was invalidated should not be seen as a good sign by opponents of the projects. After all, it is a precedent procedurally approved, and it may be just a matter of time until it becomes successful.

Neoliberalism and Climate Change

Here you can find a collection of interesting thoughts on climate change by George Monbiot, published on his personal blog:







A crucial – but hardly mentioned – issue for climate negotiations

When asked about the prospects for climate negotiations, commentators usually sigh loudly and try to locate some small window of opportunity for incremental progress. The general impression is that there are stalemates, diametrically opposed interests, and few options for squaring the circle. Slow steps are all we can hope for in this bleak picture, it seems.

In the midst of this pessimism, we should not forget that there always remains the possibility of radically changing negotiating positions. Exogenous “shocks” to citizens’ views on climate change are imaginable. Here are two scenarios. A number of environmental disasters could hit a major country, thereby radically altering its perception of self-interest. A wave of religious awakening could sweep across another major country where the type of religion involved preaches radical harmony with nature. Both scenarios are unrealistic but we should not forget that in the past, political positions sometimes have been turned on their head in the course of a few years. We usually talk about low-probability-high-impact events with respect to bad outcomes. But we should not forget that there are also low probability events with respect to good outcomes. A radical change in public opinion is such a good outcome with low probability.

What does this have to do with climate negotiations? Climate negotiations should be set up such that they could accommodate any unexpected positive turn of negotiating positions. UNFCCC procedures, institutional flexibility, dialogue atmosphere etc. should not only be designed with the 99% probability in mind that political feasibility constraints set tight limits on climate policy but they should also be designed with the 1% probability in mind that political feasibility constraints could suddenly dramatically soften. It would be an awful shame if political will to solve the climate problem should surprisingly arrive but the inertia of political institutions would be unprepared to pick that up.

Those who think that the incremental progress of today is roughly on a par with not doing anything at all about climate change (a view I do not share), should be especially open to the above thoughts. In other words: Those who favor an all-or-nothing approach to mitigation (because they think doing little is about as bad as doing nothing) should view institutional preparedness for a radical turn in public opinion a high priority.

Money, Motivation, and Nature

Emissions trading faces opposition from many sides. One specific argument against emissions trading is based on the fact that humans are to some extent intrinsically motivated to care for the environment. This intrinsic motivation can disappear, however, if people are also paid for caring for the environment. Emissions trading can thus “crowd out” the intrinsic motivation to care for the environment. Therefore, it may ultimately lower environmental protection.

The effect of motivation crowding has been shown in spectacular experiments. For example, in one experiment people were asked whether they would be willing to host a radioactive waste site in their village (the idea being that this counts as some sort of altruistic act; it is driven by a sense of civic duty since some village in the country has to host the waste site). Other people were asked the same question but in addition they were told that the national government would compensate the village that hosted the site. Interestingly, people were less willing to host the waste site in their village if they knew that they would be compensated!

Without compensation people agreed to host the waste site because they probably thought something like: “One village or other has to host it, nothing speaks against us — so the right thing is to agree to it.” With the compensation people opposed the waste site because they probably thought something like: “Well, it’s a deal. We host the site and in return we get compensated. So, is that a good deal for us? No, it isn’t.”

The same with emissions trading. Without emissions trading, people might lower their emissions due to a sense of duty to play their part in the common effort. With emissions trading, they might get the impression that releasing emissions is in principle fine so long as one does not exceed one’s “cap” on emissions or so long as one buys emission rights off from others. One can get paid for emission reductions below the cap — so why do it voluntarily?

So — should we oppose emissions trading because it crowds out intrinsic motivation to reduce emissions voluntarily? I think not. My (semi-tentative) objection is this. I agree that emissions trading crowds out intrinsic motivation. I agree that this crowding out is bad. However, I think it’s unrealistic to avoid the motivation crowding effect anyway. Why?

  1. Firstly, I assume that there will be some “putting a price on carbon” anyway. It is completely unrealistic that future environmental policies will rely purely on voluntary (or command-andc-control) measures for the protection of the environment.
  2. Secondly, I assume that the motivation crowding effect depends much more on whether there is a “price on carbon” at all rather than on how extensively a “price on carbon” is used as a strategy for reducing carbon.

In other words: Given that people are already accostumed to the idea that there is a price on carbon (and carbon reductions), I doubt that much additional intrinsic motivation will be crowded out if emissions trading is used. Motivation crowding may thus not be a strong objection to using emissions trading more widely.

Will the real Polluter Pays Principle please stand up?

What is “the” Polluter Pays Principle? One version of the principle says that the polluter ought to pay in proportion to her pollution. A second – and very different – version says that the polluter ought to bear a burden in proportion to her pollution.

There is a large difference between these two versions because the person who pays a tax on emissions is not necessarily the person who is actually made worse off by such a tax.

Here’s an imaginary example: Assume that consumers in Europe pay a tax on gas. This might not burden them at all (even though they are the agents who ultimately hand over money to the tax collector) because gas stations might just lower gas prices in response to the introduction of the tax. However, the gas station owners might not lose any profit, neither. Rather, they might be able to pass on the burden (the “tax incidence”) to oil producing countries by lowering the market price for oil. In an oil producing country, this might have the effect that company X goes bankrupt, as a result of which employee Y loses his job and must move to another town, as a result of which his child Z loses his friends and suffers from a depression.

There are certainly contexts in which  “Polluter Pays Principle” is used in the first sense and there are definitely contexts in which it is used in the second sense. And it is equally certain that this leads to confusion in debates over environmental policy and environmental justice! What is much less certain is whether one version is more sensible and whether one version represents the core idea behind the Polluter Pays Principle better.

Less confidentiality for the IPCC?

Currently, the first order drafts for the next assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Working Group III) are up for expert review. These drafts are confidential and should not be cited, quoted or distributed.

Does it make sense for the IPCC to stress the confidential nature of these drafts? Not necessarily, as a friend of mine pointed out.

Why? Firstly, the IPCC is lacking the public trust that it deserves. This trust could be enhanced by extra large transparency. Secondly, given how easy it is to become a reviewer and given how incredibly many reviewers there are, chances are close to zero that the drafts will ultimately remain a secret anyway.  Journalists who try to get access presumably will find a way to do so. Even Harry Potter leaked to the internet before its official release…

Rawls and Popper at Climate Negotiations

At the Bonn Climate Conference that took place last month, philosophical theorising entered the political negotiations. UN climate chief Cristiana Figueres noted that “equity is difficult to define” and everyone agrees: There is a bewildering disagreement on equity principles. Dr. Prodipto Ghosh therefore stressed that equity norms must not simply be asserted but must also be justified. You can see him talk here (minute 29), invoking Popper and Rawlsian ideas along the way.

In his view, we must systematically compare different equity proposals by following a six step validation procedure (see p. 8 and 9 here). A crucial step includes testing whether the different equity proposals are consistent with basic ethical criteria (universalizability, avoiding harm, etc., see p. 10 and 11 here). While his specific suggestions are based on some – in my view – adventurous philosophical premises, the basic thrust seems right: We better find some way to resolve that disagreement.

Dr. Ghosh and myself might be wrong in thinking that the best means to resolve the disagreement over equity norms consists in finding agreement on a method to resolve the disagreement. That might be too academic and too artificial to be of any help in practice. I am not sure what other means would be more effective in achieving the goal of agreement. But what I am sure about is the importance of agreement (or at least convergence). Why? The bewildering variety of equity proposals makes room to choose one’s favorite principle based on self-interest (cf. Lange et al.).

A good example is the US negotiator who made self-interested use of the disagreement on equity in subtle but powerful ways. You can see him talk here (at minute 11:40). He stressed how there were multiple interpretations of equity, how each interpretation is valid, how equity is a qualitative concept that doesn’t fit into a formula and how we should respect diversity of opinion. He displayed other ingenious ways of dodging the equity issue (such as ruling out equity proposals on account of their lack of realism, meaning nothing else than that rich countries are not willing to bear the costs). But the above mentioned insinuations were particularly salient in instrumentalizing disagreement for the purpose of avoiding being nailed down. This proves Dr. Ghosh right: We should not rest content with the current state of massive confusion & disagreement over equity principles.