[ExI] The New Green Aristocracy

Stefano Vaj stefano.vaj at gmail.com
Wed Oct 29 14:01:13 UTC 2008

The New Green Aristocracy

They don't work for you

By Ben Pile<http://forms.theregister.co.uk/mail_author/?story_url=/2008/10/28/new_eco_aristocracy/>•
more from this author <http://search.theregister.co.uk/?author=Ben%20Pile>

Posted in Environment <http://www.theregister.co.uk/science/environment/>,
28th October 2008 11:03 GMT

*Comment* An aristocracy is a form of government by an elite that considers
itself to possess greater virtues than the hoi polloi, giving it the right
to rule in its own interests. Aristocrats were referred to as 'the
nobility', or 'nobs'. These days we prefer decisions to be made
democratically – the idea being that we can judge for ourselves which ideas
serve our interests, thank you very much, ma'am.

But in recent years, politicians have sought legitimacy for their positions
from outside of the democratic process. A new aristocracy is emerging from
the emptiness of UK politics - and it's considerably more virtuous than

Last Thursday, foreign secretary Ed Miliband announced the government was
committing to an 80 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 - up
from 60 per cent. This was the latest in a game of politics by numbers, in
which the major parties outbid each other to commit to the most punishing
targets, each party claiming that its own reduction target best represented
'the science'.

Embarrassed at being so easily trumped, environment secretary Hilary Benn
announced changes to the Climate Change
being debated today - last October. A new Climate Change Committee
of scientific and economic experts would advise Parliament on what targets
best represented the science. Ed Miliband's announcement followed the first
advice from the CCC, given to him by the Committee's chair, Lord Adair
Turner, in a letter earlier in the week.

At first glance, this appears to be a sensible way of formulating policy. If
"tackling climate change" is a purely technical challenge, why not leave it
to the experts? The problem is that it's not a purely technical challenge,
and it makes many political assumptions. Lord Turner is surprisingly candid
about this:

Climate science cannot predict with absolute certainty how emissions paths
will translate into temperature increases and how temperature increases will
translate into damage. Deciding what level of temperature increase is
harmful is therefore inherently judgemental.

Yet public scrutiny of this judgement call is disastrously absent from the
climate change debate.

For example, according to the conventional wisdom, "climate change will be
worse for the poor", and this forms a substantial part of the argument for
emissions reduction. But an argument for making people wealthy could have
the same basis. After all, the human cost of extreme weather in the
developed world is far lower than equivalent phenomena in poorer countries.
But arguments for wealth are necessarily *political*. They depend
fundamentally on us understanding our own interests. Meanwhile, the argument
for drastic carbon reduction and lifestyle change is principally *ethical*:
it claims that matters of fact exist, which dictate the terms and limits
that society must respond to, or else we will face catastrophe. At the same
time, the argument goes, politics can only fail to respond to these matters
of fact, because people are too self-interested, and lack the ability to
understand the complexities of climate science.

In other words, we lack the virtues necessary to make decisions about the

Moreover, politicians have mirrored the public's cynicism of politicians
with their own cynicism of politics. Accordingly, they are ever keener to
demonstrate their ethical credentials – their virtues – than they are in
explaining the potential of their political ideas. They don't have any.
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