Outsourcing environmental politics: why environmental ombudspersons are not an obviously good thing

by Joseph Markus

A blogpost on the Guardian website, written by Christopher Weeramantry, former ICJ judge, Ashok Khosla and Scilla Elworthy, makes the case for the appointment of environmental guardians. These ‘ombudspeople’—destined to form an element of the talks at the Rio+20 summit this June—will hold a mandate to promote sustainable development for future generations.

At face value this seems to present a good idea. Future generations, as such, don’t have a political voice. They have no lobbyists, no-one to protect their interests. This is very much in contrast to the other end of the spectrum, covered by the Heartland Institute and the insidious ‘Kochtopus’. The environmental ombudsperson could fill this gap and ensure that some concept of intergenerational equity features, to some extent, in global environmental policy-making. (Though, of course, when it comes to global warming, the younger generations will experience at least some of the anticipated fallout, so it isn’t entirely true that ‘the future’ has no voice. It’s just that the voice of youth is more usually ignored.)

But at another level this affirms a trend that has been prominently visible for some time. The idea of choice figures heavily in a number of areas, and rightly so. Participatory democracy represents, for many people, an irreducible minimum in social relations. Yet this is an idea that has been partially sacrificed on the altar of sound environmental decision-making.

The consensus view accepts that global warming is happening. To the extent that it has been necessary, science made this clear. The global public (largely) accept the science and it is only right that certain forms of knowledge—here, scientific knowledge—are privileged for certain purposes. Diagnosing an effect of human behaviour, as well as identifying the cause, is a role that scientific method fulfils especially well.

Moving beyond the brute fact of climate change, though, the difficulty of what to do next, in contrast to the science, is highly contestable. Over the past few years, numerous top-down manifestos for change have emerged, the one that most sticks in my mind coming from Sir David Attenborough who called for limits to world population growth. The unifying thread is that, frequently, environmental activists embrace a form of elitism in seeking to force their chosen changes onto the global public.

The difficulty is linked to the problems seen with non-participatory international development processes. Navel-gazing about participation and agency is either discouraged or just ignored. Technocratic financiers in the World Bank, in addition to (equally technocratic) international development activists, are accepted and often unchallenged facts of this world.

Climate change—and our reaction to it—is fast turning into one of the ‘sacred cows’ of progressive-Western-climate politics that can neither be criticised nor dissected. Advocates and activists may feel free to scrutinise the flaws of other political world-views but don’t turn their attention inwards. Climate change deniers (of which I am not one) are correctly accused of running against the dominant scientific outlook. But environmental activists can sometimes, to the outsider, appear to stray dangerously and deliberately close to the totalitarian in denouncing (legitimate) opposite views.

While I agree that the fight for our environment cannot be one that is lost, I find myself unable to support the prevalent top-down approach to environmental problem-solving (no matter how much easier this might make that task seem). Massive change in the structure of Western civilisations which, for as long as anyone can remember, have been dependent on fossil fuel energy and inter-national exceptionalism is (in my view) urgently needed. Such change will never be accepted—and will probably never happen—unless it can claim, in support, at least some democratic mandate. In addition, there would remain the problem that proper debate over our reaction to climate perils would be dispersed and undermined: what need would we have to argue about environmental politics when someone else has responsibility for it? Outsourcing environmental politics and policy to an appointed set of environmental guardians may end up leaving behind those whom it is intended to save.

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