Consensus and Global Environmental Governance: Deliberative Democracy in Nature’s Regime

Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 An engaging argument for pursuing ecologically sustainable and democratically legitimate earth systems governance through democratic deliberation.

 Consensus and Global Environmental Governance

 

by Walter F. Baber and Robert V. Bartlett Consensus and Global Environmental Governance: Deliberative Democracy in Nature’s Regime, MIT Press, 2015, 272 pp

Consensus and Global Environmental Governance: Deliberative Democracy in Nature’s Regime is part of the MIT Press Earth System Governance book series. The series identifies normative discourses about global environmental governance. Following Deliberative Environmental Politics (2005) and Global Democracy and Sustainable Jurisprudence (2009), Baber and Bartlett’s third book examines the application of deliberative democratic theory to the practice of environmental politics. In Global Democracy and Sustainable Jurisprudence the authors argued that the democratic deficit and inefficacy of international environmental law can be addressed through a system of juristic democracy. In this system, environmental law backed by nation-states would be replaced by global common law derived from the rulings of numerous global citizen juries on hypothetical legal cases. Consensus and Global Environmental Governance highlights the practical difficulties and implications of using a deliberative approach to consensus-building.

Baber and Bartlett present convincing arguments regarding the merits of a more democratic process of global environmental policymaking in the first half of the book (Ch. 1–5). Chief among these are that a more democratic process would (i) ensure public support and stronger political will (something that has been missing from past negotiated climate agreements), (ii) lead to a much-needed shift in values and (iii) ensure more environmentally just outcomes. They point to several conditions that must be met for rules to be effective (Ch. 1) and advocate for deliberative techniques (such as juristic deliberation) to ensure “ecologically sustainable and democratically legitimate environmental governance” (Ch. 2). International law and negotiations, they argue, have been ineffective due to poor implementation and regulation marked by a democratic deficit (Ch. 3).

Baber and Bartlett anchor themselves squarely on the side of deliberative democracy in the broader academic debate. They address common criticisms: deliberation may (i) push conflict aside rather than resolve it; (ii) exacerbate existing inequalities and lead to unfair outcomes; (iii) discriminate against political perspectives held by minorities; (iv) be overly technical in nature, thereby inadvertently excluding historically disadvantaged groups; and (v) fail to affect policymaking, thereby further disenfranchising politically marginalized groups (Ch. 4). Like other deliberative democracy advocates, they respond to these complaints by emphasizing the importance of the design and implementation of the process of deliberation and by countering with a critique of the alternative (i.e., aggregative democracy).

The obvious challenge of a deliberative approach to international policymaking is that it becomes unwieldy. Baber and Bartlett propose a system of juristic deliberation in which citizen juries from around the world would be convened to adjudicate hypothetical environmental disputes. When transnational consensus is reached on a specific issue, the results of the deliberation would then be made available to “international tribunals for citation as a general principle of law in support of their resolution of specific environmental disputes” (p. 168). In this way, they argue, we would gain more insight into shared global values and identify similar approaches to disputes across cultures. In theory, this should enable policymakers to develop a new system of environmental policies built on normative consensus.

The authors use research on trial juries to support their call for citizen juries (Ch. 6), continue to develop their vision of juristic democracy in the second half of the book (Ch. 7–9) and conclude with a defense against charges that consensus may not be possible or desirable (Ch. 10). The book includes an example case (Appendix B) of a hypothetical water-warming dispute between three countries (Arroya, Panterra and Meerland). Baber and Bartlett describe the results of testing this case with twelve citizen panels from the United States, Germany, Russia, Sweden and the United Kingdom (Appendix A).

Their overarching argument is that democratic deliberation can be used at every step of global environmental governance and policymaking to build and identify normative, political and social consensus. Juristic deliberation can be used to spot “widely supported normative principles and general propositions of law” (i.e., normative consensus), whereas classic deliberative techniques (e.g., deliberative polling, consensus conferences, planning cells, etc.) can only be used to engage the public in choosing among alternative policy paradigms (i.e., identify political consensus). In the final step, policies are implemented through stakeholder partnerships to help ensure social consensus.

Although Baber and Bartlett argue persuasively that deliberative democracy has the potential to increase the political legitimacy of environmental governance and lead to more ecologically sustainable policies, the real challenge lies in convincing nation-states that the costs (including the political costs) associated with such deep engagement with the public will be offset in the long run.


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