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 thou.
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 Bill - being debated today - last October. A new Climate Change Committee (CCC) 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 future.
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.