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Elemental Challenges: Environmental Troubles beyond the Limits of Democracy

From an examination of how environmental issues reshape politics, this inquiry focuses on the theoretical grounds of deliberative democratic theory to ask whether such a vision offers the best means of resolving environmental problems. Arguing that the very terms in which environmental politics have been defined retain features better suited to previous historical circumstances, the analysis proceeds from features typical of environmental problems to a more context-specific assessment of the role for democratic participation. Engaging the works of Jürgen Habermas, the author details the way in which deliberative democratic theory is indebted to a concept of communicative action that defines complex environmental issues as beyond the scope for successful resolution. Covering theoretical as well as empirical aspects of environmental deliberation, this inquiry includes a comparative framework for evaluating the performance of differing deliberative institutions according to the type of environmental problem addressed. Following this critical assessment of deliberative democratic theory, the analysis turns to the effects of authoritative expertise on democratic involvement in environmental issues. Given that authoritative expertise cannot be dispensed with despite the asymmetry it introduces into the relationship between experts and lay citizens, it is asserted that the conditions for justifiable deference should be encouraged by cultivating institutions that promote trust between experts and lay citizens. The analysis proceeds to link the way in which decentralized institutions decrease the risks inherent in trust with an assessment of the precautionary principle as a standard against which regulatory decisions can be evaluated. The inquiry concludes by turning to proposals for global democratic governance, arguing that the fragmented landscape of international environmental law offers increased opportunities for resolving environmental disputes due to the proliferation of coordinated but decentralized institutions and codification of the precautionary principle.
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