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Democratising planetary boundaries: experts, social values and deliberative risk evaluation in Earth system governance

Pickering Jonathan and Åsa Persson. 2020. Democratising planetary boundaries: experts, social values and deliberative risk evaluation in Earth system governance. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning, 22:1, 59-71.


Recent debates about the concept of planetary boundaries recall longstanding concerns about whether ecological limits are compatible with ecological democracy. The planetary boundaries framework (originally set out in Rockström et al., 2009a, 2009b) defines values for key Earth-system processes such as climate change and biodiversity that aim to maintain a ‘safe’ distance from thresholds or levels that could endanger human wellbeing. Despite having a significant impact in policy debates, the framework has been criticised as implying an expert-driven approach to governing global environmental risks that lacks democratic legitimacy. Drawing on research on deliberative democracy and the role of science in democratic societies, we argue that planetary boundaries can be interpreted in ways that remain consistent with democratic decision-making. We show how an iterative, dialogical process to formulate planetary boundaries and negotiate ‘planetary targets’ could form the basis for a democratically legitimate division of labour among experts, citizens and policy-makers in evaluating and responding to Earth-system risks. Crucial to this division of evaluative labour is opening up space for deliberative contestation about the value judgments inherent in collective responses to Earth-system risks, while also safeguarding the ability of experts to issue warnings about what they consider to be unacceptable risks.

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