Can democracies solve climate change?


in Politics, The environment

James Lovelock, of Gaia Hypothesis fame, thinks we are too stupid to deal with climate change. He has also argued that democratic systems of government may be at fault:

But it can’t happen in a modern democracy. This is one of the problems. What’s the alternative to democracy? There isn’t one. But even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.

This touches on issues that have been discussed here frequently before, like just how radical a change we need in our political and economic systems. Still, it seems worth discussing.

Is there any chance whatsoever that the suspension of democracy could help deal with climate change? Or would such suspension simply perpetuate inaction, or make things even worse? Certainly, the more concerned any government is about remaining in power, the less seriously they generally take issues of long-term importance.

People are also discussing this on MetaFilter.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. March 31, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Democracies as they exist now don’t seem capable of dealing with climate change, but there does seem to be reason to hope that they might develop into entities that can while retaining the key characteristics of democratic societies.

Tristan March 31, 2010 at 11:23 pm

We don’t have democracy. Democracy would probably be able to solve climate change, as would any genuine political system. What we have now is half-baked false version of a political system which doesn’t take its own ideals seriously.

Tristan March 31, 2010 at 11:24 pm

It’s always important to remember that polls showed a majority of Bush supporters in the first election assumed Bush was in favour of the Kyoto protocol.

Milan April 1, 2010 at 8:10 am

When Lovelock talks about “modern democracy,” he is clearly talking about the system which we have now and call democracy.

As for the polls, we discussed that before. It seems highly likely that the people being polled had little understanding of what the Kyoto Protocol would do, or what its effects would be. Abstract support from people with little understanding of details isn’t a very robust expression of preference.

Milan April 1, 2010 at 8:13 am

You brought up that poll here, and I responded here.

Tristan April 1, 2010 at 8:43 am

It’s not neutral to say “democracy is at fault”, and mean what we have now (not democracy), and then call for the suspension of democracy. This is a fascist turn if I’ve ever seen one. Anyone who simply repeats these standard lines of contemporary “political” (anti-political) thought without calling for, or at least pointing out the possibility of moving towards democracy rather than away from it is guilty of perpetuating the anti-politics of our day.

mek April 3, 2010 at 6:10 pm

I agree with Tristan – let’s suspend “modern democracy” and replace it with democracy. That should fix things up right quick.

The American people are not being represented by their government, and let’s be honest, when we are talking about failed democracies steering the earth in the wrong direction, we are largely talking about the USA. The only other point I’d make is the general failure of public education, the importance of which in regards to a functional democracy cannot be overstated. An uneducated voter is a manipulated voter.

richard pauli April 3, 2010 at 9:23 pm

No matter what form of political philosophy, the only reaction that can sustain human life requires a scientific technocracy.

It is a blessing that from now on the rules are all ruthlessly logical. Change or die.

Tristan April 3, 2010 at 9:43 pm

We killed God, and were given Ecology.

oleh April 5, 2010 at 2:49 am

I find statements like “This is a fascist turn if I’ve ever seen one” and “Anyone who simply repeats these standard lines of contemporary “political” (anti-political) thought . . . is guilty of perpetuating the anti-politics of our day” unhelpful to productive dialogue.

I do not view politics as the pursuit of abstract ideals in a vacuum. Politics involves recognizing that there are different interests. It deals more with the possible than the ideal. The ideal is unattainable. The possible is more easily attainable when recognizing that people have a variety of interests. These different interests are genuine and valid. Positive politics tries to balance of those interests not towards an unattainable ideal, but to the general well-being.

Tristan April 5, 2010 at 11:37 am

“It deals more with the possible than the ideal. The ideal is unattainable. ”

Who said the point was to attain the ideal? All ideals are unattainable as ideals. The point of ideals is what you get out of striving towards them. So, the point of saying “we don’t have democracy” is to both put the lie to the one who would say we do have it (and use this attainment to justify power), and to stress the need to continue to strive towards it. Of course, it’s useless to say “we don’t have democracy” without specifying in what way don’t we have it, and how would it look like to have it.

” Positive politics tries to balance of those interests not towards an unattainable ideal, but to the general well-being.”

Whose general well being? The system we have has as its goal the suppression of public involvement in power. We do not have “free elections” – we have corporate sponsored popularity contests in which advertising agencies compete (and, in the case of Obama, win the highest award available to advertisers).

The citizenry is actively reproduced as irrational by way of the public relations industry. Just look at any piece of advertising – it doesn’t have as its goal to inform you, move you towards the ideal of perfectly rational consumer. But the opposite – advertising encourages everyone to make irrational, emotional choices, which largely do not satisfy them (and this is important – if they were satisfied they might slow their consumption).

In this situation, we have a choice – we can either choose to move towards democracy or away from it. To say we need to “give up on democracy” when we never had democracy is a fascist turn because it endeavors to move us from superficial public involvement in power (which always has the possibility of becoming genuine), to explicit dictatorship. Right now we have the dictatorship of apathy – governments can do basically what they want because there is so little disagreement between the parties, since all the parties fight for support from the same business interests. (Surrounding the prorogue this similarity has started to break down – business support for the protests makes this explicit. But this is nothing new, the right wing press criticized Nixon when he became obviously corrupt as well).

It’s not difficult to recognize what free elections, or rational advertising would look like. Read any newspaper older than about 1920 and there are pretty much only two kinds of advertising. Either snake oil, or the kind which promotes products as good value, as things of quality, and which specifies in what way it is a thing of quality.

And as for free elections – just look at how student politics campaigns are financed – there is a specific amount of money you can spend which you can’t exceed, and if you get a real amount of votes, the money is reimbursed. Also, the amount of money is not so high that losing it would likely cause bankruptcy.

Milan April 6, 2010 at 10:52 am

I think this post is relevant to the discussion above: On ‘accepting the science’

Within modern democracies, it seems very easy to trick voters by saying that you are concerned about a problem while simultaneously doing nothing serious to resolve it. Indeed, it seems like politicians often express their concerns about a subject while taking decisions that actively make it worse.

richard pauli April 6, 2010 at 1:37 pm

We might want to keep an eye on the timeline. With models predicting radical sea level rise and 6 to 12 degrees of avg temperature warming within this century, one can see plausible scenarios of mass relocation, starvation and social chaos.

Debating the proper form of government is too much. We may face a struggle that is more fundamental than choosing our form of government. We are now choosing whether we will band together for common interests. Time to dust off Hobbes’ “Leviathan”. We might revert to, or perhaps we have not yet accepted a social contract for survival.

. July 13, 2010 at 6:10 pm

“Dani Rodrik, an economist at Harvard, has talked of a “trilemma” in which countries aiming for the three goals of deep economic integration with the rest of the world, national sovereignty and democratic politics can achieve two of them but not all three. Left to themselves, voters will resist the sacrifices needed to remain competitive in a system of deep economic integration, and nation states are constantly erecting barriers to international trade. One way of eliminating those barriers would be to set up some sort of global federal government. Another would be to install a “free-market Stalin”—a figure in the mould of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet—who would force his country’s citizens to accept the constraints of the global market, including debt repayment. Neither option is appealing.

The citizens of Europe may now be realising that debt transfers power from the borrower to the creditor. The first world war destroyed Britain’s credit position and ushered in the era of American financial dominance. Now the debt burden reflects the shift in the balance of economic power from rich countries to developing ones. It is striking that on average developed countries now have a higher debt burden than emerging nations. Investors have certainly noticed, and have poured money into emerging-market bonds funds over the past year. Developing countries also have more chance of outgrowing their debt burdens. According to Tony Crescenzi of PIMCO, investors are asking themselves, “Would I rather lend money to nations whose debt burden is worsening, or to nations where it is improving?””

Milan August 31, 2010 at 12:15 pm
. October 6, 2010 at 4:27 pm

“Democracy is utterly dependent upon an electorate that is accurately informed. In promoting climate change denial (and often denying their responsibility for doing so) industry has done more than endanger the environment. It has undermined democracy. There is a vast difference between putting forth a point of view, honestly held, and intentionally sowing the seeds of confusion. Free speech does not include the right to deceive. Deception is not a point of view. And the right to disagree does not include a right to intentionally subvert the public awareness.

Although all public relations professionals are bound by a duty to not knowingly mislead the public, some have executed comprehensive campaigns of misinformation on behalf of industry clients on issues ranging from tobacco and asbestos to seat belts. Lately, these fringe players have turned their efforts to creating confusion about climate change. This PR campaign could not be accomplished without the compliance of media as well as the assent and participation of leaders in government and business.

The world’s best-qualified scientists agree that climate is changing and that the burning of fossil fuels is mostly to blame. Although there is no debate in peer reviewed science journals, the well-funded and highly organized public relations campaign has left the impression – in mainstream media – of a lively and continuing scientific controversy.

Scientists from within the fossil fuel industries’ own organizations raised red flags about climate change as early as 30 years ago – and they specifically dismissed the credibility of deniers by 1995. Yet the fossil fuel industry has continued to support efforts to subvert the science, attacking real scientists and promoting a cast of “skeptics” in their place. DeSmogBlog looks behind these deniers to test their credentials and to search out their source of funding.

People have a right to know who is paying the deniers. It is difficult to deceive or confuse a well-informed person. DeSmogBlog exists to clear up the PR pollution around fossil fuels and climate change.”

. April 4, 2011 at 5:43 pm

The Singaporeans argue that they have the perfect compromise between accountability and efficiency. Their politicians are regularly tested in elections and have to make themselves available to their constituents; but since the government knows it is likely to win, it can take a long view. Fixing things like ITE takes time. “Our strength is that we are able to think strategically and look ahead,” says the prime minister. “If the government changed every five years it would be harder.”

There is more truth in this than Western liberals would like to admit. Not many people in Washington are thinking beyond the 2012 presidential election. It is sometimes argued that an American administration operates strategically for only around six months, at the beginning of its second year—after it has got its staff confirmed by the Senate and before the mid-terms campaign begins.

anon April 4, 2011 at 5:45 pm

Governments look out for their own survival, first of all. They tend to behave better when that survival depends on popularity with the voters, rather than the loyalty of the security services, which is the key thing dictators must maintain.

richard pauli April 4, 2011 at 7:50 pm

I heard mention of a book by Peter Ward that is contrary to the Gaia hypothesis – The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? The book reviews on that page alone are worth a read.

Essentially that Medea holds that life is naturally self destructive. Reviewer Steiner says: “Planet earth poisons and/or deadens itself periodically through high and low temperatures. Life contains within it its own ability to destroy itself; life, indeed, is in conflict with itself and is self-destructive, and life includes man himself or herself. Peter Ward demonstrates quite clearly, for example, how life increases to the point where it uses up all resources, whether phytoplankton or humanity.”

Milan March 19, 2019 at 8:12 pm

During a discussion last year with Peter Russell, the course of conversation led to me asking if he thought climate change is a problem that can be solved within democracies, given how parties are pushed and rewarded largely for short-term economic conditions and how the interests of future generations and nature aren’t represented. He said he didn’t know, which I found a startling answer from a celebrated scholar of Canadian constitutional politics and history.

A Roman Krznaric article in the BBC today raises the same question and does a good job of distinguishing between some of democracy’s more annoying yet superficial flaws, like the emphasis on trivialities in the media, and describing some of the more fundamental problems:

The third and deepest cause of political presentism is that representative democracy systematically ignores the interests of future people. The citizens of tomorrow are granted no rights, nor – in the vast majority of countries – are there any bodies to represent their concerns or potential views on decisions today that will undoubtedly affect their lives. It’s a blind spot so enormous that we barely notice it: in the decade I spent as a political scientist specialising in democratic governance, it simply never occurred to me that future generations are disenfranchised in the same way that slaves or women were in the past. But that is the reality. And that’s why hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren worldwide, inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, have been striking and marching to get rich nations to reduce their carbon emissions: they have had enough of democratic systems that render them voiceless and airbrush their futures out of the political picture.

Maybe there could be an institutional fix, like altering the voting system to empower the young.

One hope is that as the impacts of climate change worsen, voters will prioritize it more and push politicians and parties to decarbonize and solve the problem. This seems a faint hope for two reasons.

For one, the psychological factors that explain climate change deniers and delayers seem to be built up to function in spite of facts and new information, instead of being amenable to being broken down by the experience of past scientific predictions coming true. A concerning Guardian article from today about eco-fascism also demonstrates that people can accept many of the scientific premisses underlying the call to mitigate climate change and yet come to awful political conclusions about what they imply and what actions are justified in response.

Second, there is a structural problem in climate change itself. The greenhouse gas pollution we emit today doesn’t have its full effect for decades, so however bad things are at a given time there are always decades to come where they will keep getting worse — maybe overwhelming humanity’s ability to cope or pushing us into self-destructive conflicts instead of the cooperation we need. In an analogy from alcohol I used before:

The last few decades have seen a surge in global greenhouse gas emissions. Due to lags in the climate system, the effects of those gasses are not yet felt, whether in terms of temperature or other climatic phenomena. It is as though we have started doing shots of vodka every thirty seconds. Even after the tenth shot, it is entirely possible that you are feeling lucid. You can talk, walk around, and drink more vodka. If you keep drinking at such a rapid pace until the point where you really feel the effects of the first shots, you have a whole mass of additional (and probably rather unpleasant) impacts still to come.

As with the debate about capitalism and climate protection, simply pointing out the contradictions between the two doesn’t lead us immediately to any solution. Just as it’s perfectly possible to imagine a non-capitalist system that is just as damaging, it is possible to imagine non-democratic systems which also keep burning fossil fuel reserves with no regard for the future consequences.

. October 7, 2019 at 7:52 pm

Its failure to show the way in cutting emissions has only reinforced an argument which, increasingly, Asian environmentalists as well as self-serving autocrats make: that a crisis as severe (if man-made) as rising temperatures can be mitigated only by the firm smack of authoritarian rule. Democracies huff and puff and, prey to vested interests and voters’ distaste for hard choices, ultimately shirk the task.

America under President Donald Trump, who wants to pull out of the Paris agreement, underscores the case. Global leadership on climate falls, by default, to China. The Communist Party first baked climate change into planning in 1990. The policy output has been prolific. It includes a national climate-change programme and a renewable-energy law. By 2017 China had cut the carbon dioxide emitted per unit of gdp by 46% compared with 2005, three years ahead of schedule. It says 20% of its energy will come from non-fossil sources by 2030.

The choices China makes will be critical if the world has a chance of keeping temperature rises to no more than 1.5°C. Above all, coal use needs to fall sharply—easy improvements to date in carbon efficiency are not enough. Yet for all that China is far and away the biggest manufacturer and user of solar technology, it remains the hungriest user of coal. After a two-year pause in breaking ground for new coal-fired power stations, last year China began the construction of 28gw of new capacity. The total capacity under construction, 235gw, will boost Chinese coal power by a quarter. As for the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to boost Chinese prestige abroad by helping countries build infrastructure, a quarter of its energy projects are coal-fired stations. The 136 belt-and-road countries account for 28% of global carbon emissions. Without decarbonisation, that ratio would rocket to 66% by 2050, according to a study backed by Tsinghua University.

. May 28, 2021 at 2:46 pm

We desperately need competent national governments to protect us, but we also need governments smart enough to learn from one another and share knowledge—open governments, empirical governments. The time left for this mixture of national and international action keeps getting shorter. If concerted and scientifically based action fails to address climate challenge, if the oceans keep rising, if the fires keep getting worse, if infections spike again, we may reach a moment when democratic citizens will demand that their leaders acquire autocratic powers to protect us from further harm: governments of national salvation, in the old expression. The pandemic has already demonstrated the use that authoritarians have for such crises. Climate change, if sufficiently terrifying, could cause us to vote ourselves into an authoritarian state.

Thus the climate emergency and the pandemic may test the viability of liberal democracy even more than populism has. Yet, before we allow ourselves to be rushed toward the authoritarian exit, let’s ask a simple question: Which global leader would you rather have in charge of your climate emergency and your pandemic? Xi Jinping or Angela Merkel? Jair Bolsonaro or Jacinda Ardern? Far from demonstrating that liberal democratic leaders are not up to the crisis, climate change and the pandemic have vindicated democratic leadership and demonstrated what it consists in: trusting your citizens, believing in reason and research, marshalling the forces of government to support them, and having the courage to tell your citizens the truth.

. October 12, 2021 at 12:19 pm

The notion of meeting with the president of the world’s other climate change superpower, Xi Jinping of China, seemed even more distant to Thunberg than a meeting with Biden. Calling Xi “a leader of a dictatorship”, she nevertheless did not rule out the idea. She stressed, however, that “democracy is the only solution to the climate crisis, since the only thing that could get us out of this situation is … massive public pressure.”

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