Can liberal democracies rise to the challenge of climate change? Only if they change too
“Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being.” That was James Lovelock, the Gaia theorist, in 2010. Ten years on, will democracy have to be put on hold for the climate crisis? Is climate change so complex and intractable, and the treatment so painful, that only authoritarian government will ever control it?
Why this story?
USA, 2016. Australia and the UK, 2019. Three times in four years big, rich liberal democracies elected leaders who were apparently unserious about climate change or downright dismissive of it. Is this any way to respond to the melting of the ice caps?
Voters do the darnedest things, and often seem to care little about the health of the planet or future generations. But there is no evidence that authoritarian regimes would do better fighting climate change, and plenty that they would do worse. Amy Campbell says we should stick with democracy but be ready to settle for constraints on freedom and a little personal discomfort. Giles Whittell, editor
Covid may provide a clue to the answer. In response to the global emergency, western liberal democracies have become less liberal, insisting on drastic containment measures. That has had an environmental impact, but a negligible one in terms of the CO2 reductions needed. So a worrying lesson of the pandemic is that liberal democracies may be incapable of both rapid change and protecting liberty.
Another lesson, this time from experience, is that liberal democracies may end up responding to climate change with a shrug.
Covid-19 is immediate, says Daniel Fiorino, author of Can Democracy Handle Climate Change? Climate change will by contrast be a “feature of world society from here on out”, but that doesn’t mean we can touch or even feel it. Our understanding of it comes from scientific elites and models. It’s therefore difficult to establish a useful political consensus on how to respond. The Climate Action Tracker in 2017 notes that even if all nations met the targets pledged in the Paris Agreement, global average temperatures would still rise to 2.6-3.2˚C above pre-industrial levels. William Nordhaus, one of the world’s leading economic thinkers on climate change has argued that most governments simply lack the political will to systematically implement climate policy.
Could Covid change that? Jill Duggan, an associate fellow at Chatham House with extensive experience in climate policy working for governments and in business, believes it could. The pandemic has revealed a general acceptance of changes that would make the transition to a clean energy economy easier, she says. Working from home and abandoning the commute are just two examples, and this change is good in and of itself: “We don’t want the future to look like the past,” she says. Covid has shown that people can accept change quickly, and it’s forcing people to accept “a different sort of freedom”.
Here’s hoping. The alternative view of Covid in relation to climate is that it’s “a distraction from the changes we need,” as Fiorino puts it. And the alternative view of climate change mitigation in relation to democracy is it’s a very tough sell to voters. What Jean-Claud Juncker, former president of the European Commission, said about difficult economic decisions applies equally here: “We know what we have to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we do it.”
The climate crisis involves making decisions that in the short-term people don’t like, but if you link them to “immediate tangible benefits”, Fiorino argues – clean air, cheaper transport, better public health – we have a much stronger case.
And the authoritarians, he adds, have no case at all. “There is absolutely no record of any authoritarian state being a leader on environmental issues,” he says. On this at least, he and Duggan agree: “It always comes back to bite you if you don’t bring people with you,” she says.
The Energy Trilemma Index and Economists Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index rank countries in terms of their progress on three energy performance measures: energy security, energy equity and environmental sustainability. In 2015, the twenty countries grouped by the EIU and ETI as democracies had an average ranking of 34.2 on the energy sustainability index, while the 27 authoritarian regimes for which climate data existed scored much worse.
So there is evidence that liberal democracy and good intentions on climate can and often do coexist – but precious little so far of these intentions leading to action. Fiorino has a solution. “We need better democracy,” he says. That, in the US, means more voting, better access to voting and reforms in how elections are financed. Scandinavian countries score better on all three metrics and are at the forefront of democratic response to the climate crisis – but even their response is not radical enough.
There is a blueprint for what’s needed, identified in a seminal 2013 paper by Laurence Delina and Mark Diesendorf, then of the University of New South Wales. The blueprint is national mobilisation as in wartime, with a democratic mandate for new institutions set up expressly to implement drastic change, fast.
Rapid climate mitigation needs workers to be retrained for the green economy, tax systems to be overhauled to tax polluters and public investment to be restructured to fund a new sustainable infrastructure.
Liberal democracy has not so far responded adequately to the climate crisis. That doesn’t mean it can’t but it will take political will, profound institutional reform – and a good measure of personal sacrifice. The different sort of freedom we need to embrace may come with a lesson: sustainability isn’t necessarily comfortable.
Photographs Getty Images, Illustration by Lizzie Lomax