The big idea: Is democracy up to the task of climate change?
As elected governments fall short on their pledges, some look approvingly to the authoritarian playbook. Are they right?
It’s time to acknowledge a difficult truth: our democracies are failing us on the climate crisis. As world leaders meet for the crucial Glasgow summit, rhetorical commitments abound. But no government has a plan compatible with the goal that they have all agreed is critical to our collective future: limiting global average temperature rises to 1.5C. In some democracies, such as the UK, there is at least a consensus that something must be done; in others, such as Australia, Canada and the US, political debate rages over the most fundamental questions. Faced with a problem of these proportions, some are running out of patience. The veteran Earth scientist James Lovelock puts his faith in eco-authoritarianism. Climate change is so severe, he has said, that “it may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while”.
Lovelock may state this explicitly, but in my many years of work on climate policy and politics, I have been struck by how often people make the same argument implicitly. Bill Gates, in his breathlessly upbeat book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, describes how enlightened investment strategies from well-meaning entrepreneurs could save the day. No need to bother, he implies, with winning hearts, minds or votes. Then there are those who look approvingly towards China, a country where the very lack of democratic accountability, they argue, allows leaders to take tough and unpopular decisions. The common theme in all these accounts is that the public are not to be trusted – they do not understand, or care; they are too selfish, or too shortsighted. Better to let the experts decide.
Yet proposals for some sort of eco-authoritarianism raise more questions than they answer. How, exactly, do we move beyond democracy? Who appoints the experts? Scientists may have evidence at their disposal, but how would they make deeply social decisions about who wins and who loses? Under whose authority would they regulate, and how exactly would that regulation happen – how would laws be made? The best that can be said about these proposals is that they gloss over the complex realities of political, social and legal change.
There’s also the fact that authoritarian states have not performed better, historically. A recent study by the University of Gothenburg’s V-Dem Institute showed that autocratic regimes lag significantly on climate action. Given the economic and political might of China, we have to hope that they find a way to buck this trend – but it would be reckless, not to mention ethically dubious, to suggest China as a political role model on climate. Despite the considerable flaws in our democratic systems, the alternatives crumble under any sort of close inspection. It is hard to disagree with Churchill’s pithy summary that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”.
My experience leads me to a very different conclusion to that of the eco-authoritarians. The data just doesn’t support the picture of an uncaring or uninformed public. Research consistently shows high levels of concern about climate change, across different ages, demographic groups and parts of the world. Yet this concern is coupled with a deep mistrust in government and political elites, and a breakdown in the means by which people’s priorities are translated into political action. To generalise, we have a population that is cynical yet concerned about the climate, frustrated with the inability of politicians to act decisively in the face of growing climate impacts.
Could it be that the problem here is not too much democracy, but too little? What if we were to begin with the assumption that people can and do make sensible decisions if they have the evidence and the influence that they need? That if we designed a meaningful dialogue between citizens, experts and governments, we would get better outcomes?
Just before Covid-19 struck last year, I was part of an incredible experiment that did just this. Climate Assembly UK was a citizens’ assembly commissioned by parliament, bringing together a representative group of 108 citizens. Over a series of weekends, they learned about climate science, impacts and action; discussed and debated with experts and each other; and then voted on recommendations. The assembly’s findings are a coherent, far-reaching set of proposals for tackling the climate emergency – created by a different sort of democratic body. Processes such as this aren’t intended to replace our system of representative democracy, but to make it work better. They allow citizens and politicians alike to talk about what they need from each other.
Citizens’ assemblies on the climate crisis have now taken place in Scotland, France, Denmark and some US states, as well as at a local level in many areas. They show the potential of a move to a more deliberative democracy – one which goes beyond the blunt instrument of a vote, toward an informed conversation.
But making democracy work better for the climate doesn’t just mean hearing more from people. It means hearing less from those economic interests, such as oil majors and airlines, that have a stake in the high-carbon status quo. We’ve recently seen corporations suing governments under trade law, claiming that climate policy, passed by democratically elected parliaments, has damaged their profits and is therefore illegal.
US scientist Michael Mann has documented this “new climate war”. He shows that denial of the scientific facts of climate change has been replaced with more complex, but equally insidious, attempts to delay or derail legislation. A key tactic, Mann shows, is to deflect attention away from the workings of big companies, and towards individuals, by saying that it is up to each of us to make the right choices, and reduce our carbon footprint. When this doesn’t happen, it is a short step to blaming people for the state we are in, and undermining faith in the ability of democracies to handle the climate crisis.
What is necessary, then, is not to dispense with democracy, but to double down on it. Seeing climate change not as something that can be solved by experts, nor through individual sacrifices – but by the negotiation of a new sort of social contract between people and the state. The novelist Amitav Ghosh refers to our current climate predicament as a “great derangement”, a collective reluctance to face up to the reality of how the crisis will affect our lives. Pretending that we can bypass people and democracy is, to my mind, the ultimate derangement.
Rebecca Willis is a professor of energy and climate governance at the University of Lancaster, and the author of Too Hot to Handle? The Democratic Challenge of Climate Change.
The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet, by Michael Mann, 2021 (Scribe, GBP16.99)
The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, by Amitav Ghosh (University of Chicago, GBP11.50), 2016
How to Avoid A Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need by Bill Gates (Allen Lane, GBP20).