Is Democracy Good for the Environment?

My favourite Autumnal Jumper


Against the backdrop of impending ecological collapse, some theorists have declared that Democracy is not fit for the purpose of managing a transition to a carbon neutral society, as evidenced by the failure of democracies to tackle climate breakdown so far. They have instead argued for a technocracy of elites responsible for benevolently reducing the world’s emissions with unaccountable macro-policy. I strongly refute these arguments as serving the interests of the Capitalist class that has created the climate crisis, and argue that there is no reason to believe that such an autocracy would be successful at tackling emissions. Instead, we need a radical ecological democracy that empowers all of the people of the world to adapt to a hostile changing climate without prejudice for geographical or temporal location, class or gender.

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Despite the commitments made by the nations of the world to limiting warming to 2⁰C degrees under the Paris Climate Accord, and recent pledges to Net Carbon Neutrality by 2050 from a small number of states, current efforts to reduce emissions are hopelessly inadequate. Wealthy democracies in the Global North have refused to take responsibility for the crisis they have caused, and the situation is now one of Emergency. When it comes to mitigating climate breakdown, the longer it takes humanity to reduce our collective Carbon footprint the more people will die: time is critical and with each day of inaction the more drastic and painful future cuts will have to be to avoid passing 1.5°C of warming and the associated catastrophic consequences (IPCC, 2018).  Scientists are calling for an urgent, coordinated reduction of emissions, necessitating an unprecedented reorientation of the entire global economy and our energy systems (Cia, Y., Lenton, T., Lontzek, T., 2016).

Obviously, that isn’t happening, and a small number of International Relations scholars have concluded that liberal democracy is unable to address the economic and social damage caused by climate breakdown because of its intrinsically uncoordinated system of bureaucracies, markets and corporations that shape policy. Their prescriptions range from Giddens’ view that policymakers should be constrained by an independent scientific authority that enforces a mitigation strategy (Giddens, 2009); to the more radical assertion of Shearman and Smith that a system of benevolent authoritarianism led by a technocratic elite of experts is the only way to overcome the chronic short-termism of democracy and transition to a Carbon Neutral economy (Shearman, D. Smith, J. 2007).

However, the fact that emissions reductions in democracies have not been much better than those in hybrid or authoritarian regime types does not justify abandoning democratic values in order to reduce emissions. I argue that making the normative case for the dissolution of democracy dangerously empowers the Capitalist elite who have caused the climate crisis, and now present themselves as the humanities only hope for a solution. Instead, only by transcending the corruption endemic in sovereign nation states by creating new global institutions that are fundamentally democratic can we deliver climate and social justice. I conclude that only a global democracy can resolutely uphold the Human, Social and Economic Rights of all people without overshooting the capacity of the earth to deliver them, and urge further research into how grassroots activists for democracy can mobilise to legitimate such a transformative demand.

The case against democracy is built on the grim reality of how dire the situation is. Decades of growing emissions of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) have accelerated the warming of our oceans and atmosphere, and will now likely push the planet past several crucial tipping points: the release of millions of tonnes of methane from the melting permafrost and CO2 from burning forests are on track to raise temperatures by as much as 4°C by the end of the century (IPCC, 2018). According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service Global Assessment report released in April 2019 this would lead to irreversible breakdown of ecosystems and precipitate a collapse of global food supply systems (IPBES, 2019). It is now unequivocal that the breakdown of our climate imminently threatens not only the future of human civilisation, but also of all life on Earth (IPCC, 2018). It is with this in mind that some have called into question the ability of democracy to handle the macro-policy level necessary to mitigate and adapt to locked in heating. White speculates that democracies are paralysed by short-termism because “political representatives are elected for short terms, offering little motivation to adopt initially costly, but sustainable energy policies geared to counteract the inevitable energy crisis” (White, L. 2015).

The UK Parliament became the first in the world to Declare a Climate Emergency and legally commit to Net Carbon Neutrality by 2050, only four days after the end of two weeks of Extinction Rebellion protests that ground central London to a halt. On the face of it, this looks like key evidence of the effectiveness of democracy in protecting the environment, as civil society groups pressure their representatives to take transformative action. However, the 2050 neutrality target falls well short of the level of ambition that is required according to Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London because we will already have passed major ecological tipping points, rendering efforts to slow the rate of warming futile (Maslin, M. 2019). In spite of the warnings by the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) that is “essential that the commitment [to net-zero] was comprehensive [and] achieved without use of international credits”, the government has legislated for offsetting domestic emissions by investing in tree planting and renewable energy projects in the Global South (CCC, 2019). Furthermore, emissions from aviation and shipping are not counted, ignoring the massive environmental impact of the UK’s import consumption. Carbon reduction plans factor in the invention of a cheap and scalable form of Carbon capture in the future to legitimate irresponsibly weak emissions reductions today, just one of the methods of creative accounting used by states to get away with doing as little as possible to adapt their energy infrastructure.

This lack of ambition has been repeated on the global stage, exposing the mechanisms of the Paris Climate Accord as inadequate in ambition and enforceability. The 25th COP (Conference of Parties) showed that in spite of gushing rhetoric about the determination of young people demanding action on climate change, our leaders have effectively abdicated responsibility for mitigating extreme heating. They have chosen instead to leave it to those young people to find the solutions and invent the technology that will save the world from the mess they have created. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that “the international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation and finance to tackle the climate crisis.”  (Guterres, A. 2019).

Although democracies no doubt have a less than admirable track record, empirical data shows a correlation between the strength of a democracy and its efforts to protect the environment. Povitkina highlights that corruption reduces the capacity of democratic governments to reach climate targets and reduce CO2 emissions. (Povitkina, M. 2018). Corruption limits the ability of bureaucrats to monitor and enforce emissions policy (Lopez, R. Mitra, S., 2000); diminishes the capacity of the state to raise tax revenues towards environmental budgets (Tanzi, V. Davoodi, H. 1998); and allows business interests to influence political decision-making (Wilson, J.K., Damania, R. 2005). This influence is keenly felt in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, where urgent, explicit language in the Technical Summary was diluted for the Summary for Policymakers (IPCC, 2018). Lobbying interests and diplomats haggle out a suppressed narrative in which “the limitations of the present order, and the systemic risks it faces, are consistently de-emphasised” (Mann, 2018). By tackling corruption at the heart of our democracies we unlock the ability to take meaningful action on the climate crisis.

Shearman and Smith’s faith in Benevolent Ecological Authoritarianism is not supported by the performance of authoritarian and mixed regimes in protecting the environment.  The call for forgoing democratic accountability and entrusting management of global resources to an ecoelite provides the moral justification for what Mann calls the “Climate Leviathan”: a capitalist planetary sovereignty that employs technocratic dominance to adapt to climate breakdown without redistributing wealth and power (Mann, 2018). Indeed, the Paris climate Agreement lays the groundwork for deepening our integration into a Foucauldian panopticon that regulates the lives and resource consumption of ordinary people in the name of reducing emissions whilst supporting the ability of corporations to profit in a hotter world. The adaptive strategies of elites will have profound consequences for the protection of human rights. The US is fiercely criticised for the seeming absence of a coherent Climate Adaptation Strategy, but the reality is that its military has for decades been warning of civilizational collapse precipitated by hundreds of millions of climate refugees displaced by extreme weather, drought and coastal flooding. The construction of a militarised border wall with Mexico is a long-term adaptation to repel the victims of climate breakdown and continue with business as usual on the other side (Ehrenreich, B. 2019). This is the ideology of Policy elites who cannot be allowed to make decisions as to how many climate refugees will have to die before they are satisfied that population levels are sustainable.

Einstein said that “in the interests of science it is necessary over and over to engage in the critique of [our] fundamental concepts, in order that we may not unconsciously be ruled by them” (Einstein, A., 1953). For some, this quote legitimates abandoning democracy and the principle of equality in favour of elite rule. This view is particularly prominent amongst a cabal of Silicon Valley techno-billionaires who are actively preparing to use their extreme wealth to survive outside of the authority of any institutions that would control them by buying up property in New Zealand and other temperate regions with fresh drinking water – such as Peter Theil, the billionaire cofounder of Paypal (O’Connell, M. 2018). Theil is openly influenced by The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State, a Libertarian apocalypse pamphlet for the super-rich that “Out of the wreckage [caused by climate breakdown] will emerge a new global dispensation, in which a cognitive elite will rise to power and influence, as a class of sovereign individuals commanding vastly greater resources who will no longer be subject to the power of nation-states and will redesign governments to suit their ends.” (Rees-Mogg, W., Davidson, J. 1997). These are the forces that stand to benefit directly from a rejection of democracy. To embrace eco-authoritarianism is to embrace the rule of the strong and the rich disguised as the rule of the rationality.

When comparing the relative emissions reductions between autocratic or democratic nations it is a struggle to conclude who is worst: the principle failure of humanities response to climate breakdown has occurred in the arena of global interstate relations. Fundamentally, the global liberal order of competing sovereign states has failed. Not only has it failed to effectively respond to the climate crisis, is has principally caused it by allowing and subsidising corporations to ravage the planet. “Human Rights will be significantly compromised by the long-term consequences of unilateralism” (Patrick, S. 2010). Dutt argues that the quality of bureaucracy, democratic accountability and absence of corruption, as well as the strength of the rights and liberties enjoyed within a nation define effective mitigation. “The participation of civil society, the rise of environmental awareness through free media, and active collaboration in international environmental agreements – features common to democracies – play a crucial role in placing environmental issues on the political agenda” (Povitkina. 2018). There are encouraging signs that as concern about climate breakdown goes mainstream it is accelerating the rise of intersectionality between the diverse activists on the frontlines of ecological collapse. By refining the long tradition of Non-Violent Direct Action and Civil Disobedience Extinction Rebellion have reinvigorated the environmental movement and seek nothing less than a radical overhaul of our political system:

“When government and the law fail to provide any assurance of adequate protection of and security for its people’s well-being and the nation’s future, it becomes the right of citizens to seek redress in order to restore dutiful democracy and to secure the solutions needed to avert catastrophe and protect the future”

(Extinction Rebellion, 2019)

Extinction Rebellion’s third demand is for the establishment of a citizen’s assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice. Citizens’ assemblies are a form of deliberative democracy whereby a group of randomly selected members representing a cross-section of society are educated by experts and stakeholders; deliberate on policy options and make recommendations that shape government policy. This has the potential to cut out the corrupting influence of lobbying interests and empower citizens to shape the response of their community to climate breakdown. They have been successfully organised to advise the governments on other areas where moral consideration and consent from the public is needed to unify a national decision, such a whether or not to allow abortion in Ireland.

A landmark case in the Netherlands recently ruled that the government has a legal obligation to meet its emissions reductions targets because failure to act on Climate Breakdown breaches its citizens on Right to life and well-being under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – articles 2 and 8. (The Hague, 2019). This has set an inspiring example of how the judiciary should be used to achieve effective accountability in a healthy democracy. All civil society must now unite around the struggle for the achievement of Human Rights, which holds the best hope for saving the lives of billions of people and necessitates equal consideration given to protecting everyone from the threats of a destabilised climate, not just those in temperate and developed regions. It has been calculated that every tonne of Carbon Dioxide emitted has a future social cost of US$116 (in terms of escalating damage from extreme weather, rising health costs and infrastructure adaptation) (Cia, Y., Lenton, T., Lontzek, T., 2016). Imagine a judicial authority able to hear a class action lawsuit representing all of humanity and the planet demanding compensation from the major polluting companies for the crime of Ecocide, with renumerations based on the price of US $116 per tonne of historical emissions! Billions would be ringfenced for funding a just transition for the most vulnerable victims of climate breakdown and ecological collapse. 

There are significant uncertainties as to how a post-capitalist ecological democracy would work, although there is a rich literature that seeks to sketch a model, rooted in the longstanding theoretical tradition of a global government. The form of this model will differ from the Climate Leviathan because it will be led not only by a strong ethical and emotional foundation, but also because it is pragmatic and rational. Any attempt at responding to climate breakdown that does not tackle Capitalism will not stave off environmental catastrophe, it will merely delay the crisis at the expense of the most vulnerable. White argues that eco-democratic discussions need re-grounding with a focus on eco-socialism, to enfranchise and employ working classes with driving the just transition with creative labour (White, D. 2019). This means recognising empowering communities to rise to the challenges of carbon neutrality through, for example, community energy projects, sustainable agriculture and circular local economies. Indigenous People have been proven to be the most effective guardians of their environmental habitats, and it is crucial that they continue to be allowed to pursue their way of life (Nolte, C. et al., 2013). Rich local sources of sustainable wisdom will be ignored if an international climate action plan is drawn up between corporations, elites and the establishment to create a green-Capitalist Leviathan, and more indigenous communities will continue to face extinction.

Fiorino summarises the findings of his research into the ability of a radically expanded democracy to cope with climate breakdown: “The path lies not in suspending democracy but improving it: create better democracies with the capacity for collective action and a commitment to ecological values” (Fiorino, D. 2019). We need to give the Global South the political power to defend themselves against escalating apocalyptic threats that they did not cause, and only the strongest form of democracy will be able to force the massive levels of reparations to those imminently in danger of losing everything.

Blind warns us that the establishment is “designed not to re-invent itself” (Blind, A., 2012), and urges us to find new methods of uniting the international community in a more democratic forum, potentially bypassing the UN and its persistent deadlock. The mechanisms to hold big polluters and developed nations to account do not yet exist, and their form and how to achieve them remains an urgent priority for further research in International Relations. It is clear however, that they will only be won with mass mobilisation from below. Democracy may not be perfect for the environment, but the very real, very imminent alternative is the reign of a technocratic hyper-Capitalist elite handed free reign to do whatever they see necessary to preserve their own standards of living. No thanks.


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