Politicians vs Earth: do we need a revolution in democracy to save the world?

Way back in 2006, a young person’s lifetime away, the former possible leader of the free world, U.S. Vice President Al Gore, brought his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, to the world stage. Based on a speech that Gore had been developing and refining for over six years, the film provided a clarion call to the world’s leaders, societies and all who watched that global warming is real. Very real. And it is caused by human activity.

The evidence was indisputable, the danger was clear and present and if human-kind, and our worldwide governments failed to act we would face the consequences.

Public Awareness of An Inconvenient Truth

Fast forward a decade in time and a lot has happened; politics has moved fast, but mostly in the wrong direction. Al Gore himself came very close to winning the US presidential race when, in 2000, as the democratic nomination he won the national popular vote but lost the electoral college. Whilst it’s tempting to ponder the environmental legislation he might have enacted had he become president, it’s also pointless to do so. Ultimately Gore may have better served the world by throwing himself behind the campaign to draw attention to the issue of global warming and environmental damage rather than getting enmeshed in the quagmire of US politics.  

Gore went onto produce his seminal documentary providing an eloquent, yet urgent, call to the world’s societies and governments to act. And since its release An Inconvenient Truth has raised worldwide awareness of the problem of global warming, identifying the causes and spurring the environmental movement on. It’s been broadcast around the world, in schools, cinemas and beyond becoming the 12th highest grossing documentary film of all time and calling people to arms in the inevitable race to try to save the climate. 

So how did we respond? 

A decade on from this striking warning and the world could be perceived to have taken a lurch sideways. Reality TV start, Donald J. Trump, was elected on a wave of fear and frustration. As an individual President Trump has hardly been responsible for all of the climate woes in the world today, but he represents the problems at the heart of democracy. He appeals to the baser instincts of the electorate and provides an outlet for the frustration, powerlessness and anger that many people feel in a rapidly changing world. Changes that will be exacerbated by a warming world.

It’s somewhat ironic that President Trump has exacerbated many of the problems that contributed to the American electorate voting for him in the first place. A refusal to embrace the new industries that will be created to fight climate change means jobs will be negatively effected. He is not a cause but rather a symptom of the disease; a modern malaise, with regard to the environment. One that prioritises individual desire over collective good; the validation of personal opinion on social media over respect and deference too scientific consensus. It raises the question is the world slipping into a climate change abyss and what is the role fulfilled by democracy in this process.

Is democracy bad for the environment?

On the face of it democracy is an ideal system for tackling big, complex issue like climate change. It engenders cooperation, a free press keeps the appropriate checks and balances in place, it’s under constant public scrutiny and democratic processes themselves require politicians to continually debate the public good and introduce measures that should improve the wellbeing of all voters.

The problem is when the machinery of democracy breaks down and becomes stuck in a rut. No clear mandate from either political side means voters are easily manipulated. The press is perhaps not as free as we first thought; in any case politicians can utilise social media to circumvent the free press, and every 4 years a new administration is voted in by and electorate that is not involved in operational processes of democracy but that is easily manipulated by the reduction of complex issues to biased memes.

Governments are short-lived and short-sighted. Leaders are often tasked with dealing with the most basic and immediate priorities of the day to day concerns of societies and, despite the existential threat of climate change, the problem can seem far too remote and distant to concern current administrations. Politicians are not entirely to blame as for far too long we collectively either believe the problem is not real or that a future government will deal with it. Before governments can even begin to deal with the problem of climate change they may often find the sun setting on their short-lived rule.

In a democracy the will of the people is paramount. In many ways it can be viewed as the ultimate popularity contest that acts as a barometer of popular opinion: the zeitgeist of the time. And with huge corporate budgets pumping massive amounts of money into the lobbyists and influencers across America, and to a lesser extent in other democratic countries, the dynamics of US politics is one in which public opinion rides high over technical expertise. Keeping the population disenfranchised from the technical knowledge, awareness of and education about climate change enables corporations, lobbyists and politicians to keep the wheels of corporate America greased in the never-ending pursuit of profit. 

America might be an extreme example, but that’s not to say that the practice doesn’t happen elsewhere. Influencing politicians and democratic processes has been going on since democracy was alive. When we think about the long-term complex thinking and considered response that climate change requires we can begin to see the dissonance between this environmental problem and the ability of our current short-term democratic institutions to deal with it. Gore as explained this dissonance and denial, stating:

“A determined minority—with active financial support from a few large carbon polluters—has held up progress for quite a while. They have used lobbying power and the threat of financing primary opponents, using the same techniques we saw in the past with Big Tobacco to falsely create doubt. All of us are vulnerable to what psychologists call denial: If something is uncomfortable, it’s easier to push it away, to not engage. But the solution is to listen and approach people on the basis of where they are.”

Al Gore

With the advantage of hindsight, it’s clearly evident: democracy has the potential to enable Governments to introduce policies that harm the environment. President Trump has enacted many policies that have negatively impacted the environment most notably the withdrawal of America from The Paris Agreement, which sought worldwide cooperation on limiting the emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. In fact President Trump has sought to remove or reverse nearly every single climate change policy that his predecessor, President Obama enacted. Here is a list of 15 other ways that Trump has actively changed American governmental policy in a way which has damaged the environment.

James Lovelock, the environmentalist who surmised that the Earth acts as one complete organism in his ground-breaking book Gais: A New Look at Life on Earth, is less convinced about the ability of democracy to deal with the issue of climate change. Lovelock believes we need to put democracy on hold for a period, arguing for a type of war-footing:

“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.”

James Lovelock

And increasingly environmentalists are pointing to the election of Donald Trump and a severe lurch downwards in our response to climate change as evidence that democracy is not up to the task at hand. 

Is solving climate change up to the individual?

This view has been reinforced recently by an increased focus on the responsibility of the individual to fix the problem of climate change. It has been argued that it’s not about society as a whole, but the choices that we as individuals make that will really solve the problem of climate change. We must eat vegan, choose renewable energy and shop less in order to fix the climate change issue.

But this will never work because it paralyses change. It provides another excuse for governments not to act and takes the spotlight away from those in positions of power. Whilst all of these choices help to reduce our individual impacts on the environment they are still voluntary. Personal choice is not the solution to climate change.  We need to change the structure from the ground up.

Whenever we are faced with any other problem in society we do not ask individuals to change their behaviours in order to help alleviate the causes of that problem. If knife crime is on the rise we would not ask everyone in society to go through their kitchen drawers and hand in their knives. It’s absurd that we can expect the problem of climate change to go away without changing the fundamental structure of society in order to help us deal with the issue collectively. 

Perhaps those in positions of power do not want change. 

The establishment has done quite well out of keeping the current engines of society ticking over till now. Their ownership and means of control has enabled huge fortunes to grow over the centuries. Why would they want to upset the cart now? Ultimately when the cost of climate change starts to obliterate the bottom line of major corporations and the richest around the world we may well start to see a change of direction. By that stage it may be too late.

Is an enlightened dictatorship or centralised authoritarian regime the answer? 

It’s tempting to look at the way in which harsher regimes push through environmental legislation with ease and indifference to those who criticise it. But I would argue better the devil you know. Like any other political system a dictatorship is open to corporate influences, lobbying and vested interests. A dictatorship might get things done more quickly, as we can see in China where it huge advances in the fight against climate change have not gone unnoticed. In fact China’s progress highlights their approach as a champion in the fight against climate change. Anita Engels argues in this nature.com article that:

“China might turn out to be an (inadvertent) disruptive innovator in low-carbon transitions (Tyfield, 2018), or it might continue its shift towards low-carbon development if and to the extent that this continues to coincide with more important priorities. However, based on the analysis put forward in this comment, one should not expect China to provide strong intentional leadership when it comes to consistently strengthening the global climate mitigation regime.” 

Anita Engels

We can conclude that, like any other political systems, China’s political processes are open to influence and very often are pursued because they benefit Chinese interest rather than in the global wellbeing of the world at large. The tribalism and nationalism that still pervades our politics has yet to be diffused. But surely this is easier in a system open to new ideas.

The huge advantage of democracy is that it is flexible to change. Its greatest flaw is also its greatest strength and whilst some democracies in the world, including the US, are showing their susceptibility to the influences of powerful manipulators, others are forging ahead in the race to zero carbon emissions

There’s good reason to believe that democratic institutions are better suited to handling the problem of climate change over their authoritarian counterparts; a free press provides a route to accountability, corruption is generally lower in democratic countries and their governments are not prone to the whims of powerful individuals and leaders. 

Like all complex problems it’s not simply a case of choosing between two polarised models, but rather working to adapt the model we have to ensure it is resourced, responsive and empowered with the necessary tools in the fight to mitigate global warming. 

James Lovelock has argued that climate change “may require, as in a war, the suspension of democratic government for the duration of the survival emergency” however this bleak outlook on the future creates a dystopia, one that’s imagined here, and it doesn’t take into account the other myriad options that may be open to future generations. 

Dealing with the issue of climate change should not simply be about adapting and surviving at all costs in a rapidly changing world. It’s not survival of the fittest in a dog-eat-dog scenario that seems as though lifted straight off the pages of dystopian fiction.  

Rather it’s about handing down a proper system of governance to future generations: one that allows them to retain their dignity in the face of humankind’s greatest struggle. 

A democratic system for all

It’s been proposed by some environmentalists that a deliberative democracy; which is one in which deliberation, consensus building and majority rule are central pillars, is the answer. An system of democracy that allows all participants, regardless of their background or place in society, to contribute.

This would enable voters to be proactively involved in the decision making processes of their democratic institutions whilst those from all walks of life would be able to contribute. The citizens assembly on tackling climate change in Ireland provides a powerful example of what can happen when citizens across the board are involved in the decision making process. This assembly alone agreed a national roll-out of low carbon public vehicles and a programme of community energy generation. The involvement of a nation’s citizens at the heart of it’s democracy is the key to awareness, education and empowerment. Voters are the lifeblood of any democratic government. By bringing citizens into the processes and institutions that make up our democracy we can begin to enfranchise and empower all in the fight against climate change. A full analysis of the benefits of an integrated citizen democracy and the steps we need to take can be found here

From this vantage point perhaps the answers lie in not in less democracy, but in more democracy! This belies a fundamental truth in the collaborative and eternal nature of human beings: only as a society can we collectively make the demands and changes required to build a better world. But we need to break down those barriers so that we can see both the damage our actions create, but also so that we can work together. By evolving our existing democratic institutions into effective tools that improve our capacity to respond to the climate emergency we can start taking collective actions that will reduce our impact on the natural world.