Do climate change and increasing incidence of extreme weather events along with their environmental, economic, social and political consequences make representative democracy’s progress and sustainability difficult? The question do not just invite theoretical discussion. This has huge practical relevance to the political choices that societies make, ranging from the type of governing institutions to narrower considerations of public policy response. Representative Democracy is the most dominant and acceptable form of governance across the world. At the same time, Climate Change stands as the most prominent challenge to the mankind.
Let’s begin firstly by addressing some arguments that place democracy in a bad light when it comes to climate change. Pointing to the susceptibility of democratic governments to interest groups that have an economic stake in maintaining the status quo, environmental ethicist Dale Jamieson questions whether democracy is up to the challenge of climate change at all. Scientist James Lovelock is similarly pessimistic, arguing that, to make the hard decisions needed to deal effectively with climate change, it may be eventually be necessary to put democracy on hold, opting instead for some kind of environmental authoritarianism.
But is it really necessary to choose between democracy and saving the planet? A comprehensive review of various countries’ progress towards environmental sustainability suggests otherwise.
Two data sets can help us identify the impact of democracy on climate change: The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index 2015 and the World Energy Council’s Energy Trilemma Index 2015. The Democracy Index divides 167 countries into four main groups: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes. The countries are ranked best (Norway) to worst (North Korea).
The Energy Trilemma Index ranks 130 countries in terms of their progress in three key energy performance measures: energy security (the availability of reliable supplies of energy), energy equity (the domestic price of energy) and environmental sustainability (the effect of the country’s energy sources on greenhouse gas emissions). Based on these measures, countries are ranked from best (Switzerland) to worst (Niger).
In 2015, the twenty countries grouped by the EIU as full 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, with an average ranking of 85.6. In the two intermediate regime types, environmental sustainability fell off with democracy, with flawed democracies having an average ranking of 62.9 compared to hybrid countries at 67.5.
As these patterns clearly show, democracies are much more likely than authoritarian regimes to give environmental sustainability priority over either energy security or affordable energy supplies. The reasons for this are worth summarizing. First, democracies are believed to place a relatively high value on human life and the quality of life. Second, democratic institutions are responsive and accountable. Lastly, Political openness, power diffusion and the electorate’s ability to change their government help a country develop the widest range of feasible solutions when tackling climate issues. All these features are inherent in representative democracy which is based on rule by consent.
The bad reputation of representative democracies in combatting climate change likely reflects the extremely low environmental sustainability scores of several of the prominent democracies, namely Canada (73.4), the United States (71.6), and Australia (66.9). It is an often-cited flaw of representative democracy that politicians are forced to make shortrun decisions based on the election cycle.
In the medieval legend made famous by the brothers Grimm, the German town of Hamelin is besieged by a plague of rats, until the mysterious pied piper appears and agrees, for a fee, to rid them of the infestation. The mayor then reneges on payment and the piper exacts a savage revenge on the town’s ingrates by luring away their children, who are never seen again.The tale could also be an allegory for today’s grim intergenerational smash-and-grab – the global economy. Elected officials all over the world are today blindly pursuing growth-as-usual, while the gathering climate catastrophe rumbles ever closer. These adult officials may, if they are lucky, get to die peacefully in their beds, but it’s we children who will be left to pay the ecological piper.
Several of the more prominent democracies — in particular, Canada, the United States, and Australia — have failed to adopt a national strategy for combatting climate change. The governments of these countries have not only come under pressure from their domestic fossil fuel industries, but from other constituencies that oppose changing the status quo, due in particular to the perception that environmentalism comes at the expense of jobs and low energy prices. In the U.S., a long-term campaign of disinformation funded by the fossil fuel sector has given rise to a large group of climate-change naysayers. Sophie Kivlehan, the 18-year-old granddaughter of former Nasa scientist Prof James Hansen, spoke at COP23 in Bonn of her anger and fear “at the problems that greedy and foolish adults have created”. She is one of a group of 20 youths who filed the Juliana v US climate lawsuit in Oregon in 2015.
However, the effects of climate change, in the form of more severe storms, damaging droughts, falling agricultural yields, and increased flooding of coastal areas, are already being felt. And voters whose lives and livelihoods are increasingly impacted by climate change are beginning to demand immediate action, effectively forcing politicians to take a longer-run view.
As a result, representative democratic governments become more likely to comply with global agreements that set specific targets for carbon reduction. Even in the countries like Canada, Australia and U.S, however, representative democracy is at work subtly prodding the government toward greater environmental responsibility. For now, this work is taking place at the provincial, state, and municipal levels. British Columbia has imposed a carbon tax, California has initiated a cap-and-trade carbon plan, and Melbourne has set a goal of zero net emissions by 2020. Once the consequences of climate change begin to be felt in other parts of these countries, it is reasonable to expect movements of this sort to gain momentum.
It is not to deny that countries having direct democracy mechanisms like Switzerland have performed better to tackle climate change. It was the first country to submit the pledge to the U.N for the Paris Agreement 2015. But it is not a rule for good performance and success. Representative Democracies with better local institutions and associations to express voice of citizens like Sweden, Norway and Finland have adopted highly efficient policies to promote sustainable development. Norway is on the track of achieving climate neutrality by 2030. A Pew Research report noted the number of Chinese who expressed serious concern about global warming fell from 41 percent in 2010 to just 18 percent in 2015. The only explanation for the drop the report’s author could suggest was a relative lack of public discussion of climate change.
With politicians failing to step up to the climate challenge, what are the alternatives? The adoption of Athenian Democracy is an impractical and too idealistic solution to confront climate change in the 21st century. What the representative democracies require is to take up and settle the challenge of expansion and deepening of democracy. This is why nations around the world have established citizens’ assemblies on the climate emergency. Citizens’ assemblies have been shown to be effective at building a public mandate for change, and involving people who are usually disengaged from politics.
In a representative democracy citizens have right to be concerned – the reality is that radical and wide-ranging environmental policies will not be accepted if they are simply imposed from above, without public input and public support. This is something the French Government discovered in 2018, when it attempted to introduce a fuel tax hike without considering the impact on its poorest citizens. This sparked the Gilets Jaunes movement and led to major protests against the government. Having learned from this experience, the French Government has now established its own citizens’ assembly on the climate crisis.
Furthermore one of the greatest strength of representative democracy lies in the ability of a free press to facilitate the dissemination of information and knowledge. But in representative democracies media often becomes biased and split on partisan basis due to intense political competition among parties. For instance, In America Fox News is often sided with Republicans while MSNBC favors Democrats. Republicans often neglect climate change stating the lack of scientific evidence while on the other hand Democrats take this issue very seriously in their ideology. This leads to a partisan split news leading to ill-informed voters. This needs to be changed and hopefully it has already started.
Journalists have already begun to press home the direct link between human-induced climate change and weather-driven events, such as California’s record drought and the increased number and intensity of Australian bushfires. Climate Change being a sub-plot in movies is not new. Creating awareness about the environment and its vulnerability in the days of industrialization has caught the attention of moviemakers time and again. ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ – the award winning documentary conceptualized by Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore is considered to be one of the prominent films that exerted a pull on the audience and made the whole world raise their voice on the subject. As voters become better informed, so too will democratic governments adopt better policies to promote climate stability.
Also it is only in a representative democracy that civic associations and non-governmental organisations(NGOs) flourish. The former Secretary General of the United Nations Mr. Kofi Annan referred to non-governmental organizations as the “conscience of humanity”. Such conscience of humanity exercises predominant influence on international environmental negotiations, attend sessions where environmental treaties are negotiated between countries, understand and regulate the operations of international institutions such as the World Bank, United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, etc. to check whether the funds are being utilized to attain beneficial sustainable ends.
Thus representative democracy is very much well-equipped with tools to tackle the challenge of climate change given if it operates efficiently shedding away the blemishes of corruption, shortsightedness and unnecessary delays in policy formulation. What needs to be done is to encourage public participation in the domain of climate change which still remains in a nascent state in many of the nations.
Efforts must be made to reach the remotest corners of the country to explain climate change and its impending dangers. Peoples’ council needs to be formed with responsible people spearheading the war against global warming. The best way in which representative democracies across the world can publicly address the climate change is by giving a justified understanding, appreciation and implementation of the following statement:
“……The global commons such as the air, water, biowealth, etc. appropriated and exploited in the name of the principle of competition needs a little more chartitable treatment by the Homo sapiens……”