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Can Democracy Solve Climate Crisis?

Can Democracy Solve Climate Crisis?

Activists dressed as world leaders sit on a raft in the Forth and Clyde canal in Glasgow.

The United States of America and Germany have held national elections over the past 14 months that placed climate change policy front and center in national debates. The fact that two of the world’s five largest economies committed to addressing the world’s most pressing crisis through public discourse followed by public voting was an unprecedented democratic experiment.

It didn’t work out as optimistically hoped. The victorious parties in each country vowed to do everything necessary to stop the worst effects of climate changes from happening, in accordance to the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The resulting policies cannot be described as fulfilling this promise in any country.

Except for the Alternative for Germany, all major German parties said they would work together to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The Greens claimed that only their platform had the ideas necessary to fulfill this promise. The Greens won a record-breaking 15% of the vote and were elected to the national government. But few of their policy specifics made it into the governing program for the next four year. The Greens claimed that a higher price for carbon was required; however, the coalition agreement did not mention any such increase. The Greens claimed that ending domestic coal mining by 2030 was impossible; the government has not made a firm commitment to doing so. The Greens claimed that the country would have to invest 50 billion euros ($56 million) more annually in renewable energy infrastructure. However, the new government has pledged to keep a balanced budget.

Similar slippages between campaign ambitions and watered down governance have occurred in the United States. Democrat Joe Biden’s election platform vowed that the country’s electricity sector would be carbon-free by 2035 and that the entire U.S. economy would achieve full carbon neutrality by 2050—promises that the Biden administration has never disavowed. However, Congress is unlikely to pass the central policies necessary to achieve those timelines. The $2 trillion Biden stated would be needed to fund renewable energy infrastructure will not be given to the administration. Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Manchin from the coal-producing state of West Virginia has refused to pass any law that explicitly disincentivizes the energy sector’s use of fossil fuels, as the Biden campaign had envisioned. The Biden administration also openly lobbied OPEC’s Middle Eastern oil-producing states to increase production in an effort to lower the gasoline price for domestic drivers.

The climate agendas of the current U.S. and German governments—from the Biden administration’s use of tax incentives to encourage the expansion of renewable energy to the new German government’s vow to devote 2 percent of the country’s land to the generation of wind power—are not actively harmful. In sum, they will almost certainly accelerate both countries’ reduction of carbon emissions. But by any fair accounting, they are inadequate to solving climate change on the timeline implied by the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree commitment—namely, a 50 percent reduction of emissions by 2035 and complete global carbon neutrality by 2050. “The problem with the climate measures of this new government is the speed,” said Pauline Brünger, a spokesperson for Germany’s Fridays for Future activist group.

Representatives from the U.S., German and other governments claim their policies are the results of the democratic process’s necessary compromises. But it’s fair to wonder whether that’s just another way of restating the problem. According to the climate science, the timelines to limit warming aren’t an expression of subjectively perceived urgency but objective measures defined by the boundary of a catastrophic climate tipping point. In a 2018 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a U.N. group of climate scientists, declared that achieving carbon neutrality by midcentury was the only way to prevent global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees—beyond which, Arctic ice would melt (and ocean levels would rise) far more quickly, humans would more frequently suffer heat death, and vast numbers of species, from insects to sea coral, would end up on the verge of extinction.

In other words, democracy works by compromise. However, climate change seems to be the exact type of problem that does not allow for it. This structural mismatch is becoming more apparent as the clock ticks on these climate timelines. And as a result, those concerned by climate change—some already with political power, others grasping for it—are now searching for, and finding, new ways of closing the gap between politics and science, by any means necessary.



Activists dressed as world leaders sit on a raft in the Forth and Clyde canal in Glasgow.

Activists dressed up as world leaders are seen on a raft in Glasgow’s Forth and Clyde Canal, Scotland, during the COP26 summit. Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

The tensions among existing methodsThe problems posed to democracy by climate change are both clearly evident in domestic politics, but more so in international politics.

It would be tempting to suggest that international politics isn’t democratic enough to combat climate change. Historically, it’s undeniable that the Western countries that were the earliest to industrialize are responsible for the majority of carbon that has already been deposited in the atmosphere. A majority of ongoing emissions today are likewise created by a minority of the global population, namely in the world’s most developed economies—a group that heavily overlaps with the first.

If the basic principle of democracy is that each person (or each country) has equal voice, then it seems obvious that the majority of the world—the portion of the global population that contributes least to carbon emissions and stands to suffer the most from their effects—should be able to hold the minority accountable. They should be able force the developed world to shift to renewable energy at a pace that is consistent with maintaining the 1.5-degree threshold. This will also allow them to help poorer countries with any damage that may still result from this mitigated climate change.

The reality is that there is no international government that can organize democratic government on a global scale and grant democratic rights. The international community must instead rely on existing national governments—the sovereign actors in the international system—to organize global collective action. Many of these governments are democratic. They are able to create an international structure that encourages equal participation from all nations and appears to have democratic legitimacy. Many of their constituents would also demand the same. One example of such a framework are the U.N. climate change meetings (known as COP), which produced the Paris Agreement. They also monitor its progress and have nearly all the countries participating.

But the example also cuts the other way: The COP framework is ill-matched to solving climate change in a timely fashion because it doesn’t solve the international governance dilemma at its heart. Climate change, in economic terms is a management issue. While the goal is to create stable ecosystems, each country has the incentive not to pay and to let others take the burden. It’s in nobody’s immediate self-interest to go first and bear the costs of mitigating carbon emissions: Why commit to something if others won’t? That’s especially so since early movers on climate policy only earn a small share of the global benefits while paying a disproportionate share of the costs.

A successful international climate agreement must have two things. It must have a mechanism for monitoring all countries’ commitments, and it must specify the penalties for cheating. States must know whether others comply with their obligations, and if they don’t, then a mechanism must exist to compel them so. But that’s not easy, of course, because the above-stated collective action problems impede creating such an agreement. There’s no clear path offered by the current democratic political system to get from here to there. The Paris Agreement—which offers no method of punishing countries for failing to meet their climate commitments aside from peer pressure and embarrassment at future COP meetings—might mark the height of what’s achievable.

And so it should come as no surprise that almost none of the world’s countries are on pace to keep their Paris commitments. The agreement’s lack of any supervisory authority—countries have been left to pursue their goals on their own—constrained it from the start. Countries that couldn’t trust one another’s good faith (both in the creation of the climate goals and the pursuit of them) had incentive to free ride on the sacrifices made by others. Meanwhile, rich countries had little incentive to prevent damage that would disproportionately affect many of the world’s poorest.

The structural obstacles posed by domestic democracy politics are not less difficult than the problems of international governance. The essence of the democratic process in any nation-state is elections, a form of governance that focuses attention on immediate problems, holds national leaders accountable for solving them, subjects those solutions to revision within a few years’ time, and invites public involvement.

Climate change is a political problem that contradicts all of those attributes. It happens over very long periods of time and extends beyond all political boundaries.
It is both irreversible but also urgent and very difficult to grasp its full extent. Unlike other environmental problems—such as air and water pollution—the effects of climate change are not immediate, which makes it even harder to form a democratic consensus. We shouldn’t be surprised if different problems are not solved by the same political process.

The greatest failures in domestic democracy are due to the constant threat of being captured by special interests who have the most to lose by strict reforms. Climate policy involves creating new winners or losers in any given economy. Politics becomes a distributive struggle. Those less attached to the current economic system push for dramatic changes to economic and social structures, while those who are more concerned with their interests face resistance from groups that could lose. In liberal democracies that allow interest groups to participate in the political process, the latter group usually has an advantage in such a struggle. As economic beneficiaries of the current system they enjoy access to the political process, and even political veto points. They can influence politicians and the political debate to block policies like carbon taxes and massive public investments in transportation systems transformation.

But even if those in favor of far-reaching climate policies organize themselves in response and succeed in making a strong showing in a national election, the opposing side won’t have disappeared: It will still be exerting its influence in society. This is how the democratic process helps to steer distributional differences toward compromise. That is precisely what happened after the German and U.S. elections: If one side of an argument runs up against resistance from an opposing side, it’s good democratic practice to split the difference. The result is moderate rather than sufficient climate policies: less public funding for energy transition, longer timelines for exiting from fossil fuels. And the clock ticks away towards climate disaster, all the time.



Protesters march during a Fridays for Future demonstration in Stockholm.

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Protesters march in Stockholm during Fridays for Future, a demonstration calling for climate action on September 20, 2019. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images

The government fails to meet the taskOther players beyond the boundaries of politics are naturally taking over from them in the fight to stop climate change. Because democratic politics is so ineffective at solving climate change, it has made radical politics more appealing. If special interests have taken control of the democratic process, radicals propose two ways to break it: by giving the wider public more incentive to steer policymaking, and by curtailing the process altogether so that it is in the hands technocratic elites including central bankers and constitutional courts.

Consider Fridays for Future, a global movement that Greta Thunberg, a Swedish climate activist, inspired. Just as Thunberg ceased going to school to register a moral objection to her country’s inaction on climate policy, groups of schoolchildren around the world now refuse to attend classes on Fridays, choosing instead to peacefully protest in the streets. More than a million people from 125 countries participated in an international day protest in 2019. Extinction Rebellion and other radical actors are catching up to this movement in the United Kingdom, Germany, and elsewhere. Unlike Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion does not presume the government’s good faith, nor do its members believe entirely that peaceful demonstrations are adequate to the present moment. They seek to coerce change by making the statusquo unsustainable. They organize debt strikes against large banks that finance the carbon-economy. Andreas Malm, one of the activists, supports even more extreme measures and advocates openly for violent sabotage.

But it’s not only bottom-up activists who are engaging in politics outside the normal channels of electoral democracy. Germany’s constitutional court is a case in point. The court’s judges ruled in April 2021 that the climate policies adopted by Angela Merkel’s government were not sufficient on the basis of the right of young people to live in an unaffected environment. This was not a right that anyone in the German government had previously believed was anchored in the constitution—but the ruling left them no choice but to pass a law accelerating their existing climate plans. Recent years have seen similar rulings from courts in Australia, Pakistan, and throughout Europe in favor climate policy, requiring their governments to take action.

The mysterious world of central banks is also looking for radical ways to stop climate change. There’s a growing recognition among policymakers that the businesses resisting climate policy are ultimately subordinate to the economic rules set by the policymakers themselves—whether or not they’re given a mandate by the public to use the fullest extent of their power.

Among these figures is Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England and head of the global Financial Stability Board, where he established the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, which has set the terms for green finance now accepted by many of the world’s leading banks and asset managers. Carney was instrumental in the creation of the Network for Greening the Financial System in 2017. This network aims to bring together the support of financial institutions to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals. The group announced last January that participating banks would pledge to spend $130 trillion on renewable investments.

But it’s not clear whether this existing green agenda is adequate to the climate challenge. Some critics feel that banks have been too cautious, focusing mainly on financial stability and managing financial risk. These policymakers—including Isabel Schnabel, a German member of the European Central Bank’s executive board—are now discussing moving into a more active mode, using central banks’ administrative powers to speed along the global economy’s rapid decarbonization. They would increase the volume and risk of investing in carbon-based economies by using new rules.

Technology is also becoming more intertwined with political radicalism, outside of the normal channels of democratic politics. The IPCC’s 2018 report has suggested that technological solutions could be used to slow global warming. This is something that more traditional democratic politics has not been able to do. Deep in the report is a startling line: “There is robust evidence but medium agreement for unilateral action potentially becoming a serious SRM governance issue.” SRM refers to “solar radiation modification,” the most frequently discussed form of geoengineering, which involves injecting aerosols into the atmosphere to cool the planet, just as major volcanic eruptions do naturally. The key term from the IPCC report, however, is “unilateral action.” It refers to the possibility that someone might simply take matters into his or her own hands. Indeed, what’s clear is that a single billionaire might be able to finance such a venture without other political actors being able to do much about it.

That the world’s democracies are witnessing a growing spectrum of climate radicalism, both from the bottom up and the top down, is not to suggest that authoritarian systems would do any better in solving the relevant political and economic issues involved in moving beyond the carbon economy. This is a sign that democracy is not the right path to solving the problem in its current form. It could be part of the problem.

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