Can modern democracy produce a coordinated effort to fight climate change?

Scientists overwhelmingly agree that human activity causes the climate crisis. Along with its devastating effects to global ecological systems, it poses an immense threat to human life. This will push humanity to its ecological carrying capacity.

Not only does climate change pose a risk to the sustainability of natural resources which we rely on; it also poses a threat to our democratic institutions have faced in modern human history. 

Democracy in a climate context

Too often, those of us in the university-educated elite who live in urban areas and perpetuate this crisis with our carbon-intense lifestyles tend not to feel the climate crisis as directly as the poor and vulnerable among us.

We read textbooks and academic journals full of data, graphs, and tables outlining humanity’s dangerous path. With that, we can sometimes find ourselves critiquing the actions of those we deem as ‘others’. We do this before emphasizing the importance of making change in our individual lives and the communities around us.

While it’s easy to rail against the established political and corporate systems around us and their continued inaction, understanding why these systems don’t work the way we want them to, and at the pace we want them to, is vital to developing successful calls to action. 

So, what gives?

Democracy and climate change

Democracy is something we tend to take for granted.

On paper, democracy is often considered the most ideal system of government. It can solve issues of working people. History seems to prove this thesis correct, considering we have witnessed dramatic progress in reducing global poverty.

Since this system of governance has at least historically encouraged cooperation and consensus building while supporting a free press that prides itself in unfettered fact-based learning, one would think that a major challenge like our degrading climate should be easily solved through experimentation and adaptation over time. 

But that’s precisely the problem, we’ve run out of time. Maybe Winston Churchill was right when he said democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.

Free riding and short term-ism

Not only does the global nature of this crisis present problems in and of itself; democracies as institutions present structural hurdles that we must overcome to undertake dramatic climate action.

Halina Ward, Director of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development, puts it well by stating bluntly that “democracies are plagued, in their actually-existing forms, by stagnation and complacency.”

These hurdles are two-fold, taking into consideration both election cycles and voter behavior, as well as what scholars tend to refer to as “short term-ism.” 

Let me explain.

Theory vs Reality

Out of theory and into reality, political priorities are often dictated by – there goes that word again – short-term parliamentary (or congressional, for us American folk) election cycles and narrowly drawn opinion polls that claim to represent the most pressing issues facing a nation.

This almost seems counter-intuitive, as it is precisely long-term future planning that can ensure our mitigation of climate change, or at least adaptation to climate change. Even if we no longer relied on short-term snapshots of voter behavior, garnering public support for long-term policies can be daunting. Because solving this problem requires such large-scale societal shifts, aging populations, rural populations, and scientific uncertainty can create roadblocks to global carbon neutrality.

Plus, it’s difficult to pitch to voters that they need to vote you into office to fix a problem that they’re complicit in making worse.  

In her address to the United Nations climate action summit, Greta Thunberg scolded older generations for their “fairy-tales of eternal economic growth” and exclaimed that “[t]he eyes of all future generations are upon you.

And if you choose to fail us, I say: we will never forgive you.” Continuing in this gut wrenching speech, Greta expressed that ignoring science at the benefit of short-term economic gain is no longer an option.

If world leaders want children to experience the same natural world they enjoyed as children, we must act now. Is this is our last chance?

Inalienable human right

Perhaps the prospect of a future habitable planet should be recognized as an inalienable human right (remember Costa Rica formalized that right constitutionally in 1994, as we addressed during Earth Week), and lawsuits should be brought against governments to weave the voices of future generations into the crafting of climate policy – youth activists agree, and have done just that.

Youth around the world, along with the organization Earth Guardians, filed a constitutional climate lawsuit against the United States government called Juliana v. U.S., asserting that “through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property.”

As of writing, this case is on the docket of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A panel of 11 circuit court judges will eventually review its previous ruling. 

Fossil fuels and lobbying

Fossil fuel and energy corporations spend exorbitant amounts on lobbying lawmakers around the world pushing for energy policies that benefit their own short-term economic goals, rather than the sustainability of our world’s ecosystems.

From 2019-20, the energy and natural resources sector in the US pumped over $40 million into lawmakers and partisan PACs.

In return, these corporations get massive industry subsidies that generate massive profits and fund lucrative executive compensation packages.

Globally, it’s estimated that governments spend over $500 billion (yes, you read that correctly, billion) in annual subsidies to cheapen and propagate fossil fuels around the world, an amount that would surpass the cost of a few billion solar panels.

Many governments are pledging to transition to more sustainable modes of energy production — something doesn’t add up. 

This does not merely distort the playing field for individual voters and activists. Since lawmakers must constantly focus on winning elections, accepting dirty money to win over constituents makes logical sense.

Some estimate that large oil corporations alone reap returns exceeding 5,000% on these lobbying investments. This leaves Big Oil no reason for these companies to stop dead in their tracks. Except for maybe lawsuits.

With little accountability or lobbying reform, we simply cannot make a major difference in a short time frame. How else do we decrease the expansion of these outdated and harmful energy sources?

What we can do

This doesn’t mean that we can’t do something about it, however. Let’s rethink democracy as it relates to climate change rather than uproot it.

Money holds an immense amount of power, especially in the hands of us consumers. Privatizing our atmosphere through carbon trading is not enough because we cannot view our natural resources through the lens of cost effectiveness while ignoring issues of power, social justice, and inequality.

We must decrease our reliance on carbon markets to begin putting our money where our mouths are. Once we stop bankrolling these carbon-hungry fossil fuel corporations, we can lessen our reliance on them. Today, they are shaping the global climate policy discussion.

Like with most issues, we need to start small. For example, instead of purchasing a car, consider public transportation (if feasible).

Consider speaking up to friends, family, and local communities about climate action. Just doing a little on their part can catalyze big structural changes in the long run.

Bottom line

Education goes a long way. Likewise, structural change bears no resilience if not supported by individuals and their local communities. Once we can expand these grassroots movements, maybe then we can get our democracies back to working for us.

Democracy and climate change, today, are incompatible.

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