Climate change or global warming — no matter what you call it, the Earth has been negatively impacted by human activity. What’s worse is that some of the world’s most powerful and influential nations are democracies that have been ineffective (at best) at combating it. By definition, a democracy is a government with power vested in the people, and yet the well-being of the people has largely been ignored when it comes to making substantial environmental legislation and reforms.
There should be nothing to debate: Just a quick glance at NASA’s climate site gives you all the visuals you need to glean that something must be done and fast. But there have been countless U.N. summits (the next being in Paris at the end of this year), with little progress on how to proceed. The evidence is clear and the ramifications will be catastrophic. Why then is democracy failing us? …
There are many threats to democracy in the modern era. Not least is the risk posed by the widespread public feeling that politicians are not listening. Such discontent can be seen in the political far right: the Tea Party movement in the United States, the UK Independence Party, the Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) demonstrators in Germany, and the National Front in France.
More surprisingly, a similar impatience with the political elite is now also present in the scientific community. Researchers are increasingly concerned that no one is listening to their diagnosis of the dangers of human-induced climate change and its long-lasting consequences, despite the robust scientific consensus. As governments continue to fail to take appropriate political action, democracy begins to look to some like an inconvenient form of governance. There is a tendency to want to take decisions out of the hands of politicians and the public, and, given the ‘exceptional circumstances’, put the decisions into the hands of scientists themselves.
This scientific disenchantment with democracy has slipped under the radar of many social scientists and commentators. Attention is urgently needed: the solution to the intractable ‘wicked problem’ of global warming is to enhance democracy, not jettison it.
Voices of discontent
Democratic nations seem to have failed us in the climate arena so far. The past decade’s climate summits in Copenhagen, Cancun, Durban and Warsaw were political washouts. Expectations for the next meeting in Paris this December are low.
Academics increasingly point to democracy as a reason for failure. NASA climate researcher James Hansen was quoted in 2009 in The Guardian as saying: “the democratic process doesn’t quite seem to be working”1. In a special issue of the journal Environmental Politics in 2010, political scientist Mark Beeson argued2 that forms of ‘good’ authoritarianism “may become not only justifiable, but essential for the survival of humanity in anything approaching a civilised form”. The title of an opinion piece published earlier this year in The Conversation, an online magazine funded by universities, sums up the issue: ‘Hidden crisis of liberal democracy creates climate change paralysis’ (see go.nature.com/pqgysr).
The depiction of contemporary democracies as ill-equipped to deal with climate change comes from a range of considerations. These include a deep-seated pessimism about the psychological make-up of humans; the disinclination of people to mobilize on issues that seem far removed; and the presumed lack of intellectual competence of people to grasp complex issues. On top of these there is the presumed scientific illiteracy of most politicians and the electorate; the inability of governments locked into short-term voting cycles to address long-term problems; the influence of vested interests on political agendas; the addiction to fossil fuels; and the feeling among the climate-science community that its message falls on the deaf ears of politicians. […]
The argument for an authoritarian political approach concentrates on a single effect that governance ought to achieve: a reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions. By focusing on that goal, rather than on the economic and social conditions that go hand-in-hand with it, climate policies are reduced to scientific or technical issues. But these are not the sole considerations. Environmental concerns are tightly entangled with other political, economic and cultural issues that both broaden the questions at hand and open up different ways of approaching it. Scientific knowledge is neither immediately performative nor persuasive.
There is but one political system that is able to rationally and legitimately cope with the divergent political interests affected by climate change and that is democracy. Only a democratic system can sensitively attend to the conflicts within and among nations and communities, decide between different policies, and generally advance the aspirations of different segments of the population. The ultimate and urgent challenge is that of enhancing democracy, for example by reducing social inequality8.
If not, the threat to civilization will be much more than just changes to our physical environment. The erosion of democracy is an unnecessary suppression of social complexity and rights.
The philosopher Friedrich Hayek, who led the debate against social and economic planning in the mid-twentieth century9, noted a paradox that applies today. As science advances, it tends to strengthen the idea that we should “aim at more deliberate and comprehensive control of all human activities”. Hayek pessimistically added: “It is for this reason that those intoxicated by the advance of knowledge so often become the enemies of freedom”10. We should heed his warning. It is dangerous to blindly believe that science and scientists alone can tell us what to do.