Is democracy too slow to fix the climate?

As “we only have 12 years left” morphs into “11 years” because emissions keep rising, the question of whether benevolent dictators wouldn’t be better than sluggish, ineffective democracies is being posed more often. Will someone please tell people why democracy still matters? Craig Morris is searching for answers

The author poses the philosophical question of whether the political system of democracy can still stop climate change or whether it should be overcome

Can democratic processes help stop climate change? (Photo by Kārlis Dambrāns; CC BY 2.0)

Back in 2018, I wrote about the growing call among some climate hawks for democracy to be done away with because it’s too slow. In a recent episode of the Talking Politics podcast, host and politics professor David Runciman sums up the issue (around minute 23:00) when discussing the potential need for geoengineering (changing the climate intentionally because we didn’t reduce carbon emissions enough). He calls the need to develop and use geoengineering technologies (such as refreezing the poles) “a very technocratic project”, whereas “reducing carbon emissions would, at some level, be a democratic project.” In other words, if democracy fails, technocracy will have to come in.#

Runciman then asks his guest, Sir David King (former chief scientific advisor to the British government, a provocative question: “How do you persuade people that, in a world where technocracy is going to matter, democracy still matters, too?”

It’s a great question that deserves an answer. King gives none, providing instead a misrepresentation of German solar history (I’ll skip the fact check for now — and no, the two things aren’t related). Runciman then pushes for an answer about quick mitigation and gets this response:

King: “We’re not going to get a change like that in a democracy….

Runciman: “… absent a war…”

King: “… nor would we get a change like that in China… because they know that their own lifetime would be severely impaired by running up against the bulk of the population.”

So we at least have an admission that Chinese-style technocracy doesn’t sound more promising. But what about Runciman’s question: does democracy still matter?

When climate hawks imagine technocracies moving faster, they think of smart people meeting to agree on what needs to be done – and then just doing it. No need to convince an unscientific public possibly misled by fake news; no need to wait. By 2100, in this scenario, democracy would be a world much warmer because so much of the population voted for lying populists and fell prey to climate deniers, while technocracy is a world where warming has been kept to 1.5°C. And that’s all – no other details are part of that Technocracy 2100 vision: just a big, fat 1.5°C. Both of those visions are wrong, and that’s the problem with this whole “technocracy trumps democracy” idea.

In reality, Technocracy 2100 is unlikely to stay within 1.5°C, and it might otherwise also be a world few readers of this post would want to live in: one in which the smart have joined forces with the rich and powerful; after all, “refreezing the poles” etc. will not only require science, but also money and force. When the super rich take over, they will want things done their way as we can see today.

Example 1: Numerous billionaires pledged donations to rebuild Notre Dame in Paris after the fire, but as of mid-June they hadn’t “paid a cent” because they “want to know what exactly their money is being spent on and if they agree to it before they hand it over.” Rebuilding is proceeding with money from small donors.

Example 2: Foundations generally want things done their way; see the numerous examples listed in this season of the Future Perfect podcast, which focuses on private foundations. The results are mixed.

Indeed, refreezing the poles may be the option that impinges upon society the least because almost no one lives at the poles. Other options — such as spiking the atmosphere — would pose “complicated ethical questions,” the Guardian writes, though it only speaks of an esthetic question: “whether people have a right to see a blue sky” (the sky might turn silver). Less sunlight would mean less solar energy; who would compensate all of those solar investors for their losses? And it gets worse: pumping into the air substances that reflect heat would change weather patterns in ways hard to calculate. If one area underwent a drought, the government there might charge that geoengineering was the reason — and there would be no way of testing that hypothesis, no way to settle the dispute scientifically. Political force, if not military might, would resolve the issue.

In other words, to prevent conflict (and possibly war), geoengineering will require an international agreement on when countries receive what compensation. We couldn’t reach an international agreement on zero emissions, and we now think we’ll get a geoengineering agreement?

Think about the latest proposal: afforestation would be the best way of capturing carbon. It’s a kind of “soft geoengineering”: we grow a forest the size of the Sahara. The only people this project would “hurt” are those benefiting from other uses of the land. Of course, this giant forest would not be in any one place but would rather consist of patches spread around the globe. Instead, the world continues to cut down forests for quick economic benefits (at least, benefits for the few). If international agreements were easy, we would already have a system in place to pay countries for afforestation. We don’t.

Democracy is not stopping us from reaching international agreements. Therefore, democracy is not what’s slowing us down. The real dichotomy is thus not 1.5°C in Technocracy 2100 or Doom Under Democracy. The same obstacles that international agreements face today would persist. But technocracy adds one risk: the authoritarian forces that deny climate change might also take over and toss out technocratic climate scientists. Then, we would live in a hotter world, but we’d also have lost our civil rights.

No, the real dichotomy is not between 1.5°C and global warming, but between a world where people still have a say and one in which they don’t. To return to a somewhat harmless issue, how would we know whether people would accept a silver sky in return for less warming? Maybe we would need a lengthy public debate about issues ranging from solar investments to esthetics. And then, once everyone had had a chance to inform themselves sufficiently, we could try to get an idea of what people thought. Maybe we could, I dunno, go with what the majority wants but also try to respect minority wishes. And to find out what people think, maybe we could have them write down their preferences, check some boxes on a list of options. You know: vote.

The laser focus on 1.5°C is useful in highlighting goals, but it’s also a distorting simplification. The only way to know what people prefer is to ask them. Democracy matters because it allows people to productively shape their world, including how things are done, by whom, and to whom.

This insight is nothing new; I close with a great 2015 paper entitled “The legacy of our CO2 emissions: a clash of scientific facts, politics and ethics”:

“Science cannot determine what is right from an ethics point of view. If it could, then there would be no room for politics and democracy… Social science needs to point out where ethical and moral choices are required, and what a desirable world for future generations might look like. In our view, the greatest challenges to overcome may well be of a societal and political rather than technical and financial nature.”



Craig Morris (@PPchef) is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende.

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