Six select committees of the UK Parliament have announced plans to hold a citizens’ assembly on “combating climate change and achieving the pathway to net zero carbon emissions”.
Riley Thorold explores the significance of this announcement and argues that a more deliberative approach to climate action holds promise.
Democracy versus the climate? The dilemma
In general terms, democracy seems like an ideal system for tackling complex issues like climate change. Democracy, we tell ourselves, enables cooperation. A free press supports political learning and democracies encourage the critical assessment of policy, meaning major challenges can be overcome through experimentation and adaptation.
The problem is, this iterative process requires time – a luxury we lack, given the urgency of the situation. An emerging argument, popular in some environmentalism circles, asks whether there are systemic flaws in our democracies which prevent us acting fast enough to prevent irreversible climate change.
Political leaders in democracies, the argument goes, are short-sighted. Electoral cycles create biases in favour of the short-term which discourages the adoption of far-sighted policies to capture distant benefits. In a democracy, the will of the people generally trumps technical expertise, so decisions reflect the short-termism, naivete and prejudices of voters regardless of what climate scientists say. Misinformation is stoked by lobbyists and industries with an economic stake in the status quo (not least fossil fuel industries themselves) and money distorts the incentives of politicians seeking re-election.
These dynamics may be more extreme in the US, but they exist in many established democracies: climate policies don’t attract votes or political donations and so action often remains elusive. Add to this the characteristics of the issue (climate change mitigation is complex, has long-term effects and requires major lifestyle changes) and we start to understand the scale of the problem.
For some, tackling climate change requires suspension of democracy itself. The Gaia theorist James Lovelock is particularly frank about this:
“even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while”.
But he’s not alone. In recent years, several environmentalists have concluded that democracy is not up to the task of climate change. The election of Donald Trump in America and subsequent withdrawal from the Paris Agreement give credence to this view. Perhaps some kind of enlightened, environmental authoritarianism would fare better.
Do we need to take a gulp and make a choice between democracy and the climate? No!