Can liberal democracies address climate change?

Regarding Climate Change, liberal democracies have been criticized for a long time. While they do claim to care about environment, pollution and climate change, they have taken few to no actions to handle these issues. Their value to fight back climate change have also been decreasing along with the increasing spread of the idea than authoritarian regimes are better fitted to tackle climate change. Indeed, it seems that liberal democracies, in most cases representative ones, suffer fundamental problems that prevent them from efficiently acting against climate change. On the other hand, there seem to be a rising consciousness about climate change in those liberal democracies. Would it be then possible for these political systems to adapt themselves to this urging political issues? Or are they fundamentally unable to tackle climate change? I will argue in this essay that liberal democracies still have every required tools to handle climate change but that they need big change to do that. I will first need to acknowledge the flaws of liberal democracies regarding climate change actions in order to understand what didn’t work in the past 40 years (1). I will then be able to see what the benefits of liberal democracies are and what change they need to implement in order to tackle climate change (2).

The role of every political agent in a liberal democracy, would it be politicians or the people, is shaped in a counterproductive way. The people is the ultimate decision maker in a liberal democracy when it comes to election, it has the power to choose the representatives and hence, politicians rely on public opinion to implement their policies. A well-informed people is then at the core of a good working liberal democracy. Nonetheless, climate change is too invisible for individuals that constitute the people to care about enough. Classical liberal doctrine of democracy emphasizes on individuals and their well-being, but climate change is happening at a broader, global scale, and is therefore invisible for individual citizens to care enough. Also, the classical liberal doctrine of democracy comes with the idea that individuals’ well-being comes with material comfort and economic growth. Hence, going against citizens economical interests, as climate change may require sometimes, is highly unpopular and politicians rarely risk themselves against the tide. As Jorgen Randers (2012) “this is the reason why I believe humanity will postpone serious action until climate change is clearly visible on most doorsteps and parliamentary stairs”.

Moreover, the assumption at the very core of representative systems, that representatives have better intellectual skills than their citizens, doesn’t work anymore when it comes to climate change. Indeed, climate change related issues are highly technical and political representatives don’t have the scientific skills nor that they have the scientific knowledge required to fully tackle climate change. For a long time, scientists have warned politicians about climate change, yet nothing has fundamentally changed, Jacques Chirac, a former French president said in 2002(?) in Johannesburg “Our home in on fire, and yet we look away”, still, in 17 years, few things changed in the way politicians handle climate change. This is due to the lack of understanding politicians have about this issue, they focused on the ozone hole, or pollution, but those are just part of the problem that needs to be fully understood if we want to fix it. Therefore, the gap between citizens and representatives no longer exists when in comes to climate change, and the representative system seems to be truly inefficient. If politicians can’t understand climate change more than normal citizens, they are not useful to handle this particular issue.

Furthermore, the fundamental geographical and temporal framework of liberal democracy is too narrow focused to handle climate change. In order to ensure tights links between the Parliament of the nation and the life of citizens on the ground, the representative system is based on constituencies. Representatives are supposed to care about both the superior interest of the nation and the interests of their constituents. Indeed, if they forget to handle local issues, there are very few chances for representatives to get re-elected. Thus, they consider local issues with great care and act accordingly. The problem is that to handle climate change, representatives need to have a broader focus, not even just at the national scale, but at the global one.  This very design of liberal representative democracy prevents the whole system to be efficient enough towards climate change. A representative in some decarbonized constituency f western Europe or Scandinavia can take pride in the fact that its territory is not pollutant but its constituents will keep buying plastic items from Asia for instance, that are pollutant to produce, to bring and to trash, these same constituents will continue using their fossil fuel powered cars or motorbikes.

The issue of liberal democracy design is not just on its geographical aspect, but also on its temporal one. To ensure that representatives will respect common will, citizens control them through elections. The career of a politicians is thus conditioned by its ability to get re-elected, and therefore, its ability to please its electors. Usually, a representative will then be able to take unpopular decision in the beginning of its mandate and use the second half to please its electors with the next election in mind. Considering that the average mandate of representatives last 4 years, they only try to handle against the tide issues every 2 years, which is not enough for climate change. Moreover, their perspectives mostly go to the next election whereas climate change requires a longer-term vision. If politicians are to tackle this issue, they need to have a plan, with broad concerns policies that will take a long time to be implemented, to give results, and that they will have to stick to.

Public opinion is then crucial for liberal democracies to fully embrace the struggle against climate change. Indeed, if this opinion switch side if it starts to be mostly and not just superficially concerned by climate change, politicians would have to take this issue really seriously. The question would then be, is this change in the public opinion possible? Most liberal democracies remain dependant on economic growth and the dream of personal enrichment that economic liberalism brings with liberal democracy. Indeed, this purpose for individuals of accumulating wealth is contrary to climate change fight. Nevertheless, we already see a slight shift over the youth concerning climate change those past years.

We have been able to see this change in at least a part of the public opinion thanks to the fundamental freedoms that liberal democracies allow individuals to have. The movement Fridays for future, a global school striking movement, has greatly contributed to show the world, the electors and the politicians that people were increasingly aware and active on climate change issue topics. This movement has only been possible in liberal democracies due to the fundamental right individuals have to demonstrate publicly in the streets. In Europe, North America, India and Latin America, strongholds of liberal democracies, huge demonstrations have taken place to display the youth main concern on climate change.

This trend was followed by another concrete realization, the score of green parties, usually seen as the best advocates for direct actions against climate change, were unusually high in European elections. The concretization of this trend is only visible because liberal democracies allow free and fair political competition with free elections. The focus on present that liberal democracy brings allows a fast shift on the public opinion, and then a change of the policies implement through a relatively short period of time, like few years for the political class to process this change and act accordingly.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves the question of how those individuals went to be aware of the issues mankind faces with climate change. To organize and mobilize in demonstrations over the world, citizens had first to access information, this was only possible through a free and independent press that was able to show how bad climate change would be if no one stopped it. An article or a documentary is not enough for a whole people to take a topic into consideration, but with thousands of those, in hundreds of newspapers, showing different opinions on what should be done about climate change, citizens were able to embrace the totality of the issue.

Democracy thus has all the tools required for an awakening of awareness about climate change and the action needed to be taken. But even though those tools exist, how could we put them into action? A change in the institutional framework that liberal democracies have today is required to address climate change, to allow this movement for the planet to concretize. Scholars have proposed many ideas of new institutions to address climate change, we can think for instance about Pierre Rosanvallon’s academia for the future. But there is one that seems to fit particularly well, Mac Kenzie’s idea of a randomly selected second chamber that would be independent, deliberative and representative. Having those qualities, the chamber would not be under the economic lobbies influence and could discuss the best way to address climate change while having the perspective of the people, because it is randomly selected to represent the citizens. Furthermore, the mandates would only last 2 years, that will allow many different and fresh ideas to be pushed forward by the house and would prevent their members from gaining to much political influence because this shall remain in the hands of the elected representatives, that can be controlled by the whole people.

On the other hand, while authoritarian regimes are said to be better fitted to address climate change because they don’t have to rely on public opinion to implement policies and they don’t have to bother about the unpopularity of those policies because the power is tightly in the hands of the leader that can rely on repression and coercion. The assessment is then that authoritarian regimes could, theoretically, handle climate change more easily than liberal democracies do. But do they really? When we look at the empirical data, we can see that among the 40 biggest pollutant countries in the world (responsible of 91% of total world emissions), the evolution of emissions between 2000 and 2009 in liberal democracies have been quite low, usually between 0 and10%[1]. But when it comes to authoritarian regimes, it skyrocketed, taking the 5 biggest: China 103%, Thailand 51%, Kazakhstan 49%, Iran 47% and Saudi Arabia 46%. Even comparing two developing countries, India has 28% compared to China’s 103%. We can assume that one of the main reasons for this trend is that while in democracies leaders rely on public opinion, in authoritarian regimes leaders need to give the population something not to revolt alongside military repression, and that is in most cases economic growth. What allows China’s Communist party to remain in power, governing 1.3 billion people, is its ability to deliver economic growth an enrichment to its population. This is its main purpose, even though economic development at any cost harms the environment, it’s the main asset for the regime’s leaders to remain in power.

To conclude, we have seen that even though liberal democracies have many flaws and are designed in a counter productive way regarding climate change, they still have the tools and the ability to reform themselves to address this issue. Indeed, they are not fundamentally unfitted for climate change and could in a very near future be the vanguard of the struggle against climate change. Ideas for new institutions can fit the different existing systems, while authoritarian regimes, besides their narratives, have not much to offer in the fight for the planet, regarding their main purpose, keeping power, that is made possible mainly through economic growth at any cost.

[1] Figure 1, David Held and Angus Fane Hervey, Democracy, climate change and global governance, policy network, 2009

Works Cited

François-Mari Bréon, the struggle against climate change is contrary to individual freedoms, Liberation, 29/07/2018

David Held and Angus Fane Hervey, Democracy, climate change and global governance, policy network, 2009

Dominique Bourg and Kerry Whites, Towards an ecological democracy, La République des idées, 2010, page 100                             

Michael K. MacKenzie, chapter 17 : A General-purpose, randomly selected chamber, Institutions for future Generations, 2016, Oxford Scholarship Online

Pierre rosanvallon, Getting out of democracies’ myopia, LeMonde, 07/12/2009

Photo credits: Wong Cai Jie

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Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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