Will climate change destroy democracy?
Why our political systems are headed for an unprecedented stress test
Hardly a week goes by without some new study or report warning of impending calamity over climate change or some other environmental threat. This week’s entry is a 1,500-page assessment from the United Nations that points to a potentially catastrophic collapse in global biodiversity that is driven by human civilization and could have sweeping implications for that civilization’s very viability over the long term.
The message of the report, like that of so many others, couldn’t be clearer: If we don’t address this enormous environmental problem immediately, we’re doomed.
Like nearly everyone who hears such conclusions, from do-nothing skeptics on the denialist right to sky-is-falling alarmists on the environmental left, I lack the knowledge or expertise required to assess their accuracy. But let’s assume that the UN study is trustworthy and its quasi-apocalyptic predictions are sound. For the sake of argument, let’s go further and assume that all the recent major reports warning of existential environmental threats due to climate change are accurate: Major world cities inhabited by hundreds of millions of people will soon be under water. Storms will dramatically increase in severity. So will droughts, floods, and famines, spreading suffering across the globe and provoking refugee flows on a scale never seen or contemplated in human history.
What kind of politics are we likely to see in such a world? It’s hard to know for sure, but it’s unlikely to be either liberal or democratic.
There’s an oddly apolitical character to most of our talk about environmental threats. Environmental activists, climate scientists, and their journalistic popularizers blast the bad news as loudly and hyperbolically as possible, hoping to wake people up to the multitude of dangers confronting us on every side. Meanwhile, policy intellectuals propose myriad ideas for mitigating this or that part of the problem while largely ignoring the challenge of how to get any one of them, let alone all of them, enacted.
Neither camp spends much time reflecting on the capacity of our liberal-democratic political systems to respond effectively to the circumstances that confront and await us. One reason why such reflection has been lacking is that it reveals a reality even bleaker than the one sketched in all those studies of the environmental side of the equation.
None of the greatest political philosophers in Western history — from Plato and Aristotle on down through Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Hume — would be surprised by the lack of resolve on the part of the nations of the world to address global environmental threats. Arguably the problem of politics is getting individuals and groups in a given political community to put aside their own self-interest in favor of the common good. All will benefit in the end, but getting there requires sacrifice. How much sacrifice is just for each? And how can each be persuaded not to free-ride on the sacrifices of others? This was recognized as a problem in the ancient Greek city states, it’s a bigger problem in the much larger and more pluralistic nation states of the modern world, and it's an exponentially greater problem among the “community of nations” in the contemporary world as a whole.
It was in part reflection on this problem that inspired Plato to reject democracy as a form of government and instead propose the rule of philosopher-kings — wise leaders who would deliberate and act with the common good in mind at all times. That, for Plato, would be the only way to solve the problem of politics. Whenever environmentally minded activists and pundits express panic and dismay at the inability of the nations of the world to change course to avert disaster, they tacitly acknowledge that Plato had a point: if only they — the environmentally responsible who place the good of the planet above other, narrower considerations — were given overriding political power, the world, and human civilization, might have a chance.
That's one way in which the wisdom of liberal-democratic government is being called into question today. As climate change and the collapse of biodiversity accelerates, leading to human suffering and destabilization, the case for keeping political power in the hands of populations that refused to address the problem when it could have made a difference (and that still succumb to bickering when attempting to fashion a response) is likely to decline, creating a hunger for extra-democratic leadership to address the consequences with wisdom and resolution.
But let's consider another, seemingly happier possibility: a near-term future in which the nations of the world somehow come to their collective senses and embrace a combination of radical changes in energy production and consumption, agriculture and food production, and population size and growth. As a result, greenhouse-gas emissions, pollution, and other forms of environmental strain begin to recede, allowing the planet and its human inhabitants to reverse course, recover, and avert the worst doomsday scenarios.
That sounds delightful — at least until we realize that these changes could only be achieved by the implementation of significant cuts to economic growth. To slow or halt climate change, we need to get smaller — producing fewer offspring, expending less energy, emitting less pollution, consuming fewer resources.
This presents its own significant political problem. From the start, modern politics — from classical liberalism on through to more progressive forms of political action like modern liberalism and socialism — have presumed the presence of economic growth and expanding prosperity over time. The promise of material betterment over the course of individual lives and from one generation to the next fuels individual and collective ambition and hope that, in turn, powers the economy. Optimism, hope for the future, faith in progress over time — they are indispensable to keeping our politics decent and broadly democratic. By contrast, when economic pessimism rises, hope for the future wanes, and faith in progress dies out, politics becomes darker, with anger, blame, and bitterness taking the place of contentment.
Add in the possibility of economic contraction being paired with the consequences of unavoidable environmental degradation, including refugee flows testing the openness and generosity of the world’s wealthier nations, and we're left with a perfect storm of variables all pointing in the direction of less liberal and less democratic forms of politics. The Brexit vote, the rise of Donald Trump to the American presidency on an anti-immigration platform, the surge of populist parties across Europe in the wake of a spike in refugees from the Middle East — all of it gives us a taste of the political ugliness that may await us.
In a world forced to break its addiction to economic growth and the extravagant hopes wrapped up with it, democracy itself may soon need to be added to the list of endangered species.