Democracy Is the Answer to Climate Change

Contrary to popular belief, elected leaders are better equipped to address the problem than their autocratic rivals.

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The Paris agreement of December 2015 raised new hopes that the worst effects of climate change might yet be averted. This agreement, whose signatories have agreed to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a voluntary basis, marks the first major international pact to combat climate change since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. In contrast to Kyoto, however, whose signatories accounted for only about 14 percent of global emissions, the countries that signed the Paris deal account for a whopping 96 percent.

Of course, the outstanding question is whether the agreement will actually be implemented. As its critics are quick to point out, the Paris climate pact is a “soft law” that lacks the legal clout to impose sanctions and penalties, but rather attempts to change behavior through norm-building and consensus. And past attempts by individual nations to control greenhouse gas emissions have produced scant results.

Low-cost, effective ways of lowering emissions already exist. A universal carbon tax, which would raise the cost of producing emissions, could push countries toward this goal without major economic disruptions by making the development and adoption of green energy sources, such as wind and solar, as cheap or cheaper than fossil fuels. But as William Nordhaus, one of the world’s leading economic thinkers on climate change, has argued, most governments lack the political will to do so.

In the United States, for example, lack of political will has forced policymakers to choose from a number of “second best” policies. Pressure from large domestic energy companies, anti-tax groups and climate change deniers — including many in Congress — has forced the executive branch to tax carbon indirectly or to subsidize wind and solar power. Unfortunately, such measures do little to discourage the continued use of fossil fuels.

Pointing to the susceptibility of democratic governments to interest groups that have an economic stake in maintaining the status quo, environmental ethicist Dale Jamieson questions whether democracy is up to the challenge of climate change at all. Scientist James Lovelock is similarly pessimistic, noting that human inertia is so great that, barring a catastrophic event, the best democratic governments can do is to adapt to climate change — i.e., building sea walls around vulnerable cities. Lovelock argues that, to make the hard decisions needed to deal effectively with climate change, it may be eventually be necessary to put democracy on hold, opting instead for some kind of environmental authoritarianism.

But is it really necessary to choose between democracy and saving the planet? A comprehensive review of various countries’ progress towards environmental sustainability suggests otherwise. In fact, the case against democracy as a vehicle for environmental sustainability may be grossly overstated, based less on the actions of the world’s democracies as a whole than on the failures of a conspicuous few.

Two data sets can help us identify the impact of democracy on climate change: The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index 2015 and the World Energy Council’s Energy Trilemma Index. The Democracy Index divides 167 countries into four main groups: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes. The countries are ranked best (Norway) to worst (North Korea). The Energy Trilemma Index ranks 130 countries in terms of their progress in three key energy performance measures: energy security (the availability of reliable supplies of energy), energy equity (the domestic price of energy) and environmental sustainability (the effect of the country’s energy sources on greenhouse gas emissions). Based on these measures, countries are ranked from best (Switzerland) to worst (South Africa).

In 2015, the twenty countries grouped by the EIU as democracies had an average ranking of 34.2 on the energy sustainability index, while the 27 authoritarian regimes for which climate data existed scored much worse, with an average ranking of 85.6. In the two intermediate regime types, environmental sustainability fell off with democracy, with flawed democracies having an average ranking of 62.9 compared to hybrid countries at 67.5. The bad reputation of democracies in combatting climate change likely reflects the extremely low environmental sustainability scores of several of the more prominent members of this group, namely Canada (71), the United States (95), and Australia (110).

As the name “Energy Trilemma” suggests, countries are forced to make trade-offs between energy security, energy equity, and environmental sustainability when determining their energy policies. For instance, a country that prioritizes energy equity might opt to import cheap fossil fuels at the expense of energy security and environmental sustainability until it can develop low-cost green domestic energy sources. Thus, the Energy Trilemma Index can provide insights not just into a country’s performance, but also into its priorities.

As it turns out, countries that prioritized environmental sustainability ranked considerably higher on democracy than those that didn’t (75.4 vs. 103.5). These countries also had somewhat lower average per capita income ($25,015 vs. $37,095), demonstrating that taking action against climate change is far from a luxury that only the richest nations can afford.

As these patterns clearly show, democracies are much more likely than authoritarian regimes to give environmental sustainability priority over either energy security or affordable energy supplies. This fact appears counter-intuitive, given that an often-cited flaw of democracy is that politicians are forced to make short-run decisions based on the election cycle. However, the effects of climate change, in the form of more severe storms, damaging droughts, falling agricultural yields, and increased flooding of coastal areas, are already being felt. And voters whose lives and livelihoods are increasingly impacted by climate change are beginning to demand immediate action, effectively forcing politicians to take a longer-run view. As a result, democratic governments become more likely to comply with global agreements that set specific targets for carbon reduction.

Nevertheless, as noted above, several of the more prominent democracies — in particular, Canada, the United States, and Australia — have failed to adopt a national strategy for combatting climate change. The governments of these countries have not only come under pressure from their domestic fossil fuel industries, but from other constituencies that oppose changing the status quo, due in particular to the perception that environmentalism comes at the expense of jobs and low energy prices. In the U.S., a long-term campaign of disinformation funded by the fossil fuel sector has given rise to a large group of climate-change naysayers, although their numbers may be shrinking.

Even in these countries, however, democracy is at work subtly prodding the government toward greater environmental responsibility. For now, this work is taking place at the provincial, state, and municipal levels. British Columbia has imposed a carbon tax, California has initiated a cap-and-trade carbon plan, and Melbourne has set a goal of zero net emissions by 2020. In most cases where local action has taken place, the effects of climate change have already begun to affect people’s lives. Once the consequences of climate change begin to be felt in other parts of these countries, it is reasonable to expect movements of this sort to gain momentum.

Public concerns about the effects of climate change are unlikely to have the same force in authoritarian regimes as in democracies for two basic reasons. Authoritarian regimes almost invariably prioritize energy security and equity over environmental sustainability, since rising fuel prices risk social unrest. This overarching concern with keeping energy prices low encourages increased usage of fossil fuels and a bias against green technologies. At the same time, authoritarian governments control information through state dominance of the media and access to official data. For example, China recently reported a sizable drop in coal consumption to placate citizens’ concerns about the country’s choking air pollution. According to the New York Times, however, Chinese coal consumption during the period of supposed reduction actually rose by 600 million tons, an increase equal to 70 percent of annual coal usage in the United States. Even as Chinese greenhouse gas emissions from coal grew, a Pew Research report noted the number of Chinese who expressed serious concern about global warming fell from 41 percent in 2010 to just 18 percent in 2015. The only explanation for the drop the report’s author could suggest was a relative lack of public discussion of climate change.

Fortunately, one of democracy’s greatest advantages is the ability of a free press to facilitate the dissemination of information and knowledge. Journalists have already begun to press home the direct link between human-induced climate change and weather-driven events, such as California’s record drought and the increased number and intensity of Australian bushfires. As voters become better informed, so too will democratic governments adopt better policies to promote climate stability.

In the photo, activists dressed as polar bears join others to hold up a giant red banner during a demonstration against climate change near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on December 12, 2015.

Photo credit: ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images

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