Essay

What if Democracy and Climate Mitigation Are Incompatible?

Elected officials work through compromise, but a warming planet waits for no one.

A track through a forest delineates the damage from wildfires in Turkey’s Mugla province.
A track through a forest delineates the damage from wildfires in Turkey’s Mugla province.
A track through a forest delineates the damage from wildfires in Turkey’s Mugla province on Aug. 7, 2021, during the country’s deadliest wildfires in decades. YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

In the past 14 months, the United States and Germany both held national elections that placed climate change policy squarely at the center of national debate. The fact that two of the world’s five largest economies committed to addressing the world’s most pressing crisis through public discourse followed by public voting was an unprecedented democratic experiment.

It did not work out as optimists hoped. On the one hand, the victorious parties in both countries vowed to achieve what was necessary to prevent the worst effects of climate change from occurring, in accordance with the international climate agreement unanimously approved in Paris in 2015. But on the other hand, in neither country can the resulting policies be described as fulfilling that promise.

All the major German parties (except for the far-right Alternative for Germany) said they would work to limit climate change to the 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels stipulated in the Paris Agreement; the Greens claimed, plausibly, that only their platform contained ideas sufficient to fulfill the promise. But even as the Greens succeeded at joining the national government (having earned a record-breaking 15 percent at the polls), few of the policy specifics found their way into the governing agenda for the next four years. The Greens claimed a higher carbon price was necessary; no mention of any such increase made it into the coalition agreement. The Greens argued that ending the domestic excavation of coal by 2030 was nonnegotiable; the government has failed to make a firm commitment to do that. The Greens claimed the country would need to invest an extra 50 billion euros ($56 billion) per year in renewable energy infrastructure; the new government has vowed instead to maintain a balanced budget.

In the past 14 months, the United States and Germany both held national elections that placed climate change policy squarely at the center of national debate. The fact that two of the world’s five largest economies committed to addressing the world’s most pressing crisis through public discourse followed by public voting was an unprecedented democratic experiment.

It did not work out as optimists hoped. On the one hand, the victorious parties in both countries vowed to achieve what was necessary to prevent the worst effects of climate change from occurring, in accordance with the international climate agreement unanimously approved in Paris in 2015. But on the other hand, in neither country can the resulting policies be described as fulfilling that promise.

All the major German parties (except for the far-right Alternative for Germany) said they would work to limit climate change to the 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels stipulated in the Paris Agreement; the Greens claimed, plausibly, that only their platform contained ideas sufficient to fulfill the promise. But even as the Greens succeeded at joining the national government (having earned a record-breaking 15 percent at the polls), few of the policy specifics found their way into the governing agenda for the next four years. The Greens claimed a higher carbon price was necessary; no mention of any such increase made it into the coalition agreement. The Greens argued that ending the domestic excavation of coal by 2030 was nonnegotiable; the government has failed to make a firm commitment to do that. The Greens claimed the country would need to invest an extra 50 billion euros ($56 billion) per year in renewable energy infrastructure; the new government has vowed instead to maintain a balanced budget.

A similar slippage between campaign ambition and watered-down governance has occurred in the United States. Democrat Joe Biden’s election platform vowed that the country’s electricity sector would be carbon-free by 2035 and that the entire U.S. economy would achieve full carbon neutrality by 2050—promises that the Biden administration has never disavowed. But the central policies intended to achieve those timelines have no realistic chance of passing Congress. The administration will receive nowhere close to the $2 trillion that Biden said would be necessary to fund renewable energy infrastructure. Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Manchin from the coal-producing state of West Virginia has refused to pass any law that explicitly disincentivizes the energy sector’s use of fossil fuels, as the Biden campaign had envisioned. At the same time, the Biden administration has openly lobbied the Middle Eastern oil-producing countries of OPEC to increase production, in hopes of lowering the price of gasoline for domestic drivers.

The climate agendas of the current U.S. and German governments—from the Biden administration’s use of tax incentives to encourage the expansion of renewable energy to the new German government’s vow to devote 2 percent of the country’s land to the generation of wind power—are not actively harmful. In sum, they will almost certainly accelerate both countries’ reduction of carbon emissions. But by any fair accounting, they are inadequate to solving climate change on the timeline implied by the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree commitment—namely, a 50 percent reduction of emissions by 2035 and complete global carbon neutrality by 2050. “The problem with the climate measures of this new government is the speed,” said Pauline Brünger, a spokesperson for Germany’s Fridays for Future activist group.

Representatives from the U.S. and German governments say their policies are the result of the necessary compromises demanded by the democratic process. But it’s fair to wonder whether that’s just another way of restating the problem. According to the climate science, the timelines to limit warming aren’t an expression of subjectively perceived urgency but objective measures defined by the boundary of a catastrophic climate tipping point. In a 2018 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a U.N. group of climate scientists, declared that achieving carbon neutrality by midcentury was the only way to prevent global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees—beyond which, Arctic ice would melt (and ocean levels would rise) far more quickly, humans would more frequently suffer heat death, and vast numbers of species, from insects to sea coral, would end up on the verge of extinction.

In other words: Democracy works by compromise, but climate change is precisely the type of problem that seems not to allow for it. As the clock on those climate timelines continues to tick, this structural mismatch is becoming increasingly exposed. And as a result, those concerned by climate change—some already with political power, others grasping for it—are now searching for, and finding, new ways of closing the gap between politics and science, by any means necessary.


Activists dressed as world leaders sit on a raft in the Forth and Clyde canal in Glasgow.

Activists dressed as world leaders sit on a raft in the Forth and Clyde Canal in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 9, 2021, during the COP26 summit. Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

The tensions between existing methods of democracy and the problem posed by climate change are perfectly legible in domestic politics but most evident in international politics.

In one sense, it would be tempting to say that international politics is not yet democratic enough for the purposes of combating climate change. Historically, it’s undeniable that the Western countries that were the earliest to industrialize are responsible for the majority of carbon that has already been deposited in the atmosphere. A majority of ongoing emissions today are likewise created by a minority of the global population, namely in the world’s most developed economies—a group that heavily overlaps with the first.

If the basic principle of democracy is that each person (or each country) has equal voice, then it seems obvious that the majority of the world—the portion of the global population that contributes least to carbon emissions and stands to suffer the most from their effects—should be able to hold the minority accountable. That is, they should be able to compel the developed world to pay whatever it takes to transition to renewable energy at a speed consistent with maintaining the critical 1.5-degree threshold (and to assist poorer countries with any damages that nevertheless result from that mitigated climate change).

The reality, of course, is that there is no global government that can organize democratic government, and grant democratic rights, on a global scale. The international community must instead rely on existing national governments—the sovereign actors in the international system—to organize global collective action. Many of those governments, of course, are themselves democratic. And they have plenty of incentive to create an international framework that invites equal participation from the countries of the world and seems to enjoy democratic legitimacy; plenty of their own constituents would demand as much. The annual U.N. climate change meetings, known as COP, which produced the Paris Agreement and continue to monitor its progress and in which nearly all the countries of the world participate, are an example of just such a framework.

Unlike other environmental problems, the effects of climate change are not immediate, which makes it even harder to form a democratic consensus.

But the example also cuts the other way: The COP framework is ill-matched to solving climate change in a timely fashion because it doesn’t solve the international governance dilemma at its heart. Climate change, in economic terms, is a commons management issue. The goal is to create a stable ecosystem, but every country has an incentive to free ride and let others swallow the costs of providing it. It’s in nobody’s immediate self-interest to go first and bear the costs of mitigating carbon emissions: Why commit to something if others won’t? That’s especially so since early movers on climate policy only earn a small share of the global benefits while paying a disproportionate share of the costs.

For an international climate agreement to be successful, in the sense of persuading powerful countries to participate to their fullest capacity, it needs to do two things: It has to have a mechanism for monitoring the commitments that every country makes, and it has to be explicit about the punishment for cheating. States must know whether others comply with their obligations, and if they don’t, then a mechanism must exist to compel them so. But that’s not easy, of course, because the above-stated collective action problems impede creating such an agreement. There’s no clear path offered by the current democratic political system to get from here to there. The Paris Agreement—which offers no method of punishing countries for failing to meet their climate commitments aside from peer pressure and embarrassment at future COP meetings—might mark the height of what’s achievable.

And so it should come as no surprise that almost none of the world’s countries are on pace to keep their Paris commitments. The agreement’s lack of any supervisory authority—countries have been left to pursue their goals on their own—constrained it from the start. Countries that couldn’t trust one another’s good faith (both in the creation of the climate goals and the pursuit of them) had incentive to free ride on the sacrifices made by others. Meanwhile, rich countries had little incentive to prevent damage that would disproportionately affect many of the world’s poorest.

Compared with the problems of international governance, the structural impediments posed by domestic democratic politics are no less daunting. The essence of the democratic process in any nation-state is elections, a form of governance that focuses attention on immediate problems, holds national leaders accountable for solving them, subjects those solutions to revision within a few years’ time, and invites public involvement.

The nature of climate change as a political problem stands in contradiction to all those attributes. It occurs over very long time frames, extends beyond all political boundaries,
is both irreversible and highly urgent, and is exceedingly complex to understand in its full scope. Unlike other environmental problems—such as air and water pollution—the effects of climate change are not immediate, which makes it even harder to form a democratic consensus. We should not be surprised if political processes that evolved to solve very different problems have trouble coping.

But the biggest failures of the domestic democratic process center on the constant threat of capture of the political process by special interests with the most to lose from stringent reforms. Climate policy always involves the creation of new winners and losers in a given economy. Politics thus becomes a distributive struggle, with those less attached to the economic status quo pushing for a dramatic renegotiation of economic and social structures while facing resistance from interest groups that stand to lose out from such change. The latter group typically has advantages in any such struggle, especially in liberal democracies that invite interest group participation in the political process. As the economic beneficiaries of the current system, they start out by enjoying advantages in terms of their access to the political process and even to political veto points. By influencing politicians and the general political debate, they can help block policies such as carbon taxes or massive public investments to transform energy and transportation systems.

But even if those in favor of far-reaching climate policies organize themselves in response and succeed in making a strong showing in a national election, the opposing side won’t have disappeared: It will still be exerting its influence in society. The democratic process steers distributional disagreements of this sort toward compromise. That is precisely what happened after the German and U.S. elections: If one side of an argument runs up against resistance from an opposing side, it’s good democratic practice to split the difference. The result is moderate, rather than sufficient, climate policies: less public money for an energy transition, extended timelines for exiting fossil fuels. And all the while, the clock, counting down toward climate catastrophe, ticks in the background.


Protesters march during a Fridays for Future demonstration in Stockholm.

Protesters march during a Fridays for Future demonstration in Stockholm calling for climate action on Sept. 20, 2019. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images

As government fails to meet the task of stopping climate change, other players, beyond the typical boundaries of politics, are naturally stepping into their place. Precisely to the extent that democratic politics poses barriers to solving climate change, it has increased the appeal of radical politics as an alternative. If special interests have captured the democratic process, radicals propose to break the impasse in two ways: by giving the broader public greater incentive to themselves steer policymaking and by curtailing that process altogether in a way that keeps it in the hands of technocratic elites, including central bankers and constitutional judges.

In the former case, consider Fridays for Future, the global movement that was inspired by the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Just as Thunberg ceased going to school to register a moral objection to her country’s inaction on climate policy, groups of schoolchildren around the world now refuse to attend classes on Fridays, choosing instead to peacefully protest in the streets. One international day of protest in 2019 attracted the participation of more than a million people in 125 countries. This movement, however, is being outpaced in countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany by more radical actors, including Extinction Rebellion. Unlike Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion does not presume the government’s good faith, nor do its members believe entirely that peaceful demonstrations are adequate to the present moment. They aim to coerce political change by making the status quo unsustainable, including by organizing debt strikes against major banks that help finance the carbon economy. Meanwhile, activist writers such as Andreas Malm favor even more extreme measures, advocating openly in favor of violent sabotage of carbon-economy infrastructure.

But it’s not only bottom-up activists who are engaging in politics outside the normal channels of electoral democracy. Germany’s constitutional court is a case in point. In a surprise ruling in April 2021, the judges on the court declared that the climate policies passed by the government of then-Chancellor Angela Merkel were insufficient on the basis of the rights of young people to live their future lives in an undamaged environment. This was not a right that anyone in the German government had previously believed was anchored in the constitution—but the ruling left them no choice but to pass a law accelerating their existing climate plans. In recent years, courts from Australia to Pakistan and across the entirety of Europe have issued similar judgments in favor of climate policy, forcing their respective governments to act.

Technology is also increasingly intersecting with political radicalism outside the channels of normal democratic politics.

At the same time, the arcane world of central banking is also turning to radical means to stem the effects of climate change. There’s a growing recognition among policymakers that the businesses resisting climate policy are ultimately subordinate to the economic rules set by the policymakers themselves—whether or not they’re given a mandate by the public to use the fullest extent of their power.

Among these figures is Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England and head of the global Financial Stability Board, where he established the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, which has set the terms for green finance now accepted by many of the world’s leading banks and asset managers. In 2017, Carney helped found the Network for Greening the Financial System, which aims to throw the weight of key financial institutions behind the goals of the Paris Agreement. Last year, the group announced that participating banks would commit to spending $130 trillion on green investments.

But it’s not clear whether this existing green agenda is adequate to the climate challenge. Some critics believe the banks have been too defensive, mostly focusing on managing financial risks and maintaining financial stability. These policymakers—including Isabel Schnabel, a German member of the European Central Bank’s executive board—are now discussing moving into a more active mode, using central banks’ administrative powers to speed along the global economy’s rapid decarbonization. They would amplify the volume of so-called green bonds privileged by the central bank and use new rules to increase the risk of investing in the carbon economy.

Technology is also increasingly intersecting with political radicalism outside the channels of normal democratic politics. The 2018 report issued by the IPCC has raised the possibility of deploying various technological fixes to slow the global warming that more straightforward democratic politics has failed to manage. Deep in the report is a startling line: “There is robust evidence but medium agreement for unilateral action potentially becoming a serious SRM governance issue.” SRM refers to “solar radiation modification,” the most frequently discussed form of geoengineering, which involves injecting aerosols into the atmosphere to cool the planet, just as major volcanic eruptions do naturally. The key term from the IPCC report, however, is “unilateral action.” It refers to the possibility that someone might simply take matters into his or her own hands. Indeed, what’s clear is that a single billionaire might be able to finance such a venture without other political actors being able to do much about it.

That the world’s democracies are witnessing a growing spectrum of climate radicalism, both from the bottom up and the top down, is not to suggest that authoritarian systems would do any better in solving the relevant political and economic issues involved in moving beyond the carbon economy. But it is a sign that democracy, in its current form, is not necessarily the path to a solution. It might, instead, be part of the problem.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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