Published on November 2, 2010

Climate change – A tipping point for democracy?

By Edward Andersson

Edward Andersson is European Associate for Involve and an established expert on methods of participatory decision making. He set up Participationcompass.org – one of Europe’s leading public engagement sites, and has advised a number of organisations on public engagement strategies, including the Home Office, the European Commission, the OECD, WHO Europe, UNDP Turkey and numerous Local Authorities and Health Trusts.

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the Council of Europe’s Forum on the Future of Democracy, held in Yerevan, Armenia  where I spoke on a panel on the topic of “Sustainable communities for a living democracy”. The panel had a great line up of speakers from Access Info Europe, the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe (IRI Europe) and the Armenian Congress of Local and Regional Authorities amongst others.

Julian Popov, the Chair of the Bulgarian School of Political Studies, wrote an excellent discussion paper on the challenges that climate change poses to democracy to kick-start our discussion. What I took from the discussion was that there are several ways in which climate change might undermine democracy.

Firstly some ecologically minded thinkers have started to doubt democracy’s ability to deal with issues such as climate change. The urgency of the issue and the seeming inaction from democratically elected politicians (most recently evidenced in Copenhagen) has led James Lovelock to declare that climate change will make it “necessary to put democracy on hold for a while” and Thomas L. Freidman to state that “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But … can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century”. The threat is that this view may spread more widely and lead to a search for a more autocratic green solution.

The second challenge is linked to democracy’s limited ability to deal with sudden catastrophic events; most recently we have seen how the floods in Pakistan floods and fires in Russia have placed both societies under intense pressure. Sudden external events undermine democracy; a form of government which requires time to reflect and consult to be effective. Reagan wrote “We had many contingency plans for responding to a nuclear attack. But everything would happen so fast that I wondered how much planning or reason could be applied in such a crisis… Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to unleash Armageddon! How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?”. How can you be inclusive, participative and deliberative when time is in short supply? Often the answer is you don’t.

In the case of Pakistan the floods have left many elected politicians discredited whilst the army and the Islamists have seen their credibility rise. Of course one off events, no matter how crippling can be managed by democracies; the challenge comes if they are frequent or interact. Popov cites some reports saying that “if Pakistan has one flood like this every 20 years it would never be able to move above its current economic level.” It is interesting to think how resilient British democracy would be in the face of such challenges.

I’m beginning to ask myself if there isn’t a tipping point for democracy as well as the climate? A point of no return from which the political structures are unable to recover. Maybe we need global institutions to pay as much attention to mitigating against autocracy as they do to mitigating against disease?

A third way in which climate change may be undermining democracy has to do with energy technology. Many development professionals have remarked on the so called ‘resource curse’. The more natural resource income a country has the less local accountable and democratic the political structures tend to be. In short the more oil the less democracy. This is partly because government is less dependent on citizen consent for income and partly because highly centralised fossil fuel energy systems are easy for governments to control and manipulate. Chad is an example where over the past decade oil income has allowed the government to increase military spending from $14 million to $315 million; with negative impacts on democratisation and human rights.

If fossil fuel technology itself is conducive to corruption can the opposite be true for be true for renewable energy? This technology tends to be cheaper, more dispersed and harder for central power to monopolise. Might a shift from carbon to renewable fuels also have a positive impact by democratising the economy and society?

As Involve have written in our recent Talking for a Change pamphlet Climate Change is a very difficult topic for governments to deal with. We argue that while there are many problems, a key one is that government can’t do it all alone. Given the wide ranging changes necessary for mitigation government will need people’s consent, and more importantly given the wide ranging causes of CO2 emissions governments will also need people’s collaboration.

So does climate change mean the end of democracy as we know it? I remain optimistic that democracy can deal with the multiple challenges. Positive examples from across the world show that democracies can facilitate people taking action themselves. Diverse examples such as Pledge bankCofacio and Orange Rockcorps are all examples where people are encouraged to take positive action starting from the bottom up and building on people’s everyday motivations; something our recent research as found is very important. Viral examples such as these show that perhaps another type of tipping point is possible…

(Thanks to Pavol Demes for use of the photo)

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