Sortition: The Key to Globally Coordinated Climate Change Action?

By Jonas Kunz and Hans Kern • Bard Institute for the Revival of Democracy through Sortition (B.I.R.D.S.) •

Public policy advocates, lobbyists and concerned scientists came together in the decade from 1979 to 1989, to bring climate change awareness to Capitol Hill and effect prudent policy. A thorough account of this struggle with inertia, was published in the August issue of the New York Times Magazine. Nathaniel Rich’s article Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change fills the entirety of that issue and makes for a frustrating read, to anyone who cares about the planet. The protagonists, Rafe Pomerance and James Hansen, bear a sisyphusian task of bringing good sense to the Senate, the House and the Executive. These men likely did more than anyone else at the time, to bring climate change into public and political discourse. The story culminates, however, in a failure of the U.S. government to sign on to a binding CO2 reduction treaty at the Noordwijk Ministerial Conference of 1989. This disappointment has repeated itself subsequently in all attempts at global treaties, from Kyoto to Paris. After 40 years of such stone-rolling, by an ever-growing base of exceedingly competent, savvy and inspired individuals, it is time to ask why this isn’t working. Nathaniel Rich’s article offers a foundation for analysing these failures, which this paper will relate to the fundamental shortcomings of electoral representative democracy as a whole. It goes on to argue, that deliberative democracy by randomly appointed citizen’s assemblies — “sortition” — is the answer to the challenge posed by climate change.

Climate change by human industry (anthropogenic warming) has been known to scientists at the highest levels within the U.S. government, at least since 1979. That year, the ‘Charney Report’ — Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment — presented the research of nine atmospheric, meteorological and oceanographic scientists convened at Woods Hole Institute, to the National Research Council. The introduction to this report by Werner E. Suomi pronounces: “If carbon dioxide continues to increase, the study group finds no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible. The conclusions of prior studies have been generally reaffirmed. However, the study group points out that the ocean, the great and ponderous flywheel of the global climate system, may be expected to slow the course of observable climatic change. A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late.” Almost 40 years ago, scientists were already cautioning policy-makers about the need for action on carbon emissions. By 1988, James Hansen, atmospheric scientist at NASA, was testifying before Congress to confirm that temperature anomalies had emerged from surface temperature data, indicating warming greater than the natural background trend: “The global warming is now large enough that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause-and-effect relationship to the greenhouse effect…the greenhouse effect has been detected and it is changing our climate now.”

In 1979 the facts were on the table and by 1988, proof was in the pudding. In the Washington D.C. of the 70s through today, however, denialism and procrastination on climate change have reigned supreme. This, despite the fact that from the beginning, oil-industry representatives and policymakers had set out in earnest to address the issue. How was it possible that the three pillars of Washington — industry, lobbies and the White House — wanting to collegially address the issue, failed. As Rich explains “…some of the largest oil companies, including Exxon and Shell, made good-faith efforts to understand the scope of the crisis and grapple with the possible solutions.” Even more surprising, in hindsight, is the fact that “in the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989, we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis. The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding, global framework to reduce carbon emissions.” To arrive at a clear understanding of what went wrong, we must first do away with the common misconception that big industry is and always has been the main culprit. In fact, as the article reveals, the oil industry was the first, to take due diligence measures, on the dangers of climate change and was preparing to adapt to policy changes. The policy changes, however, never came. Resistance did not come from the outside, it came from within the political structures themselves. In the words of Rich: “almost nothing stood in our way, nothing except ourselves.”

One intrinsic obstructions, came in the form of neoliberalist confidence. It clearly played a significant role in early climate change inaction. As, for example, when William Nierenberg advocated “caution, not panic,” at a point where preemptive action would have been preferable. “Better wait and see. A blind faith in American ingenuity to make adaptations as they come” writes Rich to sum up Nierenberg’s thinking: “Optimism about the saving graces of market forces, pessimistic about the value of government regulations, a monetary conservatism about spending on future problems.” These words mirror the hallmark values of Reagan’s neoliberal agenda: if the market caused it, the market can fix it. Never mind that climate change culminates with the momentous force of industrialized activity on a civilization scale, that has gone unchecked for centuries. No function of the market could simply stop this train in its tracks, despite Nierenberg’s confidence. Rafe Pomerance: “who came of age during the Vietnam War and the birth of the environmental movement […] shared none of Nierenberg’s Procrustean faith in American ingenuity. He worried about the dark undertow of industrialized advancement, the way every new technological superpower carried within it unintended consequences that, if unchecked over time, eroded the foundations of society. New technologies had not solved the clean-air and clean-water crises of the 1970s. Activism and organisation, leading to robust government regulation, had.”

While ideology therefore kept some of the players relying on American ingenuity, others, like Pomerance had no such illusions. Without an invisible hand to trust in, he was catalysed into action, had to take things into his own hands. Still, the quality of global warming as a largely invisible threat, catered to both approaches: it justified inaction, but also allowed for overly generalising, even vague, calls to action. Today, according the UN report, we are 12 years away from major calamity on a global scale. That timescale may well be generous, as the direct effects of global warming are now encroaching severely on Western perceptions. One thing is clear: the “invisible” factor of climate change, as an excuse for dithering, is rapidly giving way to blatant visibility.

Global warming, when first it became known, did not present an immediate threat to the expansionist precepts of mercantile America. Rather, it was a vague challenge to an absolute order governed by seemingly absolute logic. Today, the challenge has obviously become more formidable, more existential and more empirical. But not yet so in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The appeal that therefore had to be made, was for preemptive and preventative policy-making. Politics was, and still is, a far cry from being capable of this. The tension between the immediate and the future, was one which Margaret Mead was privy to. Writing in 1975, she said that “never before have the governing bodies of the world been faced with decisions so far-reaching. It is inevitable that there will be a clash between those concerned with immediate problems and those who concern themselves with long-term consequences.” The clash which she predicted, came to pass with global warming. Her distinction between immediate and long-term thinking, invites elucidation. Usually, those concerning themselves with long-term consequences, arrive there by a reckoning with problems in the present, and a pursuit of solutions that may last into the long-term. The tension is one between a reductive reading of a situation, often coloured by personal bias, and a holistic, whole-systems reading of a situation. As it happens, Neoliberal thinking offers very much of the former and very little of the latter.

But couldn’t it be said that the nuclear arms race provides an example of both preemptive and effective mobilisation, in the face of a large global geopolitical threat? The nuclear arms race differs from the prospect of a global war on global warming, on one very substantial point: the threat of nuclear armageddon was invoked as political tool to advance industries, to expand American presence in the world. This explains why global warming has not been seized upon by a White House administration: it would not spell an industrial advancement, so much as a It would invite a deep reshuffling of priorities, both unpopular and complex. The list of main industrial contributors to global warming, reads like a who’s-who of campaign contributors and major lobbies. Thus, a reckoning with warming would force an eventual reckoning with causes, and inevitably force the ruling party or administration to confront the very stakeholders whose favour it had to woo. Acknowledgement of the problem of climate change, opens a pandora’s box that electoral politics is unprepared for. The prospect of a political “war on global warming” therefore remains contradictory, so long as political interest is beholden to major industrial perpetrators and a voting constituency with a culturally entrenched adherence to the promise of American exceptionalism and the self-righting powers of neoliberalism. To the extent that climate change is a product of the precepts that dominate in society and the political alliances with industry that enable them, without challenge, it cannot be politically acknowledged.

In spite of the hard-earned lessons that the 70s environmental movement had made, market fundamentalism won out by default and without effort. Politicians exploited a misguided faith in the self-righting ability of economic systems, to delay and dither. The unpredictable timescales of climate change only added to this convenient uncertainty. Scientist, being, in their usual method, reticent to cast predictions in stone, did not pronounce a 100% certainty on the specific “what, when and how” of anthropogenic warming effects. Politicians, exploiting the wiggle room within the specifics of the hypotheses and their timescales, obfuscated the simple and overarching certainty of climate change and the need for action it engendered. The illusion was created, of an indefinitely post-potable scenario. Even today, where there is a 100% consensus within the scientific community that the changes are already well underway, the effects of this doubt-mongering are everywhere. It seems that only hard, empirical, slap-in-the-face climate calamities can break through the smokescreen that was built. But even then, political discourse continues in its myopic focus on short-term problems and short-term outcomes.

How can something as big as climate change be openly ignored, even when it has become empirically undeniable? Rich’s article sheds light on this, in the retelling of a 1986 exchange between Curtis Moore, staff member of the Committee on Environmental and Public Works and Rafe Pomerance. Moore had stated that climate change was not a problem, inviting the bafflement of Pomerance: “Yes, Moore clarified — of course, it was an existential problem, the fate of civilization depended on it, the oceans would boil and all of that. But it wasn’t a political problem. Know how you could tell? Political problems had solutions. And the climate issue had none. Without a solution — an obvious attainable one — any policy could only fail. No elected politician desired to come within shouting distance of failure. So when it came to the dangers of despoiling our planet beyond the range of habitability, most politicians didn’t see a problem.” While climate change constituted and constitutes a very real problem, it is one that elected politicians are not only able to ignore, but are actually strategically incentivised to. Who, after all, wants to run on a losing issue? The fact that it is possible for elected representatives to obfuscate a momentous problem, may at first seem incongruous with the idea of electoral democracy. But as experience has shown, it is by no means.

As Moore pointed out, politicians on Capitol Hill are able to exercise, within their mandate, the privilege of acknowledging or ignoring issues. Is this not a gaping design flaw in the system? Yes, and no. Yes, because it seems absurd that politicians who are supposed to act on behalf of their voting constituency can be disposed to ignore an issue that potentially affects every single one of them, in the long run. Yes, also, because we are still lacking mechanisms within our political representation whereby the people are able to set the agenda of issues to be addressed by politicians and whereby the people are able to hold the politicians accountable for their delivery of action on those issues. No, because, what may seem like a flaw, exposes a purposeful disjunction maintained between the public and those acting politically on their behalf. This disjunction goes back to certain beliefs and principles that were consciously favoured in the founding of American democracy. In other words, what seems to us like a flaw was once viewed as a saving grace. The so-called founding fathers debated over what kind of republic should be their legacy, and their fear of the ‘tyranny of the masses’ won out over arguments for greater democratic inclusion. Thus, the American constitution was explicitly conceived only to partially empower the ordinary citizen, while favouring rule by a ‘natural aristocracy.’

In the words of Benjamin Rush, signatory of the Declaration of Independence, “all power is derived from the people,” though they can rarely wield it: “They possess it only on the days of their elections. After this, it is property of their rules, nor can they exercise or resume it, unless it is abused.” But even this transient power is far from certain, nor its abuse safeguarded, when we consider the many manipulations of the electoral process known to us today; including: runaway corporate funding of campaigns in the aftermath of the Citizens United vs. The Federal Elections Commission ruling, the manufacturability of political consent (i.e. bi-partisan media monopolies, facebook fake news and Cambridge Analytica), an electoral college that thwarts majorities, gerrymandering, etc. etc. What emerges, in sum, is a staggering view of a democratic disjunction, between the people (demos) and political power (kratein.) It takes similar form, to a greater or lesser degree, in countries around the world today. To speak, therefore, of a failure of democracy, when considering the present failure of political structures in addressing issues environmental or otherwise, is inaccurate. What we perceive is the failure of a very poor example of one brand of democracy: electoral-representative democracy.

It is possible that with a systematic remediation of the above-mentioned manipulations of the electorate, the flaws of American democracy might be fixed and politics again produce prudent policy. Steps toward this might include improved mechanisms of accountability and recall-ability, the introduction of a citizen agenda-setting process to which representatives would be directly answerable, and clearer divisions between industrial interest and political interests. But, this is neither certain, nor is it feasible that avenues for the implementations of such changes could be opened. How many of our contemporary politicians, after all, would support the introduction of measures under which they might lose their jobs more easily, that would compromise their political immunity (and in some cases impunity), sever the relations with industry they might have and which bring personal benefits and lifetime securities; in short, a shake-up of their own power. The answer, it seems likely, is few. This is a conundrum with which advocates for improved electoral-representative democracy are intimately familiar.

Even if elected representatives, by some collective change-of-hearts, decided to make themselves more accountable and allow for agenda-setting bodies, the structural difficulties inherent to the electoral system would make this almost impossible.The nature of competitive elections is that whenever there is a winner, there must be a loser. Party policy platforms are framed according to what appeals to the interests of the largest constituent body, with a campaign-narrative free of contradictions. What one party gains in support, another must lose. Hence, all winning strategies are necessarily framed adversarially. This, in short, is a zero-sum game. The need to maintain majority approval, induces incumbents to favour general topics and questions with easy answers, over uncomfortable but possibly much more important ones. In fact, the policy points that invariably earn the most support, are either impossibly general or hyperbolic or shift the causes of a problem toward some external agents, thereby mobilising support for a rally-around-the-flag to fight the straw man. A good, hard look at difficult question, demanding compromises and possibly sacrifices, rarely, if ever, wins elections. Even bi-partisan coalition approaches usually come about by uniting an additive majority of both parties against all those holding an independent position, for the sake of addressing vital and immediate problems, like government payroll or social security. This improvisational compromise cannot allow for more complex, philosophical or nuanced viewpoints to find expression. It is, rather, a matter for the survival of the competition itself. Bi-partisan coalition is the application of duct tape, as a last-ditch effort to preserve the zero-sum game from a breakdown under its own incongruities.

In Rich’s article, John Sununu, White House Chief of Staff under George Bush, explains the failure of administrations to embrace and act on climate responsibilities: “It couldn’t have happened, because, frankly, the leaders in the world at that time were at a stage where they were all looking how to seem like they were supporting the policy without having to make hard commitments that would cost their nations serious resources. Frankly, that’s about where we are today.” This streak of duplicity running through politics, of saying one thing and doing another, is nothing new to spectators of the political circus. It is, furthermore, a direct result of the zero-sum fallacy that electoral democracy commits. Representatives get caught up in partisan posturing around issues that, because of party policies or party voting history, are polarised or otherwise caught in adversarial manoeuvering. Even if a possible compromise were in sight, the need of either party to appear as the sole “winner” on the topic — as the party that is and was always right in their proposals — makes such compromise strategically undesirable. Consider this: the caprices of politicians begin to make more sense, when we view them not as acting out of self-interest, but as trying to balance too many conflicting interests at once.

In reality, decision-making processes do not usually produce zero-sum outcomes — “my win is not only your loss and your loss is not only my win.” Rather, they evolve around compromise and dialogue, producing more meaningful decisions and are capable of reaching a consensus, which in a zero-sum approach is not possible. Within the constraints of our zero-sum system, therefore, politicians are voted in by pitting the interests of the majority against those of a minority. While they may know it, they are unable to publicly acknowledge that politics is about making the reasonable decision, which may not be popular and does not represent the immediate interests of the largest number, but is in the long-term interest of the greatest number. The upshot of this divided situation, is that politicians rarely, if ever, articulate a cross-platform agenda, such as climate change action would be. They know it would cost them and their party votes. Systemically, therefore, electoral party politics produces ever-recurring deadlocks on some of the most important and biggest issues. The non-zero-sum nature of politics emerges organically in a system that reaches decisions through a process of rationed deliberation, where nobody holds sway and authority is ultimately shared. Such a scenario, as we will argue further on, is possible, in the form of deliberative democracy.

In addition to the contradictions posed by party politics, there is a demographic factor to consider, when seeking to explain climate inaction. Within any country affected by climate change, career politicians with ample economic buffers and securities, won’t be the first to notice its ravages. Elected representatives are likely a statistical group with lesser first-hand experience of climate change. Thus, they are, on a personal level, neither spurred on nor qualified to deal with this problem. The complication of political representation by non-representative samples of the population, here becomes palpable. It is not only non-democratic, it is dangerous. Were there a chart with wealth on the x axis and concern for the planet on the y, a straight line pointing downward at a right angle, would likely emerge, indicating a directly inverse relationship between wealth and environmental concern. This follows from a basic truth about human nature: we assign significance to what is within our field-of-view; a threat that we don’t see, we don’t tend to deem a threat. A perfect dilemma presents itself in today’s world, where wealth equals power. Industrial magnates, insulated from the negative externalities of their ecologically destructive schemes, continue to exert their influence on politicians. Climate change ignorance, is thus reaffirmed two-fold: by the corruption of politicians by moneyed interest, and the blissful ignorance which their positions afford. To the extent, therefore, that powerful economic interests and job security hold sway on policymaking, climate change remains invisible.

The handicaps of our present-day politicians are intimately entwined with the particular brand of democracy we have come to accept as its definitive form. Its present ailments did not emerge in association with electoral representation by pure chance. They co-evolved with it. To seek, therefore, to remedy them, without addressing the root-cause, is a short-sighted undertaking. In time, the same corruptions would invariably take hold again. The inability of the U.S. government to embrace and act on its climate responsibilities, sheds light on deep-seated flaws in the political system, that go to its very theoretical foundations. It is the authors’ considered opinion, that what is revealed is a failure of electoral democracy itself, which repeats itself in the ostensible democracies of the world. The very tenuous connection between represented and representatives maintains a disjunction that disenfranchises and alienates the citizens, while giving representatives impunity. Attempts to bridge this gap by means of the system that created it, have proven futile. If votes, the main tool of engagement in present democracies, can’t remedy its crisis, then what possibly could? It is clear, that the only way to resolve the impasse is by means of a more legitimate, more authentically democratic decision-making process.

Of the many proposed alternatives to the system of electoral representation, one is currently making a comeback. Sortition is as old as democracy itself and constitutes the appointment of citizens to decision-making bodies by random choice, or lot. Sortition was introduced by the demos (people) of Ancient Athens around 500 B.C., and continued to be used in city-states across Europe, until the late Renaissance. It was eventually abandoned in favour of more elitist conceptions of democracy, i.e. parliamentary elections. Doing away with the adversarial and often nonsensical process of party campaign politics, sortition draws lots. The result is an incredibly diverse sample of backgrounds, in short: a microcosm of society at large. Such an accurate picture of society, when tasked with making decisions, produces decision that take into account an equally diverse set of viewpoints and considerations. Instead of saying: “we need a qualified elite to decide for the people,” this system proposes: “the people themselves should be able to decide on the questions at hand.” The biggest drawback to sortition is usually thought to be that irresponsible and untutored persons will be given power, to which they are not qualified. Essential, therefore, to this new exercise of power is deliberation: random choice alone is harmful, if it doesn’t create a forum for speaking and listening among those chosen randomly, before decisions are made.

Many experiments with this form of governance, in more than 25 countries so far, have shown: when you put a randomly chosen group of people in a room together, to deliberate on important issues, with access to a panel of experts for consultation, they will produce decisions that are more farsighted, more inclusive and take into account a much wider set of considerations than the current and partisan elite. The ultimate outcome is a wiser political process. Kofi Annan, seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, from 1997–2006, understood this function of sortition. Speaking in 2007, he stated: “We need to make our democracies more inclusive. This requires bold and innovative reforms to bring in the young, the poor and minorities into the political system. An interesting idea … would be to reintroduce the ancient Greek practice of selecting parliaments by lot instead of election. In other words, parliamentarians would no longer be nominated by political parties, but chosen at random for a limited term, in the way many jury systems work. This would prevent the formation of self-serving and self-perpetuating political classes disconnected from their electorates.” Though there are different conceptions of how exactly it should be implemented, it is thought by many advocates of the idea, that sortitionate bodies should exist alongside elected ones, at local, regional and federal levels. In such a case, electoral politics could be more directly held accountable and answerable to the will of the people. This would result in a wider sharing of political responsibility and a rebalancing of power.

A dangerous idea? It is not. Trials have been convened around the world in recent years, to test the power of decision-making through the deliberation of randomly chosen individuals sharing physical spaces. From these citizen’s assemblies, hosted by a variety of different non-governmental, academic and governmental groups, a common picture emerges: decisions are made that take into account a range of viewpoints representing an exceptionally broad range of demographic backgrounds, outlying and radical views are often moderated by the discussions, the experience of political responsibility leads to more informed citizens, and creative new solutions emerge that would otherwise not have been heard. The raw, unfiltered opinions of politically disenfranchised individuals are almost sure to lack an awareness of common needs, interests and possibilities. Deliberation among sufficiently diverse groups, however, creates this awareness. What this form of democracy can harness, is hive intelligence, giving rise to policy recommendations or decisions that are greater than the sum of the assembly’s individual wills. Sortition is, therefore, a democratic process capable of producing a common voice that places the long-term before the short-term, the collective before the individual and the sensible over the desirable. With panels of experts sufficiently broad and inclusive of the most relevant insight on the questions being debated, the evidence shows that sortitionate decision-making bodies will produce the most climate-wise proposals and laws. All of this, while satisfying the widest demand for legitimacy we could place in a democracy: voluntary rule by the people.

A political process capable of legitimately arriving at decisions that effectively grapple with the complexity and scale of global warming, is what our moment calls for. Sortition may sound to some like a ‘gamble.’ Considering, however, that the present electoral democracies have an increasingly tenuous hold on the credulity and imagination of their citizens, leaving them unchallenged is now the riskiest gamble. We must be careful not to conflate the failings of that brand of democracy with a failure of democracy itself. Nor should we see it as a failing of complexity in politics. From the lens of a status quo that is burdened with a long history of bad complex politics, the prospects for an effective complex political process may seem hopeless. As problems mount, politics devolve into gridlock and bureaucracy, the illusory appeal of ‘strongman’ unitary leadership experiences a revival. Technocrats and experts — some well-meaning and others opportunistic — would readily step up to the plate and decide based on their expertise what needs to be done. The only problem is this: many of the problems of our day, culminating in an ecological crisis, were brought about by a situation in which a few were tasked with making decisions for the many. In countless cases, these few were readily ethically compromised while in office or arrived there thusly. What we need now, is the possibility of inclusion for the disenfranchised voices. The experience of having a say in the discussion of important questions, or even the prospect thereof, is often enough to turn a wilfully ignorant civilian into a responsibly reasoning citizen.

The political failures of our day, can be said to have derived from a situation where responsibility was not shared widely enough, and power not checked from enough sources. Now, what if we were to put into power the foremost experts of each field as it relates to a particular aspect of a problem, ensuring they are incorruptible, and let them decide? Well, firstly, responsibility would still not be shared widely enough and power not checked from enough sources to guarantee a process above moral reproach. Secondly, if these experts were to make the decisions, they could end up blundering terribly by making scientifically informed decisions that overlook vital insight from the experience of an engineer, the ingenuity of an inventor, the pragmatism of a farmer etc. If, however, we were to allow such experts to make recommendations for decisions, then we would be looking at the panel of experts that every good deliberative council should have. The complexity of a now global ecological crisis requires thinking of a complexity on the same order of magnitude. This is only achievable through hive thinking, as embodied by the deliberative democratic process in sortitionate decision-making bodies, with the vested power to enact policy.

Writing in The Spirit of the Laws in 1748, Baron De Montesquieu already argued that the “suffrage (elections) by lot is natural to democracy; as that by choice is to aristocracy.” But how does the elitist aspect of our current ‘aristocracy’ relate to global warming? Consider that wherever decision-making power rests with a disproportionate representation of the population, the decisions made are a disproportionate representation of the people’s interests. Thus, the ‘natural aristocracy’ favoured by the American republic, can’t help but paint a very one-sided picture of American priorities and possibilities. Meanwhile, the great irreducible plurality that defines the American life remains largely outside the frame, unaccounted for. This includes the suffering of the poor, the disenfranchisement of minorities, the prison-industrial system, the destruction of entire cultures abroad at the hand of American weaponry, the healthcare crisis, the great upheavals of industry by technology, the growing precarity of livelihood and jobs, food insecurity and environmental collapse. Only a system that can take account of such an incredible variety of grievances, could yield the kind of legitimate decision-making power needed to implement prudent policy around them. Only a true democracy, therefore, could include such multiplicity, and only deliberative democracy through sortition, can directly include the greatest possible variety of voices in a room, while ensuring that they did not arrive there by questionable means to represent ulterior agendas.

“Michael Glantz, a political scientist who, at the time, was at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, argued in 1979 that democratic societies are constitutionally incapable of dealing with the climate problem. The competition for resources means that no single crisis can ever command the public interest for long, yet climate change requires sustained, disciplined efforts over decades.” If this is the case, climate change will only truly command the public interest once it has become the dominant, most unrelenting resource-threatening menace to the entirety of society. Some would argue we have reached that point, or are on the cusp. The fact, then, that our politicians are still not reckoning with this problem, is disconcerting, to say the least. This issue could very well be the one to make or break faith in the ideal of democracy, rule by the people. Sortition, if properly implemented, could redeem democracy in the face of the climate challenge. A sustained, disciplined acknowledgement and reckoning with climate change is not likely to come from the elected for the reasons enumerated above. It is feasible, however, that when decision-making power derives from a broad sample of the population, including those more precariously exposed to consequences of climate change, the issue will remain on the table until dealt with adequately. Doing so, on a global scale, may require all-in commitments by the powers of the world. It is understandable that this has not yet happened, considering that wanting legitimacy of elected representatives. Their actions are not vested with the full accountability to the constituents on whose behalf they are acting.

“Economics, the science of assigning value to human behaviour, prices the economy at a discount” observes Nathaniel Rich. “The farther out you project, the cheaper the consequences. This makes the whole climate problem the perfect economic disaster. The Yale economist, William D. Nordhaus a member of Jimmy Carter’s Council of Economic Advisers, argued in the 1970s that the most appropriate remedy was a global carbon tax. But that required an international agreement, which Nordhaus didn’t think was likely.” An international agreement of this sort, would require sacrifice — the prioritisation of the long-term over the short-term, which Margaret Mead identified. The same problem presents: the biggest beneficiaries are the ones least likely to make concessions. The strongest countries responsible for the largest share of the industrial activity, should at the same time be the ones most able to make concessions in terms of capital and political leverage. But, it seems, it is precisely a desperate desire to keep such a position that has paralyzed America and the West into almost complete inertia. Ironically, it is precisely this inability to adapt that currently undermines America & the West’s continued ascendancy on the world stage. The conclusion of Rich’s article, is a somewhat dour appraisal: “these theories share a common principle: that human beings, whether in global organisations, democracies, industries, political parties or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations.” Is this a design flaw in us, or a design flaw in our systems? We are inclined toward the latter, knowing, that under ideal conditions of truly random allotment and balanced, informed deliberation, humans are capable of making the right, though difficult, decisions.

Whether it is a fact we are ready to acknowledge or not, global warming is at heart a land use problem. Some of its main causes are poor agricultural practises, deforestation, urbanisation, land theft and the lasting legacy of colonialism. These things need to be addressed, to the disadvantage of some, who presently benefit from destructive arrangements, but to the advantage of a great many more. But what political body today has the authority, legitimacy, and recognised impartiality to reckon with such issues without leading to conflict? There is, arguably, none. Could there be? Yes. It would have to satisfy a few requirements. Firstly, we lack a globally connected resource that can furnish appropriate expertise, consultation and recommendations for local land use, with view to bioregional needs and capacities and how they relate to the bigger picture. Of course, there are countless organisations out there who have answers. To arbitrate and effectively give priority to the most relevant experts and expertise, a filtering organ might be necessary. These recommendations, then, would need to find audience with authority. Hence, we also lack an inclusive political process that can mediate between competing interests and produce prudent policy decisions, with the legitimacy of people power and the force of law. Sortitionate decision-making bodies with the vested power to enact policy, implemented at the local to the U.N. level could effectively grapple with the challenges of our day. A growing number of groups are advocating for a revised U.N. charter, and the implementation of a second “citizen’s chamber” (See. paper Global Governance and the Emergence of Global Institutions for the 21st Century.) We suggest such a citizen’s chamber should be sortitionate.

Never before has human society known such a globally interconnected problem as climate change. Globalisation seems in many ways to have been its main vehicle. Consider the unnecessary carbon footprint of bottled water from the South Pacific or an apple grown in New Zealand and eaten in a NY supermarket. At the same time, globalisation has the potential for being the conveyor of knowledge and tools to address this challenge on a globally interconnected scale. Given how quickly new ideas can spread and new practices be adopted simultaneously all over the world, there is much positive change that can be hoped for. The prospects for a global movement of regenerative activity from cottage industry to large-scale industry is staggering. Dispelling the false prophecy of a technological “deus ex machina”, we instead go in search of real, practical, nitty-gritty answers. Climate change is, doubtless, one problem with many causes and many symptoms. The response, is therefore constituted of a proportionately diverse range of remedies. All of these can and should be given avenues of expression in politics. Electoral representation is not grown to this task. Sortition arguably is. In a political process that is based on allotment, decision-makers are no longer divided by political affiliation, making way for the only two affinities that matter: a willingness to participate and being in a common space to address common issues. The deadlocks of partisanship will fall to the wayside, giving way to the possibility and plurality of participatory citizenship. Getting beyond denial and obstruction, we can now move toward a conception of power as enacting necessary regulation, while facilitating and subsidising necessary projects.

Climate change forces us to reckon with the failures of our present political models, and engages us in the largest collective problem-solving (figuring) challenge in history. To trial the effectivity of new and old decision-making models is no longer just an option, it is essential. The opportunity that climate change presents to humanity, should therefore not be underestimated. Nor, however, should the danger it invites. We cannot afford to let our democratic institutions deteriorate further and invite autocracy, technocracy and corporatocracy to take the helm. Even now, big industrial conglomerates are plotting to turn climate change into yet another cash crop. Dicey geoengineering schemes, green-washed infrastructure, climate-resistant supercrops and their attendant pesticides and fertilizers, would only make things worse, while growing scarcity would drive up monopolists’ profits, tightening the vicious cycle. Not to mention that climate change causes conflict, and the weapons and petrochemical industries have no qualms to meet the demands. In short, if there is not a legitimate redistribution of decision-making power, putting the fate of our planet back in our hands, we leave it to those least interested in properly dealing with it. Under conditions of ecological collapse and climate instability, the wider implications of our choices become harder to ignore. As the causal feedback loops strengthen, it is a mere matter of time before the collective dimensions of our lives will begin to overpower individual aspects. Exigency will claim agency. The negative consequences of our choices as individuals will become more intractable, and our personal decision-making agency increasingly subsumed under the demands of collective action: a comforting thought under good, inclusive governance, a disconcerting one under the present arrangement. The stakes are high. The possible outcomes, are, as Buckminster Fuller famously pointed out: Utopia or Oblivion. We opt for utopia.

Bard Institute for the Revival of Democracy through Sortition •