Climate Change: The Antidote To Democracy’s Mid-life Crisis

Richard Roberts
Sep 7, 2018 · 7 min read

Last month, the New York Times published a mammoth article on the early history of US climate politics. ‘In the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989,’ argues the piece’s author, Nathaniel Rich, ‘we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis… During those years, the conditions for success could not have been more favorable.’

This sentence prompted Naomi Klein to pen a fierce rejoinder. ‘On the contrary,’ Klein writes, ‘one could scarcely imagine a more inopportune moment in human evolution for our species to come face to face with the hard truth that the conveniences of modern consumer capitalism were steadily eroding the habitability of the planet. Why? Because the late ’80s was the absolute zenith of the neoliberal crusade, a moment of peak ideological ascendency for the economic and social project that deliberately set out to vilify collective action in the name of liberating “free markets” in every aspect of life.’

Where Rich sees a missed window of opportunity — a brief historical interlude in which the basic science was settled and the fossil fuel lobby hadn’t yet begun to deliberately muddy the waters by funding climate denialists — Klein sees ‘an epic case of historical bad timing.’

Climate scientist James Hansen giving evidence at a US Senate hearing in 1988.

I admire Rich’s reporting, but Klein’s analysis is, to my mind, the more compelling. Climate change is, above all, a political problem that demands political solutions. It requires bold intervention on the part of elected officials to put the long-term interests of society ahead of the short-term interests of the market. Neoliberalism — which, crudely, is the belief that markets know best, governments are congenitally incompetent and “there is no such thing as society” — is therefore fundamentally incapable of delivering effective climate action.

It is testament to the strength and endurance of neoliberalism’s grip on western democracy that so many observers can no longer tell the difference between the two. Imagining a politics where markets are subservient to the will of democratic governments — something which the generations that grew up in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century would have regarded as normal — has become nigh on impossible.

Most democratic governments of the last three decades have lacked the self-confidence to even have a will that is distinguishable from a meek desire to keep the economic gods happy. Out of desperation, a growing number of liberal-minded Westerners have begun to fawn over China’s autocratic regime, impressed by the mere fact that it appears to have the will and power to influence the course of the country’s economic development.

But it’s a mistake to see these contemporary failings of democratic politics as intrinsic to the system. Western democracy is in a bad way right now but its best days may yet be ahead of it. And the climate crisis may, counter-intuitively, be just what’s needed to breathe new life into it.

In his recent book, How Democracy Ends, David Runciman argues that Donald Trump’s election is a sign that ‘western democracy is going through a mid-life crisis.’ Our current predicament is more akin to the 1890s than the 1930s, he writes, comparing the populist rage that swept Donald Trump into the White House in 2016 with the similar spirit that almost saw William Jennings Bryan elected President in 1896.

William Jennings Bryan: he’d have been on Twitter if it had existed.

Bryan’s campaign ‘bore all the hallmarks of future populist assaults on the White House.’ He attacked the political establishment of his own party (Bryan ran as a Democrat). He bypassed the mainstream media, instead publishing his own pamphlets, ‘which often played fast and loose with the truth.’ He derided experts and blamed foreigners for the plight of ordinary Americans.

But there’s one crucial difference between the 1890s and today: ‘early twentieth-century democracy was young.’ It had untapped potential and could assuage populist anger by offering new forms of democratic fulfilment. The franchise was expanded, social safety nets constructed, monopolistic enterprises broken up. In this way, political, social and economic democracy were all massively extended between the 1890s and the 1960s.

(Total war was, alas, also a critical ingredient for this democratic growth spurt. As Runciman writes, ‘no matter what politicians like Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George were able to achieve before 1914 — and in each case, it was substantial — it was nothing compared with what they were able to do in the era of total war. Fighting wars that needed the full commitment of the entire population required a fuller commitment to democracy to justify the effort.’)

Today, on the other hand, there is less room for democracy to grow. What few gains there are left to make from the perspective of political and social democracy look trivial compared with votes for women, state pensions, a National Health Service and the Civil Rights Movement. Consequently, progressive politics has become defensive and nostalgic.

Runciman thinks it unlikely that this mid-life crisis will prove fatal, but nor is he optimistic about the chances of a democratic revival. Rather, he foresees a future in which democracy staggers on from crisis to crisis, surviving but not exactly flourishing.

But this pessimistic view assumes that there is no new frontier for democracy to settle. I disagree. Democracy needs a project — a raison d’ȇtre that’s more inspiring than being the least worst form of government yet discovered. Reversing global warming, it seems to me, fits the bill perfectly.

Climate change represents at least as big and worthy a challenge for democratic governments to tackle as did the injustice of a world where there was no safety net for the weak, the poor, the old and the sick. It is a cause big enough to give western democracy a new lease of life. And, importantly for democracy’s self-esteem, the state has a positive and indispensable role to play.

Next week, I’m off to San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit. Initiated by California Governor Jerry Brown, the Summit is a grand gesture — a rebuke to President Trump for promising to withdraw America from the Paris Agreement.

My hope is that it is more than just an opportunity for politicians to grandstand and CEOs to claim credit for commitments already made. My hope is that it is the birth of a new kind of democratic politics. A politics that puts climate change front and centre, rather than treating it as something we can afford to think about only when everything else is on track. A politics that channels the vision and ambition of the Roosevelts, of William Beveridge and Nye Bevan, of the suffragists and the Civil Rights Movement.

In spite of recent setbacks to sane climate policy in several countries, I believe the timing is good. In the afterglow of this summer’s heatwave, climate denialism is in full-blown retreat. 73% of Americans now accept that global warming is real — and 60% believe it is at least partially caused by human activity. As the burden of death and disruption caused by extreme weather inevitably grows in the years to come, the democratic will to act will only get stronger.

The manifesto for this new democratic movement will contain few, if any, new ideas. Rather, it will organise a familiar set of policies into a coherent programme:

  1. A flat-rate, no-exceptions tax on emissions — possibly linked to a dividend for all citizens, or with revenues used to fund other climate protection measures.
  2. Investment in renewables and low-emission transport infrastructure, which will also create jobs.
  3. Enhanced protections for natural carbon sinks in public hands, and incentives for private landowners to increase the quantity of carbon stored by the trees, plants and soils on their land.
  4. Funding for research into carbon capture and use, energy storage and next generation renewables.
  5. Higher mandatory energy efficiency standards for all new buildings, saving households and businesses money on their energy bills.
  6. Scrappage schemes for petrol and diesel vehicles and money for homeowners and landlords to upgrade the energy efficiency of existing properties.
  7. Investment in climate adaptation and resilience to ensure those most exposed to the impacts of extreme weather — from hurricanes to forest fires — are as well protected as possible.
  8. Public awareness campaigns to promote dietary changes that both reduce emissions and improve health.
  9. Lowering the voting age to 16, as a way of giving greater democratic voice to those who will be most personally affected by the long-term consequences of global warming.

Given the global nature of the climate challenge, international agreements like the Paris deal, or the less-feted but probably more important 2016 Kigali deal to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, do of course have an important role to play. But there’s a case for saying that the climate movement has become overly fixated on international diplomacy.

One lesson eco-warriors could do to learn from Cold Warriors is that the most effective way to influence change beyond your borders is by example, not by exhortation. For sure, the nuclear non-proliferation treaties negotiated between the 1960s and 1980s were worth having. But the most important factor behind the triumph of democratic capitalism over Soviet Communism was that the former led to demonstrably better outcomes for the countries that adopted it.

We should apply the same logic to climate change. Local and national political leaders should focus on showing the world that a zero-emissions economy is superior to a high-emissions economy by building one.

The emergence of global warming as a political issue just as (in Naomi Klein’s words) ‘the global neoliberal revolution went supernova’ was indeed a case of historical bad timing.

Thirty years on, the timing is better. Not because a politics more favourable to climate action has yet emerged, but because neoliberalism, which was full of zeal and confidence in the Thatcher-Reagan era, now looks worn out. 2008 was a body blow; 2016 was the year the heirs to Thatcher and Reagan lost control.

Now there is a void waiting to be filled — room, once again, for democracy to grow. A window of opportunity is opening, not closing. We can’t afford to miss it.


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