Can Democracies Handle Climate Protection?

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Ever since democracies evolved as a form of the state there have been reflections upon the »crisis of democracy.« It constantly has seemed as though the democratic process has been disrupted and that reform is urgently needed. One of the first descriptions of democracy’s alleged flaws, Democracy in America, published by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 and 1840, is pervaded by warnings about the »tyranny of the majority.« One-hundred and forty years later, the political science bestseller written for the Trilateral Commission, The Crisis of Democracy, portrayed the decline of political parties and loss of trust in governments. Today, the literature on the crisis of democracy is almost unmanageably vast.
Crisis analysis is part of the well-established repertoire of countries with democratic constitutions and their public spheres. Currently, we are hearing a new kind of crisis discourse. Democracy as we know it (it is alleged) can’t handle climate protection, or at least not to the extent that is needed. The things that ecological and scientific studies unambiguously have shown to be urgently necessary are not being done quickly enough by democratic governments – or not being done at all. That is at any rate the interpretation.
Instead of finally flipping the big switches that would slow down planetary warming, democracies are wasting their time on trivial stuff. Rather than trying for a touchdown pass, they busy themselves with the question of whether people over 80 should be exempted from Germany’s new law requiring those with older, fossil-fueled heating systems to swap them for new renewable-driven equipment. Every day frustration and disappointment about all this burst forth on the streets of the Federal Republic as protesters use superglue to attach themselves to roads or other objects, forcing police to figure out how to un-stick them.
Given all the past findings that democracy is in a state of crisis, wouldn’t it make sense to relax and take all this hand-wringing with a grain of salt? After all, over the past 200 years democracy has constantly been expanding all over the world. True, setbacks have happened again and again, such that scholars of democracy speak of its wavelike expansion. But, despite all the critiques of democracy, democratic practice has continued to spread. Therefore, let’s freely adopt the British motto: keep calm and carry on. All of this business about climate and democracy… we’ll figure it out.
That would be way off the mark, because climate change – now ever more perceptible –differs qualitatively from all of the challenges that have been rolled up in the crisis discourses to date. The potential end of the conditions that enable human life to persist on this planet demand rapid and resolute action. Quick decisions and their unswerving implementation are the order of the day.

Democracy takes time

At this point we can see where climate protection and democracy come to a parting of the ways. Democracy takes time. The business model of democracy involves patient listening, the negotiation of different interests, the weighing of arguments, and finding compromises that get the most people on board. It doesn’t work when things must be done in a hurry. How is that supposed to chime with the pressure for action that climate change creates?
Worse still, democratic decisions relate mostly to the here and now. The people who live here make decisions predominantly with an eye to the present. The interests of other people in other parts of the world and the interests of future generations don’t come first and foremost in a system that reflects the current interests of the local citizenry in elections.
Doesn’t a glance at authoritarian solutions look appealing? Don’t we need an eco-authoritarianism that will implement a consistent climate policy at long last? Isn’t China the country with the largest capacity for renewable forms of energy? And don’t nearly all solar panels come from there? Wouldn’t it be nice if power lines could be installed without time-consuming citizen participation or if one could simply issue a decree to create a wind park where there was none before?
The British scientist and climate activist James Lovelock talked about the need to put democracy on hold for a while, in order really to get a handle on climate change. Others talk about cockpitism. What they mean is that governments‹ climate policies, just like an airplane’s course, have to be set from the cockpit. The most efficient route will be flown with the aid of scientific knowledge and precise data provided by the on-board instruments.
But then climate protection and the potential of authoritarian institutions are in the same position as Tur Tur in the German children’s book, Jim Knopf und Lukas der Lokomotivführer: There is a fake giant in both. Viewed from afar, it may be that authoritarian institutions expedite climate protection decisions and their implementation. But nothing of the kind can be seen in actual practice.

A free society can make more substantial contributions to climate protection.

Over the past few years, comparative politics research has found solid evidence that the supposed strength in implementation attributed to authoritarian regimes does not hold for climate protection. In fact, those studies have come up with findings that at first glance look paradoxical. Democratic countries have considerably stronger credentials on this score than authoritarian countries do. In addition, the more democratic a country is, the higher-performing it will be when it comes to climate protection. The Scandinavian countries, widely considered to be highly evolved democracies, can be cited as the paradigm cases.
More democracy equals more climate protection? The correlation between the two is not ironclad, but it does make sense, despite all of the previously mentioned weaknesses of democratic regimes. At least three correlations suggest that a free society can make more substantial contributions than any form of eco-authoritarianism.
First, democracies permit freedom of research and free debates about it. The real situation can be investigated and thematized. That makes it possible to criticize authority, shine a light on the interests of lobbyists, and develop alternatives to the political approaches previously tried.
Second, when there is democracy something else becomes possible that virtually never works in authoritarian systems: to correct the path one has embarked upon, switch elites, permit contrary positions to be articulated in public debate and political competition, and reverse decisions already made. The exit from nuclear energy in Germany is the poster child for this virtue of democracy. If we should succeed in reconstructing our ways of living, working, and doing business, we will need a lot more of all these course-reversals.
Third and last, democracies secure the broadest possible social consent, and in so doing they consolidate the political transition toward more climate protection in society. Such a profound project as the socio-ecological transformation that will change everyone’s life cannot be decreed from on high, in the authoritarian way. It must be sustained and supported at the broadest possible level.
All’s well that ends well? So now, after at least democracy’s relatively high performance-level has been confirmed, can we lean back and hope that somehow it will all work out? Unfortunately, no. While it is true that democracies are best suited to manage climate change, it is also the case that much more needs to be done here than we have seen up until now.
Besides isolated reform measures in specific policy areas, we will also have to talk about how democratic procedures might be developed to keep the great transformation on track. In addition to representative democracy, deliberative procedures have proven to be productive in recent years.
Citizens‹ councils have developed remarkably progressive sets of demands in some subfields. Without splitting into factions during their deliberations they often have come up with action plans that match the seriousness of the situation. Differing and sometimes contradictory interests were discussed, negotiated in a transparent process, and finally translated into proposals for action. Examples from Ireland, France, and increasingly Germany too, show that public acceptance of policies negotiated in this way increases.
Thus, good climate policy also presupposes a good policy on democracy. We will achieve greater protection for the climate by way of more democracy rather than less.

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