Has democracy become a threat to the planet?

Unthinkable: Democratic politics have not been good to the environment, but it needn’t be so, says Diarmuid Torney

“The policy consensus on climate change in Ireland is very shallow.” Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

“The policy consensus on climate change in Ireland is very shallow.” Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images


The Paris climate agreement has been hailed as a major step towards tackling rising global temperatures. But achieving its relatively modest targets requires public buy-in, and already populist politicians internationally are threatening to unpick the deal, while countries such as Ireland are looking for special treatment for politically sensitive sectors – in our case agriculture.

The question arises: Is democracy an impediment to tackling global warming? The Earth cannot vote. No government feels wholly responsible for it, and few politicians look at problems that have a longevity beyond the election cycle.

Given the seriousness of the environmental threat, one might wonder is there a case for putting democracy on hold and ramming through the necessary measures under a kind of global state of emergency? After, there’s no point having a democracy if you’re under six feet of water.

Dr Diarmuid Torney, assistant professor in the school of law and government at Dublin City University, believes it’s not a case of either/or. He argues that environmentalists need to find better ways of connecting with the general public, while governments need to provide real leadership.

Torney, whose research focuses on the comparative climate change and energy policies of the European Union, China, and India, is among the speakers at a major interdisciplinary conference in Dublin this week, Climate Science, Disagreement and Policy.

He cites as a possible cause of optimism the Government’s pledge in its Programme for Partnership to establish a National Dialogue on Climate Change. While it “sounds promising”, there is a long way to go. Judging the current state of political opinion, he says: “If anything there is a consensus that Ireland should not play its part in tackling the problem.”

Is democracy an obstacle to tackling climate change?

Diarmuid Torney: “There is nothing in the principle of democracy that is fundamentally contrary to the goal of tackling climate change. Indeed, other democratic states have responded in much more substantial ways to climate change. Denmark and Sweden are good examples.

“However, tackling climate change is more difficult if the voting public do not see it as something that needs to be addressed in the here and now, and if politicians and environmentalists do little to persuade voters that it ought to be addressed.

“Some environmentalists have looked at China with a certain envy because of China’s ability to dictate from the top down. According to this view, if China wants to go green – which, incidentally, it is doing more and faster than many in the West realise – it doesn’t have to deal with the messiness of democratic politics. Some call it ‘green authoritarianism’.

“This view is misguided for two reasons. First, Chinese domestic politics is actually much more complicated than most people realise. It is characterised by the same array of competing interests – including powerful state-owned enterprises in sectors such as oil, coal, and heavy industry – that are deeply resistant to change. The difference is that it plays out behind closed doors. Second, western democracies are not going to go for low-carbon transition without widespread buy-in from the public.”

Action on climate change, though, requires governments to take a long-term view, and also to sacrifice local interests for a greater good. So doesn’t electoral politics work against the goals of environmentalism?

“In one sense this is correct, but it need not be so. We tend to think that people’s interests are short term and local, but there is no inherent reason why interests and values could not be made to align better with the longer term and the so-called greater good.

“Last year’s marriage-equality campaign shows that societal values can change in significant and arguably unexpected ways.

“However, the foundations of democratic politics look increasingly shaky. From Trump in the US to Nigel Farage in the UK and Marine Le Pen in France, voters are turning away from established political parties, and many are disengaging from the political process altogether. This is all deeply problematic from the perspective of tackling climate change.

“There is no free-market, small-government solution to climate change. Whether you believe the solution to climate lies in shifting investment decisions by putting a price on carbon, as economists suggest, or changing societal values in more fundamental ways, none of this can be achieved by the kinds of politics being espoused by the likes of Trump, Farage or Le Pen.”

To what extent is there a policy consensus in Ireland on climate change?

“The policy consensus on climate change in Ireland is very shallow. There is a broad consensus in Ireland – Danny Healy-Rae notwithstanding – that climate change is happening, is caused by humans and we should do something about it.

“Given that a majority of US Republican politicians seem to believe climate change is a hoax despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, perhaps we should be grateful for small mercies. However, consensus evaporates as soon as discussion turns to what Ireland’s role should look like.

“How can this be changed? We need a more engaged national conversation that talks about climate change as more than just distant and long term. In fact, there are various ways in which acting on climate change can reap other shorter-term benefits. Walking and cycling more and eating less red meat aren’t just good for the climate, they are also good for our health. And we need to recognise that there are economic opportunities in low-carbon transition such as new industries and jobs, not just costs.

“The mandate given to the new Citizens’ Assembly to consider Ireland’s role in tackling climate change is to be welcomed, though it risks being drowned out by the focus on the abortion question.”

How much notice should policy makers take to disagreement among climate scientists?

“The disagreement among climate scientists is wildly exaggerated by some who would wish to slow action on climate change. There is consensus among climate scientists that climate change is happening and that it is caused by humans. There is some remaining uncertainty over exactly the magnitude of projected changes in global temperatures and how that will influence our weather patterns and other potential impacts such as sea level rise, but we know that there will be impacts and that those impacts will be exacerbated if we fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions radically.

“Some people argue on this basis that we should adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach, but this to me is deeply misguided. Think about a scenario where you are about to cross a road. Would you walk out without first looking left and right? There is a chance that you will be fine, but there is also a chance that you will be seriously injured or killed.

“With climate change, we cannot predict the future with certainty, but we know from climate science that one possible future is a world of irreversible and abrupt climate change, with massive social and economic impacts and dislocations. Even if we cannot be 100 per cent sure what the magnitude of future climate impacts will be, the prudent policy approach is to insure against possible disaster by quickly and substantially reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.”

Dr Diarmuid Torney is speaking at the research conference When Experts Disagree on Thursday, November 10th, jointly organised by UCD’s school of philosophy and Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. http://whenexpertsdisagree.ucd.ie/

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