If the unnerving displays of turmoil witnessed in recent years have made one thing clear, it is that two crises currently beguile world politics perhaps more than any others: the crisis of climate change and the crisis of democracy. Scenes of the devastating aftermath of disasters such as hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017 and the 2018 California wildfires, along with the expansion of far-right parties and shrinking support for democratic values and institutions, have shocked countries around the world almost into paralysis. Though nearly always treated separately, the twin crises of climate change and democracy are far from unrelated. Effectively navigating one depends on effectively navigating the other. The world needs more democracy in order to halt climate change, not less; likewise, coping with the current crisis of democracy requires abating climate change.
Putting an end to the climate change crisis depends in no small measure on deepening commitments to democracy. Some skeptics argue that “it is not entirely clear that democracy is up to the challenge of climate change,” and others have even called for a renewed form of eco-authoritarianism to address climate change. Nevertheless, political systems that tend to be more democratic also tend to pursue more aggressive action to combat climate change for at least three reasons. First, because democracies typically place more value on human life than non-democracies, the former are more likely to curtail climate change to protect the lives of their citizens than the latter. Second, democracies allow an open, independent civil society to flourish more so than non-democracies, which lends environmental actors greater opportunity to shape policy. Third, compared with non-democracies, elected officials in democratic regimes are generally accountable to voters and thus have an incentive to confront climate change when voters demand they do so. Statistically, a one-point increase in a country’s score on the Freedom House democracy index is associated with nearly 85 fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions; this relationship largely holds for other indices of democracy as well. Between 2013 and 2014, the highest growth in per capita carbon dioxide emissions occurred in countries like Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, while comparatively more democratic countries like Norway, Japan, Germany, and Uruguay generally saw reductions or no changes at all. Despite the frequent, bizarre refrain that less democratic forms of rule have a greater ability to address climate change, more democratic forms of rule seem to be the ones actually doing so. If the world is to counteract the crisis of climate change, it must do so through democracy.
By the same token, reducing and adapting to climate change enables countries to beat back the tide of undemocratic forces awash in the world. From worsening disasters to economic hardship, and from environmental migration to disease outbreaks, climate change presents an enormous range of shocks and stressors that threaten to undermine the functioning of democracy. Though less extensively studied than the influence of democracy on climate change, new evidence is beginning to surface that suggests the crisis of climate change might also lead countries to become less democratic. For instance, slow-onset impacts of climate change, such as sea-level rise, can exacerbate inequality and multiply social tensions. In 2018, researchers coined the term “climate gentrification” to refer to growing economic and social inequality stoked by the impacts of climate change. As wealthy citizens in places like Miami-Dade County, Florida move to areas less vulnerable to climate change, they oftentimes displace poorer citizens and exacerbate economic inequality as a result. Moreover, this economic inequality almost inevitably breaks along other cleavages like race and ethnicity. In the case of Miami-Dade County, climate gentrification puts yet another accent mark on a history of racist housing patterns dating back to the Jim Crow era. Climate gentrification may be but one example of the many ways in which climate change could undermine democracy. However, it illustrates that resisting any present or future crisis of democracy also demands that countries overcome the crisis of climate change.
Climate change is the defining challenge of our time. It implicates nearly every aspect of the world’s political, economic, and social systems—democracy included. World politics currently stands at a crossroads where the twin crises of climate change and democracy intersect. Yet, rather than simply assume the two have nothing to do with one another—or worse, yield to the pressures of eco-authoritarianism—the world’s states must devise mutually reinforcing responses to both crises that acknowledge climate change and democracy as distinctly political problems. A democratic climate change policy resembles one that does not simply tax carbon but also distributes the dividends to the most vulnerable segments of the population or one that explicitly recognizes and confronts the unequal impacts of climate change, as Canada and Peru have done. Ending climate change depends on democracy, and preserving democracy depends on ending climate change.
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William Kakenmaster is an MSc candidate in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research concerns global environmental politics, including climate change and security, climate change and democracy, and climate change adaptation and resilience. Kakenmaster received a BA in International Studies, summa cum laude, from American University’s School of International Service in 2017.