Climate change poses “an existential challenge” for democratic governments and could lead to more authoritarian rule if efforts to curb global warming founder, fueling a surge in catastrophic impacts from hunger to heatwaves, researchers warned on Tuesday.
Worsening disasters and the resulting societal upheaval could “be used as an excuse for autocratic … regimes to curtail democratic freedoms, as experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic,” warned a report from the nonprofit International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).
But democracies could take steps now to shore up their ability to deal with climate change, from lowering the voting age and making it easier to file class-action lawsuits to tackling disinformation and setting a carbon price, it noted.
“This is the time to be bold, and experiment and rethink,” said Kevin Casas-Zamora, the Costa Rican secretary-general of International IDEA, a Sweden-based intergovernmental organisation that works to strengthen democratic institutions.
As threats from a heating planet grow, “we cannot simply do business as usual with democracy”, said the politician and lawyer.
Eyes off the future
One major challenge for democracies is short-term thinking, with politicians and voters focused on policy that helps them now instead of changes that benefit future generations but can only be pushed through at a political cost, researchers said.
Daniel Lindvall, the report’s lead author, said solving this might require new approaches such as reducing the voting age or allowing future generations a proxy say in decision-making.
Germany’s constitution, for instance, contains a provision guaranteeing the rights of future generations which helped lay the groundwork for a landmark constitutional court ruling in April judging national emissions-cutting plans as insufficient.
Another issue is the amount of fossil-fuel cash influencing politics, with wealthy gas, oil and coal firms dramatically out-spending environmental groups to lobby and sway elections, said Lindvall, a sociologist at Sweden’s Uppsala University.
Democratic states with an influential fossil fuel industry – particularly Australia, the United States and Canada – rank low on climate action indices, scoring even more poorly than authoritarian states like China, the study said.
In the United States, fossil fuel companies spent about $2 billion lobbying on climate change legislation between 2000 and 2016, roughly 10 times the amount used by environmental groups and the renewable energy industry, it noted.
“You don’t want to close off the political process as that’s part of democracy, but you do want to limit the extent to which groups can hijack politics and responses to the climate crisis,” said Casas-Zamora, a former member of Costa Rica’s Presidential Commission for State Reform.
Ask the public
Making greater use of demographically representative citizens’ assemblies is one good way for democracies to craft climate policy that is broadly socially acceptable and removed from excessive lobbying pressure, Casas-Zamora said.
Climate Assembly UK, a national citizens’ assembly held in 2020 to guide British policy on climate action, for instance, was widely praised by parliamentarians who said it was very rare to receive guidance from informed members of the public.
The assembly made pragmatic suggestions, saying it did not support limits on travel – by air, road or other means – but backed higher taxes on frequent and long-distance fliers and called for better public transport.
“Decarbonisation is not something governments do by decree. It’s something society must do by conviction,” said Casas-Zamora. Democracies can build social consensus better than authoritarian systems, he added.
But effective climate action is still being hampered by thorny problems, including widespread disinformation and political polarisation, he noted.
On disinformation, “we’re at a loss”, Casas-Zamora said. “We are still trying to cast for solutions to a problem that has become really an existential problem for democracy.”
An inability to address such issues could pave the way for authoritarian and populist governments, the report warned.
On the other hand, Lindvall said growing disasters and emergencies could “wake people up” to the seriousness of climate change and spur greater cooperation.
But with COVID-19 having provoked more competition than cooperation over limited resources, “unfortunately the evidence is not on the side of the positive developments”, he said.
“We are entering unprecedented times,” he warned.