Perspective: Is Climate Change “too hot” for democracy to handle? 

by Narayan Gopinathan, Climate Cabinet Volunteer  

Between 1996 and 1998, eight Texas utilities polled their customers to determine what energy options they preferred to meet future needs. They used a novel method of polling called deliberative polling, used to determine informed public opinion. They found that customers preferred investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency to additional investments in fossil fuels. This exercise in democracy set the stage for a major shift in Texas energy policy: the enactment of a renewable portfolio standard. 

Climate change is often and rightly described as a crisis of democracy. Politicians look to the next election cycle, and can ignore the long-term impacts of climate change. For this reason, some argue that the democratic system of governance is incapable of protecting the planet. For example, planetary scientist James Lovelock, likening the fight against climate change to a major war, has argued that “it may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.” (Hickman 2010)

Author Rebecca Willis, who wrote a beautiful book on climate change and democracy, does not agree with this view. I don’t either. Democracy is an essential component of any strategy to meet the climate crisis. 

Much has been written about the ability of dictators to maintain power by controlling fossil fuels. These include Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman, and others, who funnel profits from fossil fuels into wars. China, despite its leadership in vehicle electrification, continues to build coal power plants in 2022. Even in cases where coal power is not economical, provincial politicians are assessed by China’s central government based on economic performance, so they invest in coal power plants to inflate GDP. This is a key example of perverse political incentives in a non-democratic system of governance. (Jakob and Stekel)

Having followed climate politics around the world, I have noticed that democracies are much more capable of developing climate change policies, even when many political economy factors might favor inaction. For example, Canada is a country which has historically relied on oil exports for its economy. As a cold country, it is one of the few countries in the world which could benefit from a bit of warming – in fact a country level analysis of the social cost of carbon found that it is negative for Canada (Ricke, et al.). Despite that, Canada has implemented a national carbon pricing system and a coal phaseout, and despite continued tension around oil resource development, has enshrined a 2050 net zero target into legislation. This is because voters know that measures to protect and stabilize the global climate are in all of our collective interests. (Government of Canada)

This trend is not limited to rich countries. For example, Nigeria, a poor, oil-exporting republic which is vulnerable to climate change and with other forms of insecurity, has passed a comprehensive law on climate change to get to net zero emissions by 2060. The law provides that the government shall set up five-year carbon budgets in the context of a national climate change action plan, with the aim of achieving net zero emissions by 2060. (Lo 2021)

America is the exception that proves the rule. America has consistently failed at a federal level to develop climate change policies that are anywhere near commensurate with the scale of the problem. Even the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, the biggest step Congress has taken to addressing the climate crisis, underscores this failure, as the bill provides funding but does not set limits on emissions or tax pollution. It is America’s anti-democratic institutions that have led to this problem. The Electoral College has led two anti-climate presidents to be elected against the popular vote. And the Senate has failed to pass climate change policies because of its small state bias and filibuster rules, even as such measures have passed the House of Representatives. (From 2022)

However, regardless of the success that has happened in democratic republics, the fact remains that no country has passed or implemented comprehensive climate legislation on a scale commensurate with the scale of the problem. The fact remains that making the targets of the Paris Agreement requires making changes at an unprecedented speed and scale across all reaches of society. 

One other solution posited by Willis is deliberative democracy. Under deliberative democracy, citizens are selected randomly to participate in assemblies. Random selection leads to a representative sample of society. Conversely, in an elected legislature with single-member districts, minority political viewpoints may be unrepresented. For this reason, deliberative democracy can lead to a more honest assessment of public sentiment. They would not replace electoral democracy, but supplement it, as an advisory body — just as it did when Texas utilities polled their customers and used the results to kickstart the clean energy economy in Texas with the passage of a renewable portfolio standard.

In a country like the United States, which has a long tradition of democracy hampered by anti-democratic institutions, democratic engagement by citizens is essential for climate solutions. Democratic engagement goes beyond voting. It can include calling and canvassing voters for climate initiatives and candidates, contacting elected representatives, showing up to public hearings, and even running for office. With 500,000 local and state elected officials across the US, there are ample opportunities to get involved, step up and lead. 

In conclusion, democracy is essential for climate solutions. Climate solutions are broadly popular across the political spectrum in the US. To pass these key reforms, we need more democracy. The crisis of democracy is the crisis of not enough democracy, not too much. To quote Greta Thunberg, “democracy is the most precious thing that we have, and we must not risk that.” 

Narayan Gopinathan is a PhD student at UCLA’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability and a volunteer with Climate Cabinet. He did his bachelor’s at UC Berkeley and his masters degree at the University of British Columbia. He focuses on solutions to climate change related to phaseouts of fossil fuel technologies such as coal power plants and diesel trucks and buses, and finding the best replacements. 


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