Analysis: Politics and climate change – part 1: Can democracy survive climate change?

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People’s Climate March – Washington 2016 (Credit: The Climate Reality Project)

By Alex Diggins

Global warming is one of the most divisive issues of our times. Can democratic institutions survive its turmoil? 

It’s a truth universally acknowledged: as temperatures rise, so do tempers. In Britain, it’s almost a national summer pastime to alternate basting in the sun with booze-fuelled brawling in the streets; especially when, as with this summer, a major sports tournament provided a convenient excuse for both. But it’s a phenomenon that spans borders and cultures as well. A study by researchers at Drexler University, published in the Journal of Urban Health, found that, over a ten-year period, rates of violent crime and disorderly conduct in Philadelphia spiked during hotter weather, even increasing sharply during unseasonably warm winter days. Stratfor, a security consultancy, observed an increase ‘in tempo and intensity of terrorist attacks’ in the Middle East during the month of Ramadan, which usually falls in the summer months – temperatures for which have been unbearably high in the Middle East recently (Kuwait recorded a record-breaking 54 degrees Celsius in 2017).

But to what extent can climate volatility be blamed for political instability? Can recent seismic shifts in the political landscape – from the Arab Spring to the election of Donald Trump – be traced to a warmer, more unstable climate? These questions can perhaps never be answered with any real certainty. But some scientific studies suggest that climate change was a contributing factor in events like the war in Syria: eastern Syria was ravaged by drought from 2007 to 2010, and an estimated 1.5m people fled to the cities where many struggled to get by. Their broiling discontent may well have been a factor in the uprising against Bashir al-Assad which has dragged on for seven years now, killing half a million people and displacing 12m internally and abroad. How much the conflict in Syria is a glimpse of future climate wars remains to be seen; but what is undeniable is that a warming world will put unprecedented, and maybe unbearable, pressure on the social institutions which undergird Western civilisation: democracy, the rule of law and sovereign individual rights.  

To what extent can climate volatility be blamed for political instability?

What then is to be done? It is easy enough to say that such institutions should be strengthened in preparation for a warmer, more uncertain future; that we should shore up our democratic processes as much as our flood defences. But these platitudes having been continually repeated in recent years and have resulted in a continued lack of action. In fact, it appears that globally democracy is in decline. A report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a thinktank, found that, since the financial crisis in 2007-08, 89 countries have regressed in their democratic health and only 27 have improved. The wider question that haunts such findings is: will democracy be sufficient – as a system of governance and as an ideology – to meet the challenges of a radically uncertain 21st Century? Can the ‘least-worst system of government ever devised’, as it has been affectionately termed, cope with a climate-changed world?

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Photo credit: Jasper Van der Mer.

You say tomato, I say deplorable

In a previous article, this blog argued that prominent environmental activists like George Monbiot and Naomi Klein should move away from their conventional home on the Left of politics and make renewed efforts to engage the Right. This move is long overdue and is now urgent. Green issues are too important for their reception to be ghettoised and their broadcast monopolised. The obvious difficulty with this aspiration though is that, across the Western world, politics has grown more polarised. The Pew Research Centre reported in 2017 that there is now a 36% gap between Republican and Democrat voters across 10 political values; in 1994 that figure was only 15%.

The same holds true in the UK: Jonathan Wheatley, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Oxford Brookes University, found that, in the run-up to the 2017 election, “party supporters [had] become far more polarised” and that there was a “gap in the middle […] an ‘empty centre’” that both Conservatives and Labour had yet to win over. Such results can be observed across the world: from the fiercely right-wing government of Victor Orban in Hungary to the imploding Communist regime in Venezuela, the centre ground is being deserted as voters flock to charismatic ideologues clamouring from the political fringes.

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The polarisation of British politics in the 2017 election; the ‘empty centre’. Photo credit: LSE blogs.

In terms of action on climate change, the difficulty with these findings is that the wider the gap between parties, the harder it is for issues to cross the gulf between. Gaining cross-party consensus – even on issues of existential importance like climate change – becomes ever more fraught. The four-year election cycles of the US and UK are notoriously poor at delivering long-term results and maintaining momentum on projects that may outlast the incumbent government. But action on climate change doesn’t just benefit from governments transcending this four-year fixation; it all but requires them to. It needs politicians and leaders to think beyond their own political careers, and even their own lifetimes, and plan for a profoundly different future.  

Across the world the centre ground is being deserted as voters flock to charismatic ideologues clamouring from the political fringes

Or does it? The self-serving survival of politicians is the usual excuse given to explain the sclerotic nature of progress on environmental issues, but this diagnosis is not entirely fair or accurate. Humans are hardwired with animalistic survival instincts, and moments of national crisis or existential threat prove that political partisanship can be put aside to ensure group survival. During WW2, the British put party politics on hold and elected two governments – one to govern a home, and one to fight abroad. It is unlikely that if you asked the average Londoner during the Blitz whether they were planning to vote Liberal or Conservative at the next election that they would know or even care.

To take a more recent example, as this blog has frequently reported, China is now leading on implementing sustainable policies and embedding environmentalism in its policy planning. But such admirable foresight is wedded to an appalling record of human rights abuse and a wide-spread erosion of citizens’ individual sovereignty. Environmentalism, then, does not go unproblematically hand-in-hand with the preservation of democratic ideals. But that should not be a cause for despair. Rather it should be an invitation to seek out and reinforce those institutions which might achieve action on climate change whilst preserving democratic conventions.  

In QANGOS we trust     

The QANGO is a much-maligned beast. Quasi Autonomous Non-Government Organisations – QANGOs to their friends – have reputations as elaborate procrastination exercises. To some extent, this may be justified; successive British governments have pledged to reduce their number, deriding them as a waste of money and undemocratic (as their membership is mostly drawn from the civil service, hence unelected). But, despite their patchy press, QANGOs do offer a form of decision making that is unavailable to governments where short-term political survival is always a concern – that is, in most democratic societies.

Governments most often resemble circus plate-spinners. They inherit certain spinning plates from the previous government and seek to add their own to the mix. The nervous thrill of watching such an act though is that it all might collapse at any moment; leaving the performer, the government, red-faced, and the nation a mound of broken crockery. This balancing act – and the momentum needed to sustain it – is excellent for the day-to-day business of running a country, but awful at achieving ambitious, incremental change. Which is why action of climate change is often one of the first ideas, when governments are pressured, to smash forgotten to the floor.   

Climate change is often one of the first ideas, when governments are pressured, to smash forgotten to the floor

Humble QANGOs, though, mitigate against this forgetfulness. By focusing relentlessly on one particular issue – be it housing, or environmental defence – they go a long way towards ensuring that potential solutions to that issue are embedded deep within public policy before or even despite all those plates coming tumbling down. This maxim is especially true when scaled up to consider the big brother of the QANGO: intergovernmental bodies like the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). By being enmeshed in but also independent of national governments, organisations such as IPCC aim to steer humanity away from the cliff edge of runaway global warming and towards a more sustainable future. Their ability to do this successfully relies precisely on the fact that they advise on policy, not implement it. This impartiality is underlined in their constitution: ‘our assessments are policy-relevant, not policy-prescriptive: they may present projections of future climate change […] but they do not tell policy-makers what actions to take’ (emphasis mine).

By underlining its neutrality, the IPCC gives the impression that it stands above the broil of fractious national politics and ensures its survival beyond the collapse of individual governments. QANGOs and intergovernmental bodies cut across the intuitive tribalism of politics. Therein lies their utility. But they also illustrate another important point: humankind’s capacity to have faith in fictions. A faith which might also help to save the world.

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Is the nation state an antiquated concept in a globally warmed world? Photo credit: Oleh Aleinyk.

Faith in a hyperpower

The historian Yuval Noah Harari argued in his bestselling book Sapiens that humankind owes its success as a species to three factors: language, gossip, and faith. Language allowed us to communicate about the environment and consolidate knowledge: we could pass on messages like ‘there’s a ripe berry bush over that hill’ or ‘don’t go in that valley, hungry lion about’. Gossip brought families together into tribes and communities; it was the thread which wove unrelated individuals together. But it was our capacity for imagination and faith that allowed us to become so spectacularly successful. Shared fictions – or what he terms ‘intra-subjective beliefs’ – are, Harari argues, the most significant indicators which explain homo sapiens’ exponential (and exponentially destructive) success. Importantly, Harari stresses that these collective acts of imagination are not just obvious structures like religions or cults but are in fact the essential underpinnings of our society. Money, the nation-state, human rights – all these are shared fictions, intra-subjective beliefs. Even society itself is a collective act of imagination; it exists nowhere except in the minds of those who profess to belong to it.

This line of argument – that we live by collective faith in imaginary things – is of immense importance when it comes to tackling climate change and preserving democratic institutions. Firstly, an awareness of the fictive nature of these institutions cannot be underestimated. Once we realise that we live within a set of structures – the rule of law, sovereign rights, community –  that are, in their own ways, as illusory and irrational as belief in the Loch Ness monster, then paradoxically we are better prepared to defend them. This is because such a realisation illuminates both their fragility and their resilience. They are fragile in the same way that the myth of the Loch Ness monster is fragile: if enough people stop believing in it, then all credibility and faith is lost.

Even society itself is a collective act of imagination; it exists nowhere except in the minds of those who profess to belong to it

But they are also resilient in exactly the same way: the legend of Loch Ness has persisted despite no proof of its existence, and indeed frequent proof that it was a hoax. Ideas like democracy or human rights operate similarly; like a virus, they are carried within people, but they do not depend on individuals for survival. In the unknowable far future, in a world which may have been altered beyond recognition by climate change, provided someone holds faith in democracy then its potential as a system of government endures.

Climate change is also a shared act of imagination. Its manifestations may be localised and observable – rising sea levels along a coastline, desertification of a riverbed – but it cannot be encompassed, be quantified, in its entirety. The experimental philosopher Timothy Morton coined a term for this phenomenon: the ‘hyperobject’. By his reckoning, climate change is the archetypal hyperobject: a vast object, massively distributed in time and space, which cannot be easily apprehended or grasped. If an orange is an object – easy to touch, taste, see and manipulate; then global oil reserves are a hyperobject – ‘you feel their existence each time you check, while pumping gas, how much their price has risen; you sense there is something to do with oil in the Middle East conflicts, and how it makes you want to debate the hijab’, as Stephen Muecke observes in his review of Morton’s book.   

Morton’s theory has radical implications. As he argues,

The panic and denial and right-wing absurdity about global warming are understandable. Hyperobjects pose numerous threats to individualism, nationalism, anti-intellectualism, racism, speciesism, anthropocentrism, you name it. Possibly even capitalism itself.

These threats are material: the hyperobject of global warming may yet so radically rewrite the face of the planet that humanity struggles to survive. But they are also existential: how to maintain faith in an economic system – capitalism – when it has proved so appalling destructive and self-defeating from a planetary, species-wide standpoint? Other thinkers have begun to take up the challenge of answering these questions. Kate Raworth, an economist at Oxford University, has proposed that our current economic model, based on infinite growth from finite resources and a harbinger of corrosive inequality, is broken. Instead, she claims, to think ‘like a 21st-Century economist’, financial systems should be reimagined so that redistribution, rather than growth, is the driving concern; and capital and resources should be circulated not unthinkingly hoarded and squandered in cycles of boom and bust. By her estimation, humanity’s challenge in the 21st-Century is to ensure we don’t overshoot the planet’s natural resources but also that no-one falls short on life’s essentials. Thus we must strive to live in the ‘doughnut’ of social and planetary boundaries. Hence her thesis’s title ‘Doughnut Economics’.

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The ‘doughnut’ of social and planetary boundaries. Photo credit: Kate Raworth.

It is far too early to tell whether these thinkers’ interventions will affect government policy (though their increasing popularity is a positive sign). But it is nonetheless encouraging that these playful and provocative arguments have traction. Whether we term them hyperobjects, intra-subjective realities or economic systems, shared acts of imagination – climate change, democracy, capitalism – will fashion our futures as much as they characterise our present. And, as fictions, they are fickle, flexible and, above all, open to interpretation. Just as the world in 2118 will look drastically different from how it does in 2018, so too will ideas about how to live within it. The unequal and unsustainable ideologies that still largely govern the world are not written in stone; only in our minds – and they at least offer the possibility of change. 

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4 responses to “Analysis: Politics and climate change – part 1: Can democracy survive climate change?

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