Though it is mainly seen as an environmental catastrophe today, climate change will fundamentally alter our political and economic institutions, including popular rule. For democracy to survive, we need to expand it in definition and practice as part of the response to climate change.
When historians review the 21st century, they may well conclude that climate change ran through all the historical, political, and economic shifts of the era. As environmental collapses destabilise economic systems through resource scarcity, alter societies through mass migration, and jeopardise national security through environmental hazards, global political institutions will fundamentally shift.
One of these institutions we hold dear more than most is democracy, defined by US President Abraham Lincoln as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Although we focus on the populist election victories in the West since 2016 as the key challenge to democracy today, there may be a greater one hidden around the corner: what will the impact of climate change be?
A quick prognosis will not yield positive results. The short-term orientation of democratic term limits do not lend themselves to the long-term solutions climate change requires, and the unpalatability of the necessary reforms mean it is safer for democratic politicians to appeal to the rhetoric of climate change, rather than make real progress.
This was seen in Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s proposition that Canada should declare a climate emergency, shortly before he approved the construction of a trans-mountain oil pipeline. For re-election, the bad publicity was preferable to rising fuel costs.
Additionally, solutions must be on a global scale to have a realistic chance of success at fighting climate change. Treaties such as the 2015 Paris Agreement and the European Green Deal, proposed in May 2019 by the incoming European Commission, are an effective way to make sure every country takes action against climate change. In a world were these solutions have to be increasingly globalised, is there any room for the voice of small communities?
These arguments obscure the fact that climate change opposition can empower democratic institutions. For one thing, the notion that elected representatives try to avoid long-term climate policies is only really the case in majoritarian democracies such the UK; adherence to climate change policies is higher in more proportional democracies. This includes the many continental European nations with popular green parties, such as the Dutch GroenLinks who found popularity in elections in 2017.
Moreover, climate change activism is galvanizing young people to more participation in, not disenchantment with, democratic politics. This has led to increased support for presidential candidates in the US with strong climate change policies, and the global school strikes for the climate (we might also expect politicians to respond faster to climate change if the franchise were extended to 16-year-olds).
Additionally, viewing international agreements as globalisation out of the control of the masses is misleading when it comes to climate agreements. They are not imposed on citizens unfairly through unrepresentative organisations, rather people are encouraging states to abide by commitments though the international arena. This is through both traditional political participation and through activism taken to an enormous scale, such as the six to seven million people protesting in late September in a global climate strike. The decision for dozens of US cities to continue adhering to the Paris Climate Agreement, after the American refusal to abide by it in 2017, also reflects the support of communities beyond the state for these arrangements.
From here, we can see democratic principles beginning to shift. States currently employing majoritarian systems of democracy may have to make them more representative if they want to avoid climate disaster, and popular protests play an ever-increasing role in influencing policy makers. Yet while protests are traditionally national affairs in support of state aims, these new climate protests challenge the state system by organising worldwide for common goals and demanding that states adhere to international agreements. These emerging patterns point the way to a future where popular rule does not conform to traditional two-party power structures, nor even to state borders.
Lincoln gave his famous definition during the American Civil War, claiming that Union soldiers died so that democracy “shall not perish from the earth”. Soon we will find ourselves in a similar position, but the people shall no longer be of one nation, but of one, dying, earth. Maintaining democracy in the face of global challenges is far from inevitable, in fact it is unlikely. But maintaining democracy has always been a challenge, and in continuing its maintenance we must widen and deepen the idea of what it could mean to a broader, more global, and fundamentally fairer process.
Ross Twinn is a history student at the London School of Economics.