The Climate Crisis and Politics

‘The climate crisis requires immediate action’. This isn’t the first time you’ve heard somebody express that sentiment: in fact, so common are professions of this kind, you’ve probably heard something pretty similar in the last 24 hours. The fact that we’re subjected to this climate-related echolalia is proof enough that present efforts to slow the creep of climate change are woefully insufficient. What’s not quite so often discussed, however, are the ways in which our political systems – alongside the people who exist within them – are hindering the radical progress which is so sorely needed. In this blog, we’ll take a brief look at just a couple of these.

  1. Democracy

Here’s a potential gold-medalist in the understatement Olympics: ‘democratic politics is not necessarily conducive to long term planning’. Even if we were to make the frankly unfounded assumption that policymakers have the best interests of their constituents at heart, limiting a government to a four- or five-year term inevitably disincentivizes their thinking much further than a half-decade ahead.

In a democratic system, the future is ransomed by the present. The ideal of good governance becomes secondary to the imperative of continual governance: policy makers produce policy so as to be able to continue producing policy, and they do this until they are no longer able to produce policy. Parliaments are the wombats of the institutional world: they have myopia encoded into their DNA.

There are, of course, ways in which these issues might conceivably be resolved. Given that voters hold politicians directly to account, a shift in grassroots priorities tends to precipitate at least a nominal shift in elite action.

If the public were to decide that these myopic, self-serving political norms are now deal breakers – that is, enough to lose a party votes – you’d very swiftly see political figures begin to make more decisive pledges regarding long-term climate action (even at short-term cost).

The problem is, however, that the public conversation regarding issues like climate change has traditionally been dictated (at least in part) by such influential figures – politicians, media barons, business leaders – as stand to lose from meaningful climate reform. The idea of a group who help to set the tone of the public conversation being turned against its own interests by this same public conversation is – when viewed in these terms – not only unlikely, but almost paradoxical. Copyright James Ferguson

  1. Authoritarianism

There are a thousand reasons why the above paragraph should never be used as an argument against democracy: perhaps most aptly, the famous suggestion that democracy is ‘the worst form of Government, except for all of those other forms’.

It’s widely held that authoritarian governments have a theoretical advantage in tackling climate change. The far longer terms of office enjoyed by dictators and autocrats, it’s often hoped, might translate into wider horizons with respect to policy: a government which intends to be in power for 50 years has far more pragmatic incentive to get ahead of long-term issues like climate change.

This argument is highly dubious even on its own vague and theoretical grounds. Governments concerned with their own survival – whether their maximum term-lenth is four years or fourty – are inevitably more concerned with the immediate than the far-off future: a prospective climate-inspired revolution in 2055 is a lot less intimidating than an imminent economy-related uprising in 2022. Whether autocratic or democratic, leaders have incentives to consider the present before expending energy on the future.

It’s for this reason, perhaps, that this ‘climate authoritarian’ argument has remained solely theoretical: there’s not a shred of compelling evidence for its validity in the real world. China – the world’s most prominent autocracy – emits more greenhouse gas than do the rest of the developed world combined, and, despite President Xi Jinping announcing strengthened climate targets in 2020, they continually fail to take climate change seriously. Russia, another nation considered by many to be non-democratic, has been sluggish in its implementation of climate change policy, and has worked to actively undercut international climate efforts. In practical terms, then, it seems the link between autocratic governance and carbon neutrality is non-existent: democracies and dictatorships alike are failing on climate change.

  1. The People

The vast majority of available data will tell you that public attitudes to climate change are ‘improving’ – that is, that we are increasingly coming to understand the gravity of the climate crisis. In March 2019, for example, BEIS Public Attitudes Tracker found that 80% of the UK public were either fairly concerned (45%) or very concerned (35%) regarding climate change.

It’s important to note, however, that when assessed using the only relevant barometer, attitudes to climate change are lagging well behind where they need to be. A thousand polls and censuses mean nothing compared to the following question: ‘are public attitudes to climate change grave enough to force immediate and decisive action from policymakers?’ Given the immediate lack of decisive action from policy makers, it seems fairly clear that the answer is no.

More worrying still, the developed world has a number of reasons to avoid taking decisive action. Firstly, developed countries are unlikely to feel the early effects of the climate crisis as acutely as their developing counterparts. Secondly, and perhaps as a result of this fact, the population of the developed world is less likely to demand immediate climate action: as Arikan and Gunay (2021) found, ‘GDP per capita is negatively correlated with climate change concern’. This perceived lack of urgency in those countries which generally set the tone for the global political debate represents a major blow to the chances of meaningful climate reform.

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