If you’re worried about democracy, climate change won’t make you feel better. For decades now, climate—and before it, the ecological crisis more generally—has been a prime exhibit for those who argue that democracy can’t solve our most pressing problems.
The challenges are legion: climate action requires national commitments to benefit foreigners and present sacrifices for future generations, on the basis of science that, although easily summarized, is complex enough to give narrative hooks to denialists. People simply won’t impose harsh limits on themselves willingly, the story goes, especially not to benefit strangers.
As evidence, democracy-skeptics point to the angry protests against policies raising the costs of fossil fuels, like the gilets jaunes in France or Ecuadorean protests against the end of fuel subsidies. Add to this the rejection or repeal of carbon taxes in places ranging from Australia to Washington state, and the election of virulently anti-environmental presidents in the United States and Brazil, two of the world’s biggest democracies.
In the Financial Times, a reliable barometer of elite opinion, a columnist recently asked, “Can democracy survive without carbon?” His answer: “We are not going to find out. No electorate will vote to decimate its own lifestyle. We can’t blame bad politicians or corporates. It’s us: we will always choose growth over climate.”
Even sympathetic observers on the left can’t help but worry about what a drastic change in material conditions might entail for democracy. In Carbon Democracy, historian Timothy Mitchell argues, “Democratic politics developed, thanks to oil, with a peculiar orientation towards the future; the future was a limitless horizon of growth.” We know now that the horizon is closing.
So are we the problem? What are the prospects for a no-carbon democracy in the twenty-first century?
A Short History of Climate Democracy
The current wave of anxiety about democracy and the environment has plenty of precedent. As modern ecological politics emerged in the 1970s, the political theorist William Ophuls imagined what would happen if economic growth were to come to an end—a common prediction among both radicals and centrists at that time. Ophuls argued that scarcity is the inescapable condition of human life, and politics the inevitable struggle over scant resources. This was why Thomas Hobbes, the first modern political theorist, insisted that an absolute sovereign was necessary to political order: to keep people from one another’s greedy and starving throats. What was distinctive about the modern era, and the mid-twentieth century in particular, was the belief that scarcity could be escaped—that wealth could be made not only abundant but boundless. The ecological crisis seemed a sharp rebuke to that way of thinking and to the political systems that had been built upon it.
An ecologically sustainable future would have to be, Ophuls argued, “more authoritarian” and “less democratic.” Ecological mandarins would take charge to manage common resources appropriately; the ideal ecological ruler was a combination of Plato and Hobbes, with some John Muir welded on—the expertise of the philosopher-king combined with absolute sovereignty, with a grace note of green consciousness.
By the 1980s, however, policy mavens were bullish on a different solution: market environmentalism, which saw the answer to environmental problems not as less growth but more markets, cleverly calibrated to “internalize” industrial “externalities” by building the cost of pollution into the price of resources. (The carbon tax is a version of this idea.) Economists pointed out that the threat posed by chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) pollution to the ozone layer had been solved cheaply and quickly via a market-style system of tradable permits. (It was solved even quicker in Europe by a ban, suggesting the key thing about CFCs was that they weren’t hard to do without or replace.) If it worked for CFCs, the logic went, it would work for carbon. Economic theory, the conventional elite wisdom of the age, clearly indicated that a market solution was the way forward.
Environmental improvement seemed to fit neatly into the end of history; capitalism, democracy, and clean air all could go together, now and forever. The “environmental Kuznets curve” purported to show that pollution increased in the early stages of industrialization then fell as middle-class electorates decided they could afford clean air and water, mirroring the trajectory of economic inequality in economist Simon Kuznets’s optimistic work on long-term income trends. The version of democracy in this thinking was denuded: political scientists tracking democratic progress and “consolidation” included “property rights,” generally denoting a capitalist market system, in their definition. This was not a democracy that might have to challenge capitalist prerogatives, but one axiomatically identified with them.
By the 2000s, it was clear that progress was not occurring nearly fast enough. Climate change was a bigger problem than many had supposed, perhaps even a different kind of problem altogether. Loose-knit “democratic” optimism receded. From the perspective of rational-choice economics, climate change was now cast as a textbook example of a collective action problem: it was in everyone’s shared interest to come to a solution, but it was also in each individual’s interest to free ride—to keep emitting while others cut back. Climate action was a sacrifice that no one would make unless everyone did. And everyone had personal incentives to offload the burden onto other people and, ultimately, future generations.
But rational-choice theory was itself under assault from behavioral economics, which showed that the way we make decisions is anything but rational. From popular books like Freakonomics to quasi-academic works like Nudge by University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler and Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein (who had a stint as head of Barack Obama’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs), this was the new language of human nature for the policy elites of the aughts. Behavioral economics explained the collective action problem in its own way: it wasn’t just that our interests were poorly aligned; rather, we could hardly even understand what our own interests were. “Why Isn’t the Brain Green?” asked a 2009 New York Times Magazine cover story that captured the new zeitgeist. The problem was “automatic biases” that distort cognition. People are attuned to the short term, whereas climate change is a problem spanning centuries. We miscalculate the risks; we react differently to the same policy framed differently—people hate carbon “taxes” but like carbon “offsets.” We don’t like change; we are averse to risk. We have a hard time grasping climate change as a threat, because it isn’t an immediately visible act of violence like war.
Maybe climate change wasn’t the fault of democracy per se, but there was something about the demos—about people themselves, something in our brains—that was unsuited for understanding and dealing with such a problem. It followed that we were unsuited for self-rule in a world defined by complex, long-term problems. People needed to be tricked—“nudged”—into choosing their own best interests. Unspoken but implicit, both here and in rational-choice analysis, was a fundamentally individualist and ahistorical analysis of climate change. It didn’t matter who actually had caused all the carbon emissions, or under which systems of political economy. We humans were ultimately all the same, and the way we were made it very difficult to do anything about processes now in motion.
In recent years blame has migrated from the foolish people or the inherent flaws of democratic institutions to their domination by fossil-fuel companies. The dark money of special interests—and plenty of unashamed daylight money, too—has served to deny climate change, defeat carbon taxes and expansions of renewables, and deregulate industry. This turn to a political history of climate politics has focused on the contingent flaws and misfortunes of the U.S. political process, from the wide-open spigot of political spending to the vicissitudes of White House negotiations in the 1980s—“the decade we almost stopped climate change,” as Nathaniel Rich put it in a sprawling New York Times Magazine article in 2018.
As end-of-the-world catastrophism replaces end-of-history triumphalism, the last four decades of “political” thinking about climate seem to have been hardly political at all. Or, rather, the climate thinking of those decades was a symptom of an anti-politics that then dominated, a politics of ideas (rational-actor theory, behavioral economics) and institutions (the fossil-fuel industries, investment banks, the Democratic Party of Bill Clinton and Robert Rubin) that claimed to be not politics but expertise or science, and worked to quash any politics that went beyond generalized pessimism about human beings and optimism about institutional and technological tinkering.
The elephant in the room in these democracy and climate change narratives is capitalism.
Capitalism is at the heart of the climate challenge. It is premised on indefinite compound growth, which the planet’s systems can’t handle. Every form of capitalism we’ve known has been extractivist, drawing its energy and much of its wealth from the earth in ways that are destructive and non-renewable. And every known form of capitalism has failed to reckon with environmental harms, pollution above all, with greenhouse gas emissions being only the latest and biggest example. Extractivism and pollution are at the heart of conventional environmental economics: they are typically described as issues of “externalities” and “natural capital,” with the usual proposed solution being “full-cost accounting” to incorporate ecological goods and harms into the balance sheets of corporations and consumers. This description converts the problems into technical questions, but since the 2010 defeat of the Waxman-Markey climate bill, it has been clear that even seemingly technical challenges to the political and economic dominance of fossil fuels require mobilized majorities fighting to save their world. Technocracy, that is, doesn’t side-step politics, but ignores it and then gets blindsided by it. The reckoning with indefinite growth is even more basic, and conventional economics has mostly dodged it.
Climate politics has taken place entirely within the period of neoliberal hegemony, in which strong democratic control over the economy was all but impossible to discuss or imagine. The anti-politics of those decades worked to securely encase markets from the wrong kind of political distortion. By curtailing democratic politics and rolling back or leapfrogging democratically imposed constraints on capital—including environmental regulations of the 1970s—neoliberalism has made it harder to address capitalism’s systemic environmental problems.
If we are going to talk about democracy and climate change, then, we also need to talk about democracy and capitalism. But almost all the talk has assumed a democracy that can’t challenge the basic terms of capitalism, or doesn’t need to. Most actual climate politics until very recently has been conducted on the same terms. Up until 2016 it seemed to many observers that neoliberalism had triumphed over democracy; that economics had thoroughly subdued politics. And then politics came roaring back to life.
But a lively politics raises different kinds of hard questions. Can democracy actually defeat, or even contain, capitalism at a time when the former seems to be weakening and the latter growing in strength? And what are likely directions for democracy in a climate-changing world? Arguing that the hot water we’re in is the result of a deeply undemocratic world doesn’t necessarily mean that stronger democracy would make it easy to cool things down. We’ve achieved some clarity about our situation, but at the cost of replacing one world-historical problem (tackling climate change) with two (achieving democracy to tackle climate change). What are the dimensions of this new problem? How are democracy and climate change likely to collide in the years to come?
Blaming Democracy for Climate Change
Let’s start with the oft-made suggestion that vanquishing climate change may mean overriding democracy. The specter of the enlightened despot who governs for the sake of the earth and its creatures—the Plato-Hobbes-Muir hybrid—recurs semi-regularly. The fact that no such regime has ever existed or seems likely to come into being has not stopped academics and journalists from citing over and over the odd scientist who volunteers that democracy may not be up to the task of stopping climate change. Where authoritarian forces do rule, it is not in the name of ecology. China, paradoxically, occupies a double position in this imaginary: on the one hand, it’s said to render U.S. climate action irrelevant on account of its growing and unstoppable emissions; on the other, to exemplify the environmental perks of authoritarianism, with its capacity to build high-speed rail or shut down coal production overnight.
Regardless, democracy isn’t going to go back in the box. In places where it has been practiced for even a few decades it will be hard to undo completely, liberal panic about its demise notwithstanding. It can and does recede and erode, of course. Sometimes, as has happened recently in Rojava and Hong Kong, it is violently repressed. It is under threat around the world—from forces like Bolivia’s racist landholding oligarchs to Turkey’s right-wing nationalist regime.
When it comes to the forces undermining democracy, moreover, we should be less wary of the masses than of the middle-class liberals—the very constituency for the “crisis of democracy” tropes about how people can’t rule themselves. Historically, the middle classes have often been lukewarm on democracy, backing it sometimes but also backing away when the working classes appear too powerful. Recent scholarship suggests that the relationship between capitalism and democracy stems not from some innate structural affinity but rather from the fact that, in capitalist societies, the growing working class presses for democratic reforms, with the trepidatious and unreliable support of the middle class.
What is more likely in many places than straightforward authoritarian rule is the prospect that neoliberalism, which has proved remarkably durable in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, will continue to curtail popular rule. And the preferred solution of neoliberal technocrats is the carbon tax. But carbon taxes have a chicken-and-egg problem: their only real constituency is an alliance of policy experts and friendly capital, and yet it’s hard to imagine capital overall willingly imposing new costs on itself without massive political pressure. Corporations only support a carbon tax when the alternative appears to be something more threatening—say, a Green New Deal. If political pressure for something like that builds, it’s possible to imagine centrists pushing for a carbon tax as a corporation-approved solution—albeit likely at a level far lower than the International Monetary Fund’s proposed $75/ton. (For reference, the average carbon tax worldwide is $8/ton, while the UN has recommended a tax of anywhere between $135/ton and $5,500/ton by 2030.)
In countries where the political agenda is set by the ability to borrow money, meanwhile, a tax on carbon (or fuel) might be imposed from outside, or instituted in response to lenders’ conditions. Ecuador’s recent attempted cuts to fuel subsidies, for example, were an effort by the state to save $1.3 billion a year as part of a $4.2 billion IMF lending package. But the imposition of new costs on people who have already borne the brunt of economic crisis is likely to spur new backlashes: the protests that followed the subsidy cuts forced their reinstatement, just as the gilets jaunes protests against a new fuel tax prompted its abandonment. Seeing these as manifestations of democracy against climate action is ungenerous. They might be that, if protesters come to see their alternatives as austerity on the one hand and environmental destruction on the other. But these are also democratic revolts against neoliberalism and, at least potentially, in favor of something else. The question is whether they can point the way to some less despairing alternative, some form of shared public prosperity.
In fact, an ambitious climate program, proposing to take on major costs for foreigners and future generations (but also to rebuild the U.S. landscape in inclusive and generous ways), is mobilizing activists and attracting candidates in the Democratic primaries. The Green New Deal is a wager that more democracy, rather than less, is the way to tackle climate change, even though we don’t have anything like a perfect democracy yet. The premise is that climate action has to be popular if it’s to succeed politically, which means it has to deliver benefits to people now rather than asking them to sacrifice for the benefit of the future. There is no constituency for green austerity. And you can’t just slip the kinds of changes we need through the back door by executive action—as in the Clean Power Plan—or via legal maneuvering—as in the “sue the bastards” strategy that the big environmental nonprofits have historically pursued.
The Green New Deal suggests that action to cut carbon emissions has to be part of a broader transformation of economy and society—one that tackles the entrenched power of fossil capital and the political actors who have protected it, and addresses the harms they have visited onto the public, especially communities of color and working-class communities. It suggests that public abundance is the way to live well within ecological limits. It aims to build the kind of democracy we need to tackle climate change by way of tackling climate change, in the concrete rather than the abstract.
Leftists who embrace “democracy” tend to treat it as something thicker and more robust than simple majoritarianism—as a call for equality, shared abundance, and mutual recognition; as something we are always striving to achieve, rather than a once-and-for-all set of political procedures. The United States continues to fail as a democracy by many such measures, and climate politics can deepen democracy along these lines or further compromise it.
But there is also a lot to say for thin majoritarianism. If the Supreme Court hadn’t awarded the 2000 election to George W. Bush after he lost the popular vote to Al Gore, international climate negotiations would likely have made more progress, and climate legislation might have passed in the decade that the United States instead sunk into the Iraq War. If the Electoral College hadn’t handed the 2016 election to Trump after he lost the popular vote, maybe the United States wouldn’t be rolling back restrictions on air pollution and carbon emissions at record speed. Even in a highly imperfect democracy, majoritarianism is still power.
Majoritarianism means that you don’t have to change the hearts and minds of everyone in the country; you don’t have to spur a moral transformation all at once. You just have win over a majority of people. And a large majority of people have consistently indicated support for many of the components of a Green New Deal: for a job guarantee; for investment in 100 percent renewable energy; for restoring forests and lands; for investing in public transit; and so on. In a world built by deeply undemocratic forces, where we are trying democratically to force our way to something different, the fact that democracy is not a consensus project is a good thing.
But support in polls is only a first step. Even a successful election is the beginning rather than the end. If democratic demands are often antagonistic to capital’s requirements, and if climate change is a product of capitalism, then democratic action on climate change is likely to be hostile to capital. Certain forms of capital more than others, of course—the fossil-fuel industry will surely fight to the death, while the would-be tycoons of solar and wind will be happy to strike a Green New Deal, albeit presumably one that pumps public money into private R&D rather than taxing capital to build out public services. But enough capital is adjacent to or dependent on fossil fuels that a serious array of forces will line up against any kind of serious effort to displace Big Oil.
The fight against the undemocratic decisions of capital isn’t the only one looming. Majoritarianism doesn’t always mean that whoever wins can make the losers do what they didn’t want to do in the first place. Even if it’s possible to imagine democratic majorities backing public housing and public transportation, what will happen when projects to remake our country of highways and SUVs and detached single-family housing face resistance? Perennial on-the-ground fights over who really controls public lands in the western states—occasionally breaking out in dramatic clashes like the right-wing occupation of the Malheur wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon in early 2016—show there is strong resistance to the idea that Congress, the Supreme Court, or anyone else in Washington has the last word. Sharpening divides between “red” and “blue” jurisdictions, with each denouncing the other’s majorities as illegitimate—gerrymandered, reliant on the Electoral College or disenfranchisement, or, as Trump spuriously insists, marred by “voter fraud”—may mean it will be even harder to make national decisions stick in dissenting states and cities.
The problem of scale is most imposing at the level of the planet. At least thus far in the history of democracy, “rule of the people” has always meant some subset of people, usually marked off by the territorial bounds of the nation-state. Yet climate change notoriously affects people beyond national borders, people not yet born, and nonhumans—none of them part of the “people” who make political decisions. And as we know, climate change is unevenly distributed in both its causes and its effects: worldwide, about 10 percent of the global population is responsible for 50 percent of emissions, while the bottom 50 percent emit about 10 percent, and the latter represent the populations most vulnerable to climate disaster. But we don’t have a world state (whether or not that would be desirable), so a genuinely global democracy is off the table for the foreseeable future.
This means that the majority of people worldwide who might want to curb the profligate consumption of the few at the top have no means by which to make them do so. In particular, the rest of the world can’t hold the United States to account. We are the country with the most to lose from democratic global decision-making, which is why U.S. power has mostly been used to undermine global institutions except where they’re convenient to U.S. interests. Actually existing democracy is stuck with the problem that national subsets of the world tend to make decisions for the rest of it; and within those it is the rich and powerful who hold most sway. That doesn’t mean it’s a world state or bust, though. Whatever levers of power the world’s frontline communities can grab—from lawsuits for climate harms in the home countries of Big Oil, to internationally linked efforts to stop fossil-fuel extraction, to solidaristic programs like the international spending envisioned in Sanders’s version of the Green New Deal—will matter on the margin in capping the power of fossil fuels and making the coming decades less cruelly unequal.
That democratic movements will be movements for climate justice isn’t a given, of course: it’s all too easy to imagine movements within nation-states in more structurally advantageous positions framing “the people” as an ethno-nationalist category and stirring up sentiment against migrants as more climate refugees seek places of safety, or accelerating fossil fuel extraction to fund social programs for the nationally bounded people at the expense of those elsewhere, or investing in green jobs and infrastructure for favored communities while leaving others to face intensifying fires and floods.
But it is also too easy to see climate as a unique crisis. Most democratic decisions affect people outside existing political communities, whether beyond borders or living in the future. Decisions to build highways have deeply shaped patterns of habitation and travel; decisions to undermine unions in one country have effects on global trade and workers around the world. Why does climate change in particular come in for so much handwringing? The climate crisis is a fearsome challenge to politics, yet few suggest that democratic decision-making is impossible in the many other areas where interdependence is vivid. It’s hard not to think, as the philosopher Stephen M. Gardiner suggests in A Perfect Moral Storm, that rehearsing the many reasons that politics “doesn’t work” or “can’t work” in this area can become a form of bad faith that distracts us from the task of trying to confront the crisis with the means we have.
We tend to treat climate change as an entirely different kind of problem, requiring entirely different solutions, when in fact it sheds light on many of the most persistent paradoxes, challenges, and tensions of our already existing politics. At a high level of abstraction, the questions may be existential, but in practice their resolution will involve something between trench warfare and a collective nervous breakdown, passing through the capillaries of every existing institution, at once trapped by them and straining their capacities. We make our own politics, but not as we please.
We should anticipate a long and difficult struggle, replete with recurring fights about what the will of the people is, who the people are, and how that always-contested will ought to be enacted in relation to sticky institutions and stickier infrastructure, footloose capital and unfree people, all in the face of an increasingly unpredictable nature that really does not care about any of these things. That is, unfortunately, what politics looks like these days, even when the stakes are high and clear and the goal is to realize democracy itself. There’s no way out but through.
Alyssa Battistoni is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment and a co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal.
Jedediah Britton-Purdy teaches at Columbia Law School and is the author, most recently, of This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth. He is a member of the editorial board of Dissent.