Our climate is in crisis, but authoritarians and technocrats don’t have the answers
What the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report confirmed this month is that the stable climate many of us grew up with is gone and has been replaced by a fundamentally unstable one. Sea levels will almost certainly rise and storms will get more intense. Amid a drumbeat of depressing news and decades of inaction, there’s a sort of folk wisdom emerging that liberal democracy might just be too slow to tackle a problem as urgent and massive as the climate crisis. It’s an enticing vision: that governments can forgo the messy, deliberative work of politics in favour of a benign dictatorship of green technocrats who will get emissions down by brute force. With a punishingly tiny budget of just 400 gigatonnes of CO2 left to make a decent shot of staying below 1.5C of warming, is it time to give something less democratic a try?
It would be easy to look at the longstanding stalemate around climate policy in the US, the world’s second biggest emitter and embattled superpower, as evidence that something more top-down is needed. Yet the failure isn’t one of too much democracy but too little. The US Senate empowers West Virginia’s Joe Manchin – a man elected by fewer than 300,000 people – to block the agenda of a president elected by more than 80 million. Climate-sceptical Republicans, backed by corporate interests, have attempted to gerrymander their way to electoral dominance, halting progressive climate action in its tracks. The fossil fuel industry can engulf lawmakers with lobbyists and virtually unlimited campaign donations to sway their votes. And as the Republican party’s leading lights flirt with authoritarians like Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, comprehensive bipartisan climate action remains a pipe dream.