Dictators Won't Solve Climate Change
To address the climate crisis, we need more democracy, not less.
In the Q&A session after every talk I give on climate change, someone will typically raise a rather uncomfortable question: are democracies, given the short-termist nature of electoral politics, fundamentally incapable of tackling the climate crisis?
This is not a dumb question, and there is no easy answer. Nor is this idea limited to a political fringe. Environmentalist academics with impeccable liberal credentials also occasionally raise the question of whether classic Western liberal democracy isn't up to the job. In their 2014 book, for example, the historians Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway imagined a dystopian future where China's authoritarian political system is better able to manage climate breakdown than our fragile and consumerist Western one.
Earlier this year, Cameron Abadi, an editor at Foreign Policy, tackled the question head-on in an essay provocatively titled “What if Democracy and Climate Mitigation Are Incompatible?” The essence of Abadi’s proposition is that the compromises necessitated by democracy—with competing interests, multiple centers of power, and the harsh realities of keeping voters happy— tend to eliminate the radicalism that would be necessary to meet the urgency of our climate problem.
In Germany, as he writes, "even as the Greens succeeded at joining the national government (having earned a record-breaking 15 percent at the polls), few of the policy specifics found their way into the governing agenda for the next four years." Similarly, while Joe Biden's electoral platform advocated a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035 and full carbon neutrality by 2050, "the central policies intended to achieve those timelines have no realistic chance of passing Congress."
A more academic form of this argument was published in the prestigious American Science Political Review last December. In that paper, Ross Mittiga, a political scientist from the Catholic University of Chile, argues that in emergency situations such as the pandemic or climate change an authoritarian approach to ensure “safety and security” may be legitimate or even necessary. Mittiga is not necessarily cheering on authoritarianism; he explains that "the argument presented here should not be understood as an endorsement of authoritarianism but rather as a warning: should we wish to avoid legitimating authoritarian politics, we must do all we can to prevent emergencies from arising that can only be solved with such means."
But this suggestion that “ecoauthoritarianism” may be the only way to address the urgency of our climate crisis is wrong on both practical and philosophical grounds. Perhaps the most glaring problem for anyone who would advocate for this approach is the fact that authoritarian regimes have had no greater success reducing carbon output than democracies. (The unenviable exception is when this comes about accidentally via economic collapse: North Korea has very low carbon emissions, but that's because energy is in cripplingly short supply.) On the contrary, many authoritarian regimes are oil-exporting states with extremely high domestic carbon emissions and a track record of determined opposition to international agreements to limit climate change. Saudi Arabia and Russia come to mind.
Even if an authoritarian leader did decide to prioritize stopping climate change, there is no guarantee they would succeed. Climate policy is complicated and messy, and those most concerned about it often make considerable mistakes. The Green Party in Germany, for example, has pushed for the country to shut down nuclear power plants—a misguided policy that will increase carbon emissions and contribute to the planet’s warming.
Similarly, new information and technological progress is continually shifting the boundaries of what is possible and what we know. It is not clear where society's resources would be best invested to drive technological change. Is hydrogen going to work? Nuclear fusion? Can we have carbon-free aircraft? No one is sure, and even a fully enlightened autocrat could not possibly make the right choices. All we know is that the situation is complicated, contingent and constantly changing.
This requires systems of political governance that are open and adaptable, where knowledge generated by experts can be challenged, considered and debated with full freedom of expression and no penalties for disagreeing with the prevailing wisdom.
In reality, the problem is not so much an excess of liberal democracy, but a scarcity of it, where narrow special interests like fossil fuels companies are able to exercise undue power. There is little reason to believe that special interests, including the ones threatened by climate mitigation efforts, would have less influence in an authoritarian regime than in an open, democratic one.
Of course, there is also the more fundamental and philosophical reason to oppose ecoauthoritarianism. Any government must have a claim to legitimacy. In a democracy, this legitimacy arises from the consent and participation of the governed. Where would such legitimacy come from in a regime of ecoauthoritarianism?
Perhaps such a regime would derive legitimacy by claiming to represent actors who are not physically present in the current democratic discourse, such as future generations, people in other countries, animals, or even the biosphere itself. But who is to practically represent these interests in government, and how? Power tends to corrupt, and it is naive to believe that a person or party purportedly representing interests such as coral reefs or unborn children would not become self-serving.
So, if ecoauthoritarianism is not the answer, how should we address the climate crisis?
First, democratically-elected parliaments must continue to lock in long-term climate action. Despite the feeling among climate activists that all progress has stalled, there have been reasons for hope in recent years. The UK's Climate Change Act, for example, expressly takes a long-term perspective, mandating successive carbon budgets which trend towards a legally-binding net-zero date of 2050. Numerous other parliaments have either already passed such acts or are in the process of doing so.
If elected governments fail to deliver, properly democratic systems allow freedom to protest, and these extra-parliamentary mobilizations can themselves translate into lasting change. In the UK, after the radical environmental group Extinction Rebellion hit the streets with a mass mobilization campaign in 2018, the tenor of the political conversation quickly changed, and more ambitious climate policies were passed. These include achieving a carbon-free electricity grid by 2035 and stopping sales of fossil-fuelled vehicles by 2030.
Ironically, therefore, it is the exact opposite of authoritarianism—freedom of speech, open debate, protest, and political advocacy—that has the potential to bring about policies to address the climate emergency. This is why it has always been liberal democracies like the UK, France, Germany and Switzerland, and not autocratic states like China or Russia, that have been the leaders in international climate progress. For all their flaws, democracies are good at thinking of the future, while the leaders of autocracies can think only about themselves.
Mark Lynas is the author of several books on climate change, most recently Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency. He is an advisor to Maldives former president Mohamed Nasheed, and a Fellow at the Alliance for Science.