It sometimes appears that politicians’ concerns about global warming overheating is inversely proportional to scientists’ fears. Even committed political players appear increasingly resigned to largely letting things run their course.
They do so even though there are veritable doomsday scenarios associated with global warming, and even the more standard scientific fare predicts a significant decline in the quality of life for the more fortunate nations, and ongoing massive humanitarian disasters for the less fortunate ones.
Climate change is of course politically highly problematic, in that the vast majority of us, including politicians, have really no way of gauging what is really going on, apart from some rudimentary knowledge of science that may completely misinform us on this (or any other science-related) issue. We, as in citizens and their political representatives, are at the mercy of scientists and experts on many key issues, but global warming is among the most important in terms of its potential for damage.
To avoid this damage, many scientists argue, we need to invest massively (a combination of actual investments and forfeited consumption) today to avoid losing vastly more in terms of wealth, comforts, and potentially even human lives down the road.
And of course in some sense scientists have it easy: they are not the ones who have to raise extra revenue or cut spending to ensure that our societal resources are redistributed towards containing global warming. And if global warming is to be halted, there will have to be massive redistribution – potentially also from areas that social democracy holds dear – both within and between societies.
And while at this point the scientific consensus concerning global warming is strong enough to dismiss the few sceptics as kooks, there are some reasonable voices that argue that the effects won’t be as dire or that science will actually deliver the solution like a deus ex machina, in time to stave off disaster. I am highly sceptical of the latter arguments, but I am also ignorant enough scientifically to readily concede that they may be valid.
The way I see it, however, and the way I’d hoped politicians would see it, is that decisive action is an insurance policy. The Stern Review, for example, could be 80% off in its most pessimistic estimates concerning the damage that’ll be inflicted by global warming, and it would still make sense for us even economically to invest massively in containing warming. Even at a 90% rate of error we wouldn’t lose, apart from giving some of our current wealth to future generations.
All considered, the rational way for a scientifically ignorant person appears to be to mitigate the potentially disastrous risks, to pay for an insurance policy that will kick in if things are indeed as dire as the mainstream scientific predictions say they are.
That is why in most frustrated moments I am tempted by those who believe that on climate change specifically even political decision-making should be left to scientists rather than the representatives we elect for the purpose of handling political decisions. To paraphrase General Jack D. Ripper paraphrasing Clemenceau, climate change may be too important to be left to politicians.
One way to look at the issue is therefore as the most crucial test for democracy in the 21st century. For all its numerous benefits, democracy is generally speaking not particularly adept at redistributing resources from the present towards the future. This is clearly not an absolute, democracies do invest, of course. But citizens become notably intolerant when such expenditures visibly detract from their wealth, such as it may be. As experience sadly shows, citizens often do not even invest in insurance for themselves when the risks seem to be far-off.
And as noted above, climate change increasingly looks like an issue that will require at least some levels of sacrifice in terms of societal wealth to avoid larger losses in the long-term. Democracy is always susceptible to tragedy of the commons type of problems, and on climate change (and a host of other environmental issues) this enters into a lethal combination with the generally inept nature of international decision-making, the perpetual temptation to hide one’s own intransigence behind the failures of the collective.
There are of course dangers, in particular security-related concerns, in regard to which citizens gave policy-makers fairly wide latitude in terms of investing common resources. As an issue, the environment appears to be a different type of animal, however. While for many countries, especially in the developed world, potential environmental hazards are greater than the military threats, the former is a type of danger that fails to elicit the type of atavistic fears – and hence the corresponding political support – that military conflict does.
This is not to say that dictatorships perform well in terms of global warming policies. Theoretically, they could, for their lack of accountability would make it easier for them to focus on long-term benefits involving short-term sacrifices. This is in fact the stuff that some more extreme environmentalists’ dreams are made of: a benign global environmentalist dictatorship that saves the planet. Yet in reality you don’t exactly see dictatorships charting best practices on climate change, and for a variety of reasons that’s unlikely change.
But in any case the point is not to assess democracy as compared to other type of political regimes: democracy is clearly the best political system available. Environmentalism is an absolute test of democracy’s abilities, not an assessment of its relative aptitude.
It is customary to end articles of this kind on a note of optimism: we will prevail, I have the solution that nobody else discovered, etc. Unfortunately, the past two decades have offered very little to justify any sense of optimism vis-à-vis the political process. And I most certainly do not have a solution.
Though I consider neither likely, at this point either a scientific breakthrough that solves the issue in one fell swoop or incremental scientific progress that gradually alleviates the problem looks more likely than the grand political paradigm shift that would be needed.
Still, debate matters, because fortunately we are not dealing in absolutes here. It’s not as if it’s all pointless unless we get the progress that would really make the grand difference. Any reductions in emissions matter. Even if little emission reductions can’t avert large-scale damage, they may be sufficient to stave off even larger problems, potentially even a disaster.
Moreover, it is also crucial to understand what the underlying problems are.
If part of the problem is that our political system has not yet learned to handle particular types of problems – in this case major risks well down the road, half a century to a century away – then part of the debate should be to ensure that it learns to deal with them. Because however climate change turns out, similar problems will arise. And the survival of democracy may well depend on how it acquits itself in handling them.