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An American flag in front of a raging wildfire

Stress Test: Democracy Confronts Climate Change

Gus Speth

Gus Speth

Distinguished Next System Fellow more

Democracy & Governance Environment & Energy

Many climate scientists and others have reached the conclusion that, because we have dithered so long, we now face the prospect of either extreme rates of emission reduction or extreme impacts from global warming and ocean acidification. I fear that we could experience both of these great disruptions, despite all the technological progress now underway and despite the climate action commitments we see outside of Washington.

Major climate impacts are now inevitable. Global temperature has already increased by 1˚C, with huge consequences. Another 0.5˚C is essentially baked in. I think we will easily exceed 2˚C global average warming in this century, and quite possibly more.

Yet these impacts on people and planet will eventually get so bad that drastic measures will become inevitable. One can gauge what must be done then to reduce emissions by examining what should be done now, if governments seriously wanted to halt warming at or below 2˚C. Computer models indicate that to meet the goal of staying below 2˚ warming, the US should now be reducing its GHG emissions somewhere between 7 percent and 15 percent a year, every year between now and mid-century. Such sustained declines are unheard of, and the longer we wait to start, the steeper they must be.

Unprecedented measures must be put in place both to move completely out of fossil fuels by mid-century and also to pursue far-reaching and costly adaptation.

At the now-famous climate conference in Paris in 2015 here is what the dean of climate science, Joachim Schellnhuber, said what must be done: “In order to stay below 2˚C or even 3˚C, we need to have something really disruptive, which I would call an induced implosion of the carbon economy over the next 20-30 years. Otherwise we have no chance of avoiding dangerous, perhaps disastrous, climate change.”

So American governments face a challenge on the scale of mobilizing to win World War II. Perhaps bigger. Unprecedented measures must be put in place both to move completely out of fossil fuels by mid-century and also to pursue far-reaching and costly adaptation.

Can American democracy rise to the climate occasion? Our democracy’s decades long incapacity to deal responsibly with the climate issue is manifest to all. Plainly, American democracy has failed the climate stress test. This incapacity has led many to look for non-democratic means to deal with the challenge. The term “eco-authoritarianism” is creeping around.

Here’s one late-breaking example. Almost a decade ago, President Obama proposed to eliminate fossil subsidies, which one estimate puts at $20 billion a year. If that were done, half of the prospective US oil investment would move from profitable to unprofitable. But don’t wait on the Republican tax “reform” efforts to cut those subsidies.

Rather than jumping to non-democratic means, we should reframe the question, and ask: What democracy could rise successfully to the climate challenge? Because the climate issue is especially wicked—I would say uniquely difficult—answering this revised question will not be easy. Some argue for thoroughgoing deliberative democracy, inclusive and consequential. Many of you are better suited than I to describe a climate capable democracy.

Can American democracy rise to the climate occasion?

But I do think I can describe one part of the answer. Democracy, of course, depends for its success on a great many factors in the social and economic spheres. When economic inequality mocks political equality, democratic progress is difficult. When corporate power dwarfs people power, democratic progress is difficult.

The basic point I wish to make here today is this: beyond our failing democracy, other key features of our current system of political economy war successfully against effective climate action. We can and should strengthen greatly our democratic performance, but as long as that democracy is operating within the context of today’s political economy, it won’t be very successful against climate change.

System change is essential because our climate crisis is deeply rooted in defining features of our current system of political economy:

  • An unquestioning commitment to economic growth at essentially any cost, including the costs of climate disruption;
  • A measure of that growth, GDP, that includes as positives fossil industry growth, the costs of coping with the effects of climate change, and much else;
  • Powerful corporate interests whose overriding objective is to generate profit and grow, including profit from avoiding the costs of the climate change they cause;
  • Markets that systematically fail to recognize those costs unless corrected by government;
  • Government that is both subservient to corporate interests and wedded to GDP growth;
  • Runaway consumerism spurred on endlessly by sophisticated advertising and gross disparities in status and lifestyle; and
  • Social injustice, economic insecurities, and concentrations of wealth so vast that they paralyze effective political action.

The United States will never be able to go far enough, or fast enough, doing the right things on climate, as long as our systemic priorities are ramping up GDP, growing corporate profits, increasing the incomes of the already well-do-do, neglecting the half of America that is just getting by, feeding runaway consumerism, focusing only on the present moment, facilitating great bastions of corporate power, helping abroad only modestly or not at all, and so on.

Making the needed progress on climate change requires an escape from the fetters of today’s system and an urgent transformation to a new—a next—political economy.

System change is essential because our climate crisis is deeply rooted in defining features of our current system of political economy.

So a two-pronged approach is needed—first, rapid deployment of technology and policy measures to reduce GHG emissions and to adapt to changes we cannot forestall. And second, beginning now to seriously change our system of political economy. The good news is that many people are now working on the challenge of systemic transformation. Gar Alperovitz and I have written several books on it, and on our Next System Project website we have posted two dozen models or visions of next system possibilities. See “New Systems: Possibilities and Proposals.”

So, to conclude with a question: to meet with the climate challenge, yes, we desperately need to change our polity, but do we not also need desperately to change our economy and our society and their interactions with the polity—i.e. to move to the next system?

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Gus Speth

Gus Speth

Distinguished Next System Fellow more

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