Image: Paddy Sullivan

Is democracy failing in the fight against climate change?

Stefano Cisternino


In the long term, climate change is an existential problem for our species. In the short term, it is an existential threat to democracy. No government has a plan that is compatible with the goal everyone has agreed on, which is to limit the increase in the average global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Faced with this, some scholars — such as James Lovelock — think that one possible solution is eco-authoritarianism, i.e. putting democracy on hold in order to find a solution to the climate crisis.

Authoritarianism vs. Democracy

Historically, authoritarian states have not fared any better. A recent study by the V-Dem Institute of the University of Gothenburg showed that autocratic regimes lag far behind climate action. Despite the considerable flaws in our democratic systems, the alternatives crumble under any kind of close scrutiny. It is hard not to agree with Churchill’s summary that ‘democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

We may be seduced by Xi Jinping’s confident promise to make China carbon-neutral by 2060, but the truth is that democracies, on average, do better at tackling climate change and complying with international environmental agreements. The Climate Change Performance Index 2020, which measures the climate protection performance of 57 countries and the European Union, responsible for more than 90 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, sees 9 democracies in the top 10 places. China is ranked 27th.

Democratic systems can mobilize important resources against climate change. These include the free flow of information, the ability of society to hold politicians to account, and ultimately, the increased fairness and legitimacy of public policies. These strengths are, of course, matched by weaknesses, including the short-termism that often plagues democratic decision-making, the danger of policy incoherence, and the permeability of decision-making to interests opposed to combating climate change, often through the disproportionate role of money in politics. Identifying democracy’s strengths and weaknesses in addressing the climate crisis is crucial to guide reforms that help democracies address complex intergenerational issues.

Global society and the climate crisis

Research consistently shows high levels of concern about climate change, across different ages, demographic groups, and parts of the world. However, this concern is accompanied by a deep distrust of government and political elites and an inability to translate citizens’ priorities into political action. To generalize, we have a cynical but climate-concerned population, frustrated by the inability of politicians to act decisively in the face of growing climate impacts. Although making climate democracy work better does not only mean listening more to the people. It also means listening less to business interests, such as the oil majors and airlines, who have an interest in maintaining a high-carbon status quo. Recently, companies have sued governments under trade laws, claiming that climate policy, passed by democratically elected parliaments, has damaged their profits and is therefore illegal.

Understanding the interconnection between Democracy and Climate Change

In conclusion, our democracies — are they equipped to deal with the climate crisis? As Plato identified more than 2,000 years ago, democracies are vulnerable: their voters may be ignorant, their leaders incompetent, and their laws and policies unstable due to sudden and irrational changes in public opinion.

Climate change plays into the weaknesses of democracy. It is a global problem that can only be managed through global cooperation, but democracies are only accountable to their constituents, which can weaken multilateral efforts and make governments blatantly indifferent to concerns beyond their borders. Tackling climate change requires long-term commitments, but the time horizon of democratic leaders is tied to the election cycle. Democracies also have a large number of ‘vetoes’- i.e. the legal power to unilaterally stop an official action — that can impede policy implementation, from the Yellow Jacket protesters in France to the 34 members of the Senate in the US.

If democracies want to do better in the fight against climate change, they will have to put education at the center. For theorist John Dewey, democracy was a ‘way of life’ in which a community works collectively through an ever-changing landscape of threats, challenges, opportunities, and emergencies. Although he considered it essential, he sometimes frowned upon the ‘machine’ of democracy — its institutional arrangements, formal procedures, and even the act of voting. According to Dewey, the solution to integrate competence and democracy was simple: universal education. According to Dewey, the focus should not be on teaching facts and inculcating values, but on helping students to learn and engage in moral deliberation. The citizens of a democracy must be able to distinguish between experts and charlatans. For this reason, successfully tackling climate change means listening to science. However, in a democracy, expertise is subordinate to the voice of the people. A democratic citizen can say to the expert: ‘You may be right, but who appointed you to lead what we should do?’ The democratic citizen can also say: ‘You may be an expert, but who appointed you as the leader of what I should believe?’

As British politician Michael Gove said during the Brexit campaign, ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. With the help of social media, denialism about expertise seems to be on the rise in the West and is escalating into conspiratorial confabulation. No government can provide solutions if its citizens are unable or unwilling to recognise them. No government can be more rational or compassionate than its citizens. The solution to climate change will not depend on abandoning or embracing democracy. It will depend on political leadership and citizens accepting the need for change. See climate change not as something that can be solved by experts, nor through individual sacrifices — but through negotiating a new kind of social contract between people and the state.


Article published in Uttryck Magazine:



Stefano Cisternino

I am an environmental journalist and Junior Europroject Officer specialised in eco-education. I write about geopolitics and environmental issues