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Is democracy capable of solving climate change?

13 April 2012 1 comment

In order to answer question of whether or not democracy is capable of solving the climate change issue, there are many components that must be unpacked and addressed.  First must be a discussion of what is meant by solving climate change.  There are numerous options that span the spectrum from complete mitigation, to resilience, to full adaptation, all of which depend upon both the temporal and spatial scales at which solutions are being sought.  Second, the goals of solving climate change vary widely depending upon the group for whom a solution is being sought.  Individuals, communities, nations, corporations, and industries all have preferential outcomes that may come at the direct expense of other groups.  The diverging interests of groups must be openly and evenly discussed if any meaningful solution is to be developed.  The third component is identifying the role (or roles) of government, specifically democracies but more generally government itself, in dealing with the complex nexus of socio-ecological impacts of business decisions.  From the interrogation of these sub-questions, a more comprehensive exploration of democracies capacity for dealing with climate change will emerge.

There are many approaches to solving climate change.  In order to better understand the desired outcomes, it is important to understand the causes and implications of climate change.  Climate change is the result of CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere which causes an increase in the greenhouse effect, resulting in a general warming of the Earth over much shorter time scales than can naturally be accounted for.  While that is the general result, both the largest emitters and the largest impacts are highly concentrated in disparate areas.  This creates a highly uneven pattern of those who are responsible for climate change (i.e. benefit from causing it) are not necessarily those who will incur the most damages from it (i.e. pay for it). This is because CO2 is considered an economic externality, meaning the actual price is not fully represented in the market price.  The 2008 Stern Review on the economics of climate change referred to CO2 as the largest externality of all time. This disarticulation of the costs and benefits of CO2 emissions severely complicates the matter of solving climate change.  It is a global problem that requires everyone to solve, but bears markedly different responsibilities.  How those responsibilities are decided upon is beyond the scope of this essay, suffice it to say, it is a complex problem, in both a temporal and spatial sense.

If we recognize CO2 as the primary driver of climate change, then the obvious way to stop climate change is to stop, or mitigate, CO2 emissions.  Efforts for this have been underway for over two decades now, starting with the recognition of climate change as a problem in the 1980s.  The first actions began in 1992 with the Rio Earth Summit.  In 1997 the Kyoto protocol was signed by the majority of the world and great optimism was abound for meaningful C02 regulation.  The European Union went further by implementing a carbon exchange system to limit its emissions.  While the US has been a primary leader in CO2 emissions, only recently being passed by China, it failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and more recently failed to pass a Carbon Cap and Trade bill, proving its lack of leadership in environmental stewardship.  Mitigation, while undoubtedly an important component for long term climate change management, is unlikely to make a meaningful impact in the near future and much research and debate has progressed to more reaction-based measures, namely adaptation.

In addressing “how to solve climate change”, it is important to understand that there are many differing goals or desired outcomes from managing climate change. The standard dialog for discussing climate change is framed as a debate between Business and Government; a debate between the interests of the Economy and the Environment.  There is a severe disconnect between the interests of business and government.  Business obligations are to maximize shareholders profits.  The government obligations are to maximize the welfare of the population.  It is in business’ interest to take advantage of externalities as it maximizes profits, however this is an example of where the market fails to incorporate the total price of a good, and it becomes the government’s responsibility to create regulations that force the externality to be internalized into the market.  This framing can also be represented as short-term (business) and longer-term (government) interests.

Democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people.  This is equates to majority rule, meaning that the popular opinion is the guiding principle for making rules. However, it occasionally becomes the responsibility of the government to make decisions that serve the long term interests of the country, which may possibly be at odds with the current popular opinion.  This becomes particularly acute when future generations will bear the consequences of current actions, as is the case for climate change.  In order to objectively consider climate change, we must detach ourselves from current interests and weigh the long-term benefits against short-term costs.

It is precisely the responsibility of government to act in the long-term interest of the people.  However, democracy of the people, by the people, for the people, is setup for the good of the people.  Interpretation of “people” becomes vital at this point; “people” may be viewed as the individual or the collective (including future generations).  If “people” is viewed as the individual, then democracy is inherently not setup to deal with long-term questions that span beyond a lifetime.  To make long term changes requires convincing the population that a decision is indeed in their interest, and to do that requires exceptional leadership.  It is leadership that is required to solve the issue of climate change; leadership which is not required nor excluded by democracy.

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Categories: Climate, Musings Tags: ,