If Democracy Can't Respond to Climate Change, Should We Abandon Democracy?

The world’s most powerful and influential nations are democracies that have been ineffective (at best) at combating climate change.


Climate change or global warming — no matter what you call it, the Earth has been negatively impacted by human activity. What’s worse is that some of the world’s most powerful and influential nations are democracies that have been ineffective (at best) at combating it. By definition, a democracy is a government with power vested in the people, and yet the well-being of the people has largely been ignored when it comes to making substantial environmental legislation and reforms.

There should be nothing to debate: Just a quick glance at NASA’s climate site gives you all the visuals you need to glean that something must be done and fast. But there have been countless U.N. summits (the next being in Paris at the end of this year), with little progress on how to proceed. The evidence is clear and the ramifications will be catastrophic. Why then is democracy failing us?

[D]emocracy is a government with power vested in the people, and yet the well-being of the people has largely been ignored when it comes to making substantial environmental legislation and reforms.

This question begs another one — do we even have a democracy if it doesn’t represent the best interest of the people? In America, we live by the creed of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but all those rights are in jeopardy if we have food shortages, wildfires, floods, and rising seas. Leaders have been historically slow to address the climate change elephant in the room. As far back as 1965, presidential advisers warned about the dangers of elevated carbon dioxide levels, and the European Commission estimates that the continent lost 90 billion euros in flood damages alone between the years of 1980 and 2011. Still, few proactive measures have been taken by our democratic governments to confront climate change.

Gina McCarthy, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, says the American public needs to take more interest in demanding change on climate policy. 

Beneath the historical facade of democracy lies the messy problem of how to encourage and manage effective representation for tens of millions of people. In America, a country also founded on a deep distrust of government, just a little over half of eligible voters in America show up to the polls. Complicating the issue is the problem of disproportional representation. As Yale's Climate Connections notes about the inequities of the Senate, “584,000 people of Wyoming have the same number of votes as the 37.2 million people of California.”

As Pope Francis stated in his address at the White House, "When it comes to the care of our 'common home,' we are living at a critical moment of history."

The Barack Obama administration has gone so far as to label global warming policy “climate insurance”, and, since the beginning of 2015, has issued statements and initiatives on climate change at an astonishing rate. That said, he is a president whose administration has prioritized global warming — sadly, we can’t expect that world weather patterns will be at the top of the list for his successor. The president also can't go it alone — Congress, big businesses, and the citizenry will all have to take a hard look at their democratic contributions for the future well-being of the nation and the world.

As Pope Francis stated in his address at the White House, "When it comes to the care of our 'common home,' we are living at a critical moment of history." This moment requires we the people to rethink democracy as a global mechanism for enacting policy for and by the planet.

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Daphne Muller is a New York City-based writer who has written for Salon, Ms. Magazine, The Huffington Post, and reviewed books for ELLE and Publishers Weekly. Most recently, she completed a novel and screenplay. You can follow her on Instagram @daphonay and on Twitter @DaphneEMuller.

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