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Environmentalism has a difficult relationship with democracy – Can climate policy be democratic?

Claims that the planet can only be saved by a radical transformation of society rarely, if ever, state the need to persuade voters of the case for such changes. Consequently, there is no real culture of democracy within the green movement.

According to an article (now removed, but referred to by the Daily Sceptic here) by Eric Heyman published by Deutsche Bank Research,

If we really want to achieve climate neutrality, we need to change our behaviour in all these areas of life. This is simply because there are no adequate cost-effective technologies yet to allow us to maintain our living standards in a carbon-neutral way. That means that carbon prices will have to rise considerably in order to nudge people to change their behaviour. Another (or perhaps supplementary) option is to tighten regulatory law considerably. I know that “eco-dictatorship” is a nasty word. But we may have to ask ourselves the question whether and to what extent we may be willing to accept some kind of eco-dictatorship (in the form of regulatory law) in order to move towards climate neutrality.

Similarly, in an article called ‘Democracy is the planet’s biggest enemy‘, Professor of Politics at Cambridge University, David Runciman flirted with Chinese Communist Party authoritarianism to save the planet…

If electoral democracy is inadequate to the task of addressing climate change, and the task is the most urgent one humanity faces, then other kinds of politics are urgently needed. The most radical alternative of all would be to consider moving beyond democracy altogether. The authoritarian Chinese system has some advantages when it comes to addressing climate change: One-party rule means freedom from electoral cycles and less need for public consultation. Technocratic solutions that put power in the hands of unelected experts could take key decisions out of the hands of voters.

Runciman rules this out as impractical (rather than merely abhorrent) in favour of ‘deliberative democracy’, which could reconcile the putative antagonisms between the interests of young people (and future generations) and older voters, who Runciman believes vote in their own interests rather than in favour of pro-climate policies. But Runciman believes that the young are a single political constituency, who are all aligned behind and spoken for by Greta Thunberg, and who require deep transformations of conventional democratic processes, including extending the vote to children, in order to be properly ‘represented’. This view is as patronising as it is anti-democratic.

Many other candid comments from green activists of all kinds reveal that representative democracy is incompatible with the climate agenda. Below are six facts that show that the green movement has already created an unbridgeable democratic deficit.

1. The cross-party Westminster consensus on climate policy. Since the 2000s, the UK’s major political parties have been marching in lockstep on the climate change agenda. Just five MPs voted against the 2008 Climate Change Act, and the 2019 Net Zero amendment to the Act was debated by MPs for just 90 minutes and passed with no vote. In 2015, the consensus was cemented by the leaders of the leaders of the three largest parties, who signed a pledge put to them by green lobbying organisation, the Green Alliance, to “work together, across party lines, to agree carbon budgets in accordance with the Climate Change Act“. In this way, the cross-party consensus excludes the public, and the public’s interest from policymaking.

2. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Each year since 1995, nearly all of the world’s governments meet to try to negotiate a global climate agreement, under the UNFCCC process, known as Conference of Parties (CoP) meetings. The 2021 COP meeting was held in Glasgow, in the UK. But though countless green NGOs attend, seemingly representing the views of non-governmental ‘stakeholders’, including the world’s poorest people and ‘indigenous peoples’, there is no discussion about the democratic legitimacy of the UNFCCC process and what it intends to achieve. World governments may ultimately strike a deal between themselves, but this will likely only be a ‘deal’ that suits the interests of the financial and political elites, not the world’s population of ordinary people.

3. Net Zero policies. During the Covid pandemic lockdowns, urged on by incentives offered by the UK government, many local governments began imposing restrictions on the use of roads in a number of cities. Known as Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), these restrictions either block the roads, or impose fines on motorists who use them without a permit. Local authorities and mayors are committed to LTNs, Low-Emissions Zones, congestion charging, and other anti-private transport policies despite overwhelmingly negative polling and consultation responses, and have stated their intention to ignore them. Typically local governments are elected on extremely low turnouts, and are dominated by political parties that are part of the cross-party consensus described in point #1, and have accordingly agreed between themselves to put the climate agenda before the voters’ wishes. This means that only new parties can reverse the policies.

4. Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG). In the 2010s, a new system of ‘ethical capitalism’ emerged to replace the earlier fashion for Corporate Social Responsibility, to incorporate deeper commitments to social justice and environmental concerns. ESG has taken a number of forms, including shareholder activism, divestment, and both voluntary and increasingly mandatory financial reporting requirements, supported by governments, their financial ministries, central banks and other financial regulators. One major effect of this has been to push capital investment away from hydrocarbon energy production, for example, by forcing financial institutions to withdraw services to energy companies, helping to trigger the energy supply crisis in Europe and the UK, and causing energy prices to skyrocket. But critics have pointed out that this is governance and regulation by the back door: it turns financial markets and financial institutions into a form of government, which is not subject to democratic control. This gives financial elites — corporations, banks, and large investment funds — extraordinary power over people, that governments used to protect people from.

5. Technocracy. The 2008 UK Climate Change Act created, and required Parliament to take the advice of UK Climate Change Committee (CCC), which would set ‘carbon budgets’, stating how much CO2 the country is allowed to emit in each budget period through to 2050. But in passing this act, and creating a new climate bureaucracy, MPs agreed to defer to this superficially ‘independent’ panel of experts, rather than to represent the interests of their constituents and to scrutinise policies. Though Parliament remains sovereign, in practice this puts many legal obstacles in the way of democratic representation, and creates the opportunity for private interests and undemocratic green campaigning organisation to use the courts to force the government to implement policies that are impractical, and do not serve the public’s interest or wishes. Similarly, the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is conceived of as the ‘scientific consensus’ that drives the UNFCCC process — global climate policymaking. But both the CCC and the IPCC have serious flaws, are not subject to any meaningful oversight, and deference to them creates the possibility of corruption by ideologies and special interests. Although panels of experts might seem like a good idea, science proceeds by debate, so assigning policy-making functions to scientific committees risks turning a scientific institution into a political institution. Evidence-based policy-making soon becomes policy-based evidence-making.

6. The exclusion of non-conforming views from academia, civil society and the media. The climate policy agenda is much more driven by pressure from civil society, academic research and news organisations (all of which often emphasise worst-case scenarios in their commentary) than it is driven by democratic will. And the alignment of these institutions with the climate agenda has arguably been driven by money, power and exclusion, not be debate. Following complaints from green activists about climate sceptics appearing on its news programmes, the BBC committed itself to advancing the green agenda, and refusing airtime to critics of climate policy. Academics who have spoken out against alarmist interpretations of global warming have faced censure, censorship and loss of their jobs. And the many civil society organisations that lobby for green policies turn out to have been founded, or funded wholly or in large part by a small number of “philanthropic” foundations that are committed to climate politics. The effect of this has been to silence researchers, journalists and would-be political campaigners who might take a different view of the green agenda to the organisations that should be the homes of free and independent research and investigation. There is no place within mainstream academic research, news media or third sector organisations for individuals who disagree.

The voter has never been given an opportunity by any of the UK’s political parties to express a view on the climate policy agenda. And it would seem given the evidence above that, if democracy ever has been a consideration in green policy-making, it was an afterthought. It is hard not to conclude that politicians’ major determination is to mitigate democracy rather than global warming.