Athens Democracy Forum: Local Forces Are Leading the Way in the Global Warming Crisis

This article is from a special report on the Athens Democracy Forum, which gathered experts last week in the Greek capital to discuss global issues.

Moderator: Liz Alderman, chief European business correspondent, The New York Times

Participants: Ann Florini, professor of practice, Arizona State University, and fellow, New America Political Reform Program; Daniel Lindvall, senior researcher, Climate Change Leadership Initiative, Uppsala University; Michael Oppenheimer, Albert G. Milbank professor of geosciences and international affairs and director, Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment, Princeton University

The Democracy in a Hotter Time symposium was supported by the Climate & Democracy Initiative and Arizona State University. Excerpts from the panel discussion have been edited and condensed.

LIZ ALDERMAN Michael, let me start with you. Are our democratic institutions really fit for addressing the urgency of climate change?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER As far as I can tell, no institutions are exactly fit for this purpose right now. To my mind, the most troubling part of what we’re seeing is that the interval between extreme events — like extreme heat or hurricanes in some cases, or coastal flooding, or inland flooding — those intervals are shrinking. It means we have less and less time to adapt. Just as one example, the high-watermark, the flooding that occurs once every hundred years at a given coastal location, is converging, at many locations, to be an annual event by the middle of this century.

What happens when that kind of flood occurs, say, even every 20 or 10 years? There is no such thing as recovery in that situation. And what we’re seeing instead of governments responding to risk — rather than responding to the disaster that happens when you don’t prepare for risk — is governments are not stepping up, they’re not adapting to what they know is going to happen, and it is happening. They’re not very good at planning for recovery after a disaster. So we’re in a situation where one of the key services that governments provide — protection of life and limb — is not happening the way it should.

ALDERMAN And how do we get around that? Ann, you have worked to foster democratic rejuvenation in climate policy and practice. What solution are you pushing to improve the democratic processes around this?

ANN FLORINI I think a major part of the solution is to stop looking at the central governments all the time. That is not necessarily where the important action is. The reason we are pulling together the notions of responding to the climate emergency and responding to the democratic emergency as a single unit is, in a situation this complex, where we’re dealing with the impacts of climate change, there’s no way for any central authority to be able to cope. What you need is to create the space for citizen self-organization on a massive scale.

There have been a number of experiments on local communities governing their common resources. What they don’t have now is the information. Because of a whole bunch of historical factors over the last several decades, in democracies, we don’t have the habits of citizen engagement outside the electoral process that we used to have. And so it’s in those areas where you can really start to see potential for change.

DANIEL LINDVALL I would say, collectively, this is the largest challenge to democracy and the endurance of democracy that we’ve ever seen. We are entering into uncharted territory. We don’t know exactly how democracies will react, how humans will react to this. And I think these situations could of course create some kind of window of opportunity when people could come together, as Ann was talking about, and create some kind of solidarity around the situation. However, I would say, unfortunately, from what we can see from the data on the climate consequences so far, most of these consequences are leading to larger socioeconomic gaps.

The reason for this is that some of those consequences are food insecurity and rising food prices, which we know from history are challenging issues in terms of political stability. Those factors lead, normally, to social unrest and could lead to institutional collapse. So if we can’t deal with food insecurity, I think democracies in some parts of the world will be in danger.

ALDERMAN What all of you have been saying leads to a question that keeps coming up: Are democracies fit for dealing with the urgency of this crisis? There’s a school of thought that basically says no; we actually need to look more toward countries like China, or toward more autocratic regimes.

FLORINI Absolutely not. Autocracy is the worst possible response to the climate emergency, because if you need vocal empowerment, what do autocracies not do? They do not empower citizens. They do not give citizens information to make their own decisions. They do not allow for contestation of ideas about what ought to be done. They may be very good at building a big solar power industry, which is a very significant part of the solution, but it is a small piece of a much larger set of issues.

The idea that an autocracy will have the information systems, flexibility and resilience to deal with the climate emergency for the next several generations, to me, is self-evidently ludicrous. But our current democracies are not ready.

ALDERMANSo I think when people question whether a so-called autocratic model would be more efficient, it’s more of a reference to the fact that, unlike in Western countries, in that other model, we’re not having to deal with two- or four-year election cycles. So is there at all an in-between that you can see?

LINDVALL We did a study where we compared basically all the data we have on climate policy performance of different government systems, and we could see that democracies are performing much better when it comes to adopting more ambitious policies. When it comes to carbon reduction, it’s difficult to say. Because carbon emissions are very tied to economic growth, and that’s beyond the political system, to some extent.

Rolling out renewable energy will have different social, economic and cultural consequences, and you need a government that could get some feedback about where you put your investments and what kind of consequences the policy has, so it can correct itself.

OPPENHEIMER The real problem, as you stated, Liz, is that neither form of government is doing a very good job. We’ve seen big changes in the renewable energy markets, which have partly to do with government subsidies, but partly to do with invention and the coupling of the free market with government. Our own system is doing a medium job on emissions reduction now, and a lousy job on adaptation. We need to get better at both, and quickly.

ALDERMAN How do you explain the continued opposition to climate action by political factions, not only in the U.S. or the U.K., but …?

FLORINI It’s the fossil fuel industry. This is a very, very, very powerful vested interest that has bought its way into the political system on a massive scale. This is not something that can be negotiated, because the other negotiating partner in this is Mother Nature, and Mother Nature doesn’t actually negotiate. And she always has the last word.

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