Democracy needs a Copernican revolution to survive climate change

, by Valentin Dupouey

Democracy needs a Copernican revolution to survive climate change
The earth’s resources are finite - achieving recognition of this in our modern democracies demands as big a paradigm shift as the one triggered by Copernicus. Photo by iStock.

When The New Federalist team asked me to write an article about democracy and climate change, excitement came first. Then quickly came despair. The task at hand is to offer a perspective on the single biggest challenge humanity as a whole has faced since the beginning of the industrial era - in one article. In the following lines, I present an overview of the key messages some brilliant and well-informed thinkers are trying to disseminate.

Democracy and climate change: framing the question and setting a discussion ground

I believe this broad framework boils down to three core questions:

1) Can democratic infrastructures react quickly enough to prevent the climate meltdown and societal collapse foreseen by scientists?

2) Can democracy, human rights and the rule of law survive the climate meltdown if it can’t prevent it?

And if, as I increasingly believe, the only solution will be a half-planned, half-forced degrowth:

3) Can democracy accompany degrowth and its societal impacts?

To avoid making this article into a book, and as I still have a tiny glimpse of hope and optimism, I won’t address question two. But just in case: continuously growing population, forced migrations of hundred millions people, considerably constrained economy due to lack of access to primary energy and resources, reduction of the efficiency of food production. No, democracy won’t survive the climate meltdown.

So let’s focus on question one and three. Before I lay down any arguments, I would like to establish a solid ground for our discussion. The following axioms are, I hope, not controversial among our readership:


- Climate and environmental change is happening, one of its most visible effects is global warming, and it is mostly caused by human activity.

- It is starting to and will increasingly have adverse effects on a vast majority of the world population and on the Earth’s ecosystems. If it continues at the current speed, it will create, at a worldwide scale, major social and economic disruptions in less than a generation.

- It must therefore be treated as an emergency and be a top political priority at every decision level, from local to supranational.

- The scientific information and scenario for global warming and environmental change provided by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and similar bodies is accurate with demonstrable validity.

- We must reduce our CO2 (and other greenhouse gas) emissions and reduce the extraction of non-renewable resources, to maintain global warming under 2°C.

Following on from this, you might believe one of the following two scenarios, depending on your level of optimism.

Scenario 1: The Great Decoupling

Technology, regulations and practice change will very soon allow a decoupling of growth and CO2 emissions, and we will be able to continue happily ever after through “green growth”. This decoupling will happen either because we suddenly manage to produce more value with less of the same type of energy and because we manage to upscale renewable energy production at an unprecedented speed (wind and solar energy currently represent around 4% of the world energy mix).

Note that decoupling needs to happen not in relative terms but in absolute terms. We cannot afford our CO2 emissions to rise more slowly than our GDP growth; we need them to decrease while our GDP grows.

The assumption underpinning this scenario is that technology will save us. The 5 pillars of Rifkin’s Third Revolution are the flagship example of such a scenario and particularly deeply rooted in the American way of seeing our future. Rifkin posits that shifting towards renewable energies (1), converting buildings into micro-power plants (2), developing hydrogen as energy storage technology (3), developing smart grids to manage energy (4), and electric, hybrid, and fuel cell based transportation (5) are the five pillars of a revolution towards an economy decoupled from CO2 emissions.

Unfortunately, according to a large share of more serious thinkers about energy and climate policies, this is no more than a factless utopia. One of the main reasons is that the overall resources needed to cover our current energy needs through dispatchable on demand energy supply with intermittent energy sources such as wind power or solar energy are simply not available.

Even more sadly, it seems that the technological utopia has infused our European democracy. The very recently tabled European Climate Law poses as one of its first goals that Europe should be the first continent “where economic growth is decoupled from resource use.” The accompanying Circular Economy Action Plan reasserts the decoupling assumption but also adds the need to shift towards the even more blurry and doubtful concept of ‘regenerative growth model’ - which as yet has no existence in any scientific literature.

If scenario 1 happens, then democracy as we know it is safe. However, with the current state of knowledge about energy, climate and the economy, scenario 1 is the last thing I would count on. Thus, I believe that an affirmative answer to the first of our three core questions, on the grounds of lending our faith to scenario one, is unrealistic.

Scenario 2: Half-forced, half-controlled degrowth

The only assumption needed here is the belief that decoupling cannot happen or will not happen fast enough - which in my opinion is much more likely. We also need to accept that continuous growth in the extraction of fossil energy is neither desirable (because of the climate meltdown) nor even physically possible; there is increasing evidence showing that we are approaching the peak extraction of oil, and that we could be reaching it for other fossil fuels soon.

In this scenario, we will decrease the extraction and use of fossil fuels at a rapid rate. And given that our GDP growth is perfectly correlated to the use of these fossil fuels, a rapid and important decrease in their use will result in a decrease in GDP. In other words: degrowth.

The question is: do we choose it or is it forced upon us? Do we wait until environmental changes are too pressing (for example until they begin to affect food production)? Do we wait until the peak production is passed for oil, gas and coal? Or do we accept that this will happen rather sooner than later and the best chance to survive through it is to anticipate it and control it? Obviously, I believe the latter is the rational answer. However, I am less optimistic regarding the capacity of our democracies to act quickly enough. Embracing actively scenario 2 means engaging in society-wide reflection processes that our democracies never had to deal with in the past.

What does it mean for our democracies?

Scenario 2, which I consider much more likely than scenario 1, is absolutely unspeakable within our current representative elective democracy infrastructures. Modern democracies, and even more so in their ultra-modern short-termist visions, developed around the idea of constant growth which has allowed decision-makers to continuously promise and offer more to a larger share of the population.

Controlled degrowth means being able to say to voters at the next electoral cycle: “If we want to reduce our CO2 emissions, we need to decrease our GDP. Therefore, we won’t promise you more. We will need to decide which needs and desires we want to live without first and which ones we want to safeguard. You can’t have a starter, main dish and dessert anymore. It’s either/or. Which one do you want to keep?”

It is unspeakable at the level of one country but it is even more unthinkable on a global scale. We need to be able to tell a French minimum-wage worker that his lifestyle is not compatible with the planet’s boundaries, and we need to be able to say to a Chinese average citizen that he will never be able to reach the material lifestyle of a French minimum-wage worker.

Can this happen? I don’t know but I want to share a few reflections to help you form your own opinion about the ability of our democracies to act.

- It is the first time since the birth of our thermo-industrial civilisation that we will be confronting planetary limits. Growth has mostly meant getting rid of limits and having an answer to all our desires. For a bit more than 200 years, by increasingly feeding an increasing number of increasingly powerful machines with fossil fuels, we effectively became Supermen and Wonderwomen (with the power to fly, see through space and lift really heavy stuff!). However, this age of constantly breaking limits is coming to an end. We need a societal shift that allows us to accept limits again as part of the equation.

- The biggest challenge, but maybe the one we are the closest to achieving, is to engage a critical share of the population in a meaningful common project, in which the acceptance of limits to growth, and the protection of our climate and the environment, become embedded social norms. However, for that to happen we need a clear vision from decision-makers and politicians. To have a chance to succeed, a project that engages voters and citizens needs to be holistic, anchored in the realities of facts and physics, and, perhaps the most difficult part, it needs to inspire citizens. Reducing public debt and conforming to European rules is not a society project. Decarbonising the economy and reinventing our relationship with the economy and the environment is.

- We will also need to quickly engage in common reflection around the hierarchy of our needs, desires, and freedoms. Do we want to collectively agree to drive smaller and slower cars or do we want to stop eating red meat? Do we want to stop flying very cheaply or do we want to lower by two degrees the temperature in our apartments? This is what ‘accepting limits’ concretely means.

- Resistance will be incredibly strong. Look around you, more than ever we are pushed and encouraged to consume more. Big corporations and marketing have only one goal: to sell more goods, more quickly. Which is in inherent contradiction with the goal we should be agreeing on. From the window in my apartment I can see a big advert billboard. I don’t remember the last time it was not promoting a new SUV car. This literally makes no sense at all. And obviously, corporations don’t have any reason to act in a free market society. The first ones to act will most likely go bankrupt if they are not strongly supported by governments.

- The structure of our elective, representative, Western democracies has brought a generation of wealthy boomers to power. In most Western democracies - with the partial exception of Scandinavian countries - laws are made and decisions are taken by an highly educated, wealthy, old, white, male elite. This elite grew up in a time where the myth of eternal structural growth was still credible and they will die before the effects of a potential collapse are felt too direly - especially by them. This can only result in a constructed worldview completely out of touch to the reality of the limits to growth. Trying to change the overall understanding of growth and physical limits to this generation is almost like an attempt to turn your 75-year-old grandparents into tech-savvy geniuses.

- Our democratic infrastructures, including the media and its impact on democracy, have become incredibly short-termist. This is very obviously one of the main causes of inaction on long-term issues. Asking decision-makers to take decisions that will affect the next generation in 50 years is absurd. These decision-makers won’t be in power anymore, or even dead,and if they are still alive, no one will hold them responsible and accountable for these decisions. This leads me to two conclusions.

First, I think that rejuvenating our democracies is more than even a matter of concrete results and not a matter of principles. Secondly, we urgently need to shift away from the belief that democracy is strictly equal to voting. Deliberative and participatory democracy mechanisms, and in particular selection by lot can offer efficient processes to tackle long-term issues by disconnecting democracy from party politics and the electoral process.

- These new processes should not come as a replacement, but as a complement to our current electoral democratic processes. Drastic changes within the boundaries of our current system such as limiting the number of mandates over time should also be explored.

- It wouldn’t be a proper article for The New Federalist if it didn’t contain a bit of nation state-bashing. Very obviously, the nation state as a level of governance is failing to address the climate crisis. One scary example is that Brazil has full sovereignty in hastening the climate collapse. Head of state Jair Bolsonaro has decided to speed up the deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest which we must keep as intact as possible if we want to keep a glimpse of hope regarding the climate and the environment. And there is absolutely nothing anyone can do in terms of legal action to prevent it because of the all-powerful concept of sovereign nation states.

A paradigm shift

In any case, we are at the beginning of a brand-new humankind-wide experiment: changing the climate on a worldwide scale, in a fossil-fuel based economy reaching the physical limits to growth. Resisting change is the worst possible solution. Resisting change will result in much more violent effects, on climate, on the economy, and on society. At the European level, one of the most reasonable and pragmatic plans on the table is the plan offered by Decarbonise Europe and The Shift Project. It addresses both the need to use less energy, and the need to shift from fossil fuel to non-carbon emitting energy sources. It doesn’t address the necessary paradigm shift at the societal level mainly because it offers solutions that are supposedly fit to our current democratic governance framework.

Beyond these technical and technological solutions, sustainable development, if it even exists, can only be achieved through an overhaul of our democratic governance processes. Managing the commons, which a shared longlasting liveable climate and environment for all ultimately are, requires that we discover new institutional arrangements, new decision-making processes, new ways of keeping all stakeholders accountable of their actions. I’ll leave it to our federalist readers to answer the last question: can federalism, with its unique approach to democracy in an interconnected, globalised world, pave the way for new democracies fit to address the climate crisis?

In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus triggered a fundamental paradigm shift in thinking by placing the sun rather than the earth at the centre of our solar system. Now, every link of our democratic chain, from the local to European level, needs a Copernican revolution of comparable magnitude if it is to successfully reorganise society with a full acknowledgement that our planet has boundaries. Respecting these boundaries must be the top priority for a peaceful and sustainable future for all.

A critique of the concept of decoupling can be found here and a much more in depth understanding of the physics and economics behind the problem can be found here.

For more information about disconnecting democracy from party politics and the electoral process, see David Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections.

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