Fighting Climate Change by Strengthening Global Democracy

A new book on the relationship between democracy and global climate change

In Climate Change and the Future of Democracy (Springer, 2019), Boston University College of General Studies Senior Lecturer R.S. Deese addresses the relationship between democracy and global climate change. Drawing insights from history and the present day, Deese argues that this global problem requires a democratic, global response. He calls for transparency and accountability on a global scale, and he argues that we need to democratize international institutions to face the threat of climate change.

We’ve known that climate change requires global action for a long time now, but international efforts haven’t gotten us very far. Why is that?

Since the 1990s, there have been two major attempts to deal with climate change, the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 and the Paris Agreement of 2015. The effectiveness of both agreements has been thwarted by the lack of serious enforcement mechanisms, and the ability of national governments to back out. In light of this, it’s become clear that any international mechanism to achieve the necessary reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will have to possess the force of law in order to be effective.

Climate change protesters surround a statue, holding signs in French and English: "Stop Climate Crime We Are One," "Stop Ecocide,"
In October of 2018, tens of thousands of demonstrators marched through Paris demanding international action on climate change. Photo by Jeanne Menjoulet via Flickr

Because of those failures, your book argues we need to democratize international institutions to meet the threat of climate change. What does that mean?

In order for law to be accepted as legitimate, it should be arrived at through a democratic process. That means that we need democratic institutions to craft legislation that is applicable to more than one nation. To date the only current example of this is the European Parliament. There are several proposals to create similar democratic institutions on a global scale, but the most widely respected is the call for a UN Parliamentary Assembly. Such an assembly would be directly elected by citizens around the world. That’s going to be difficult to construct, especially when it comes to monitoring the integrity of elections, but I believe it is would provide an indispensable mechanism for regulating industrial greenhouse gas emissions, and building clean energy infrastructure on a global scale.

A story published last year in The Atlantic warned that climate change is already damaging American democracy: “All of these forecasts envision a world in which major disasters weaken states and deepen conflicts, breaking safety nets and alliances alike.” Have you seen major changes on this front, between the time you started the book and the time that it’s published?

The biggest threat to democracy in western societies today is the panic over immigration, and as climate change begins to drive mass migrations we are going to see more political rhetoric that dehumanizes immigrants. The dehumanization of any group of people is corrosive to the foundations of democracy. The recent migrations of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa have generated this politics of dehumanization in Europe, and the flow of refugees from Central America to the United States have generated a violent and inhumane response from the Trump administration. In both of these situations, the political and economic crises that drive mass migrations have been accelerated by climate change. 

The latest U.S. effort on climate change comes in the package of a “Green New Deal.” How effectively does the Green New Deal address the issues you talk about in your book and research?

People have been talking about a “Green New Deal” for over a decade now, but the fact that Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have gone to bat for the idea is wonderful to see. The original New Deal brought electricity to rural areas when private industry alone had failed to do so. A Green New Deal could expand the scale and reach of clean energy infrastructure in the same way. If such a program were implemented on a transnational or even global scale, it would be many times more effective. John Maynard Keynes, whose economic analysis inspired the New Deal, wanted to see a thoroughly integrated global economy after WWII, although many of his proposals were not implemented. As I note in my book, his insights have taken on a new salience as we seek to reshape the global economy in the age of climate change.

Protesters in Manchester demanding an end to Brexit during an October 2017 demonstration. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

You say that as climate change puts nations under extreme stress, they can respond in two ways: by embracing nationalism, or by fostering greater political integration with other democracies around the world. We’re living in a moment where the President of the United States has said openly, “I’m a nationalist” to cheers from supporters. Which direction do you think the world is going right now?

It seems to be going in the direction of atavistic nationalism, but I remain hopeful that a majority of people in democratic countries around the world will push back against this. For example, the support for Brexit in the U.K. has diminished since 2016, and Trump’s extreme nationalism has inspired a passionate and increasingly organized resistance here in the United States.

Why do you think that some people are finding nationalism to be the attractive option?

Economic globalization is frightening to people, and they sense correctly that many of the policies that guide globalization are arrived at by intergovernmental organizations in which citizens have no direct input. As the British journalist George Monbiot put it, “Everything has been globalized except our consent.”  The challenge now is to globalize consent, through the steady expansion of democracy beyond the nation state.

In looking at the history of nationalism, you say the rise of militaristic nationalism has caused extensive environmental destruction and even corrupted science by tying science to the national security state. What are some examples of that?

The first glimpse of this phenomenon in the last century was the First World War. Hysterical nationalism led to a war that turned an entire swath of Western Europe into the desolate and poisoned landscape of No Man’s Land, using every available advance in military technology including chemical weapons. During the Second World War, the drive to create an atomic bomb brought a level of secrecy and militarization to the practice of science that leading physicists such as Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein saw as deeply dangerous at the time. Needless to say, the global nuclear arms race since 1945 has confirmed their worst fears about how nationalism and militarism can distort the practice of science.

You say that the world is marching towards becoming a single global civilization, and there’s no reason to assume that its form of governance will be democratic. What is our best hope of making sure that it is?  

In my view, the smartest thing we can do right now is to strengthen ties among the democratic countries of the world so that they can integrate their efforts to preserve democracy. In the late 1930s, the American journalist Clarence Streit and the French political economist Jean Monnet both advocated a greater integration of democratic societies as a powerful check on the rise of fascism. Their writing and activism helped shape such postwar institutions as NATO and the European Union. I believe that we can still learn from their ideas today as we face the climate crisis and the rise of resurgent nationalism.

R.S. Deese is a senior lecturer at the College of General Studies and a faculty research fellow at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future. Deese is co-organizing a Boston University conference titled “Democracy Beyond the Nation State,” bringing together scholars from around the world to assess the possibility of creating supranational democratic institutions in response to new environmental and social challenges no nation can face alone. In July, Deese will speak at Climate Justice III, an international conference hosted by the Center for United Nations Constitutional Research.