A decade ago, the writer and scientist James Lovelock despaired that the main obstruction to meaningful action to tackle the climate emergency was democracy itself. “Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being,” he told this newspaper. “I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while”. China’s claim to leadership in global green debates is rooted in the idea that only enlightened dictators can take a long view, overcome entrenched interests and force the required changes in societies. However, eco-authoritarians see democracy through a glass, darkly.
Dealing with humanity’s impact on the planet is not a war to be ended in a decisive victory. It is a constant struggle of adaptation and mitigation. The route lies not in suspending democracy but enhancing it. Time is short. Even reducing greenhouse gas emissions as fast as possible, we can barely keep temperatures below dangerous limits. The moment urgently requires the public to be instilled with a commitment to ecological values and a desire to act in the face of an existential challenge. That is why the UK’s first climate assembly is so important. It involved a group of 100 or so randomly selected UK citizens meeting and discussing with experts how the country should reach net zero emissions by 2050.
Significantly, the group was chosen to be representative of the public – 17% of participants were climate sceptics. The experiment showed that, given time, guidance and plenty of breathing space, ordinary people could get to grips with tough political questions and reach intelligent decisions. The recommendations from the climate assembly, published this week, were radical and plausible. It backed taxing polluters, state ownership to roll out green technology, and bans on climate-unfriendly consumer goods such as petrol cars and gas boilers.
These are all good ideas that need attention, particularly from Boris Johnson’s administration, which, as the Institute for Government warns, has no plan to reach its own net zero climate target despite having written it into law last year. With a political leadership that crows about reneging on international deals, it is hard to see how the UK can play a leading role in global initiatives in the run-up to next year’s UN climate talks in Glasgow. As the atmosphere heats up, the climate is changing. The 10 warmest years in Britain since 1884 have occurred since 2002. Sunbathing in February feels like a canary in the climate coal mine. On the other side of the world, a series of environmental disasters have cascaded into each other, leaving a Californian dystopia smothered in toxic dust from forest fires.
There’s an argument to say that the climate assembly played it safe and that it failed to get to grips with the spectacularly profitable industries which are founded on a fundamental climate injustice. That may be true. But the assembly presents a political foil to the prime minister. Mr Johnson’s shtick is to persuade people with hot feelings rather than hard facts, knowing that emotions shape an evaluation of rational argument. Whenever he is in trouble, he returns to this form of politics.
Democracy must be about respectful discussion, not just voting. The climate assembly was set up by six parliamentary select committees in response to demands from the green campaign group Extinction Rebellion, which regrettably rejected its recommendations as “too timid”. Parliamentary sovereignty needs to be better grounded in the people and buttressed by deliberative debate.
We need to slow down and understand more. Politics is becoming so complex, fast-paced and data-laden that voters facing difficult choices with little warning increasingly have to resort to rules of thumb to form their responses. Mr Johnson often counterfeits or misrepresents the evidence that cues these reactions, to harden positions and define compromise as defeat. With the climate emergency upon us, we need institutions like citizens’ assemblies, and a politics of mutual respect that can focus on insights and evidence to fit people together rather than pull them apart.