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Book Review: Can Democracy Handle Climate Change?

Date:26 November 2020
Can Democracy Handle Climate Change? by Daniel J. Fiorino
Can Democracy Handle Climate Change? by Daniel J. Fiorino

Book Review: Fiorino, Daniel J. Can Democracy Handle Climate Change? Cambridge (UK): Polity Press, 2018.

By: Crystel Hajjar

Climate change presents an unprecedented challenge in terms of both urgency and magnitude. In spite of that, many elected officials seem unwilling or unable to address it, while some even deny it. This has led to a rise of skepticism about democracy’s capacity to handle climate change. But is this skepticism warranted? Can we trust voters to keep our planet habitable for future generations? Or is our democratic system inherently unable to address climate change? For some, it may be tempting to think that eco-authoritarian governments are better suited to do so. After all, progress in climate change mitigation has consistently been slow, as evidenced by continuously rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Daniel Fiorino, Director of the Center for Environmental Policy at American University in Washington, D.C., does not consider eco-authoritarian governments to be more advantageous to a democratic system when it comes to handling climate change. In his 2018 book Can Democracy Handle Climate Change?,  Fiorino’s focus is to defend democracy against those skeptical of this system, in particular in handling mitigation (p. 15), arguing that democracy is the safest institutional structure to lead humanity out of this unprecedented crisis. He builds his argument by examining empirical evidence. He then advocates for the strength of democratic systems and argues that the answer to the problems raised by climate change is, in fact, more democracy, not less. His contribution is timely as the rise of populism puts the general legitimacy of democracy, not just its ability to handle climate change, into question.

In this clearly-written book, Fiorino starts, in chapter one, by showing the reader the enormous governance challenges of climate change. For example: while a governance system is meant to protect people’s immediate needs, climate change has no immediate tangible impacts and harm will mostly occur in the future. More importantly, climate change mitigation requires collaboration between governments, while the scientific complexity provides no clear course of action. Fiorino then moves on to examine scientific evidence in an attempt to answer the question: can democracy handle climate change? The short answer is yes, at least better than other existing alternatives. Using a strictly institutional definition of democracy, Fiorino relies on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index to identify full and flawed democracies (p. 17). These categories refer to how governments score on ‘democratic aspects’, such as electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, and political participation. For example, Scandinavian countries are rated as full democracies whereas the US. and Argentina are considered to be flawed. He then compares (both full and flawed)  democratic countries’ environmental and climate performance to that of hybrid and authoritarian governments. Hybrid regimes refer to countries to score medium-low on the above attributes, such as Turkey and Thailand, while authoritarian regimes have very low scores and include China and Syria. The evidence shows a clear winner. In general, democracies have cleaner water and air and they are on a better track to reach their climate commitments―though whether or not they will reach them is still undetermined (pp. 53 – 61).  

Fiorino seems more interested in defending the track record and potential of democracies, rather than using this criticism to suggest way to improve their performance. This is best illustrated in the second chapter of the book, where the author lays out and refutes the criticism of democracy's ineptitude to deal with climate change. Climate change is on its way to push the world into a perpetual state of emergency, so the democracy skeptics argue, and concentrating the grip of power is the most effective way to quickly and effectively implement climate policies. As we all know, liberal democracies make that inherently difficult since they are centered on prioritizing individual liberties and market primacy. This structure leads to a classic ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation; the common good, in this case, the climate, will always be secondary to individual goods, or so the skeptics’ argument goes. What is, perhaps, the skeptic’s strongest criticism of democracy’s capacity to handle climate change, however, is the strong political power exhibited by pressure groups on governments and their decisions. This is indeed not an empty claim as is evidenced by the strong government subsidies given to fossil fuels companies in full democracies, such as Canada.  Unfortunately, Fiorino does not explicitly respond to these claims. Instead, his strategy is to point out the strength of the democratic system in handling climate change mitigation.

In the third chapter and in an attempt to show the potential of the democratic system, Fiorino reminds the readers that democracies differ and one cannot expect the same climate performance from all states by virtue of being a democracy. Nine factors relevant to the organization of democracies are presented and analyzed to illustrate this point: five are long-term and structural, two are economic and two are short-term and political. For example, while the difference between federal and unitary systems does not seem to have an impact on climate outcomes, parliamentary democracies with two or more veto points tend to adopt fewer policies, which causes problems for climate policies, as they require the implementation of new policies. Consensus-based patterns of governance, such as those found in Nordic countries, and proportional electoral systems are factors that encourage cooperation within the government in general, and have led to greater progress in particular on environmental regulation. Coincidently, these are strong indicators of the robustness of a democracy and constitute an additional point of evidence of the effectiveness of this system in mitigating climate change. On the other hand, high dependency on fossil fuels and high economic inequality are factors that are correlated with slower progress on climate policies. As for the political factors, the short-termism in democracies sometimes can, contrary to what one would expect, be beneficial. A state’s performance can quickly change, following an election for example.  

Regardless of how democracies vary in their institutional structures and short-term political plans, being a democracy is what sets them up for the challenge of tackling climate change. Fiorino rejects justifications for a concentrated grip of power based on this challenge, arguing that a diversity of opinions and perspectives is crucial for successfully addressing climate change, not least because there is no one-fits-all solution for it (p. 99). He also defends the salience of the private sector to the process of transformation. Its innovative potential is of the utmost importance and its capacity and openness to learn are necessary for developing solutions, so he contends. Moreover, democracies are more likely to promote diverse values and frame options according to what is important to the public (p. 102). Finally, democracies, unlike authoritarian regimes, have to be transparent and their governments are held accountable through electoral processes (pp. 46, 47 - 98).

Clear and concise as it is, this book is also a great introduction for the challenges facing governance and decision-making around climate change. For readers familiar with the literature on governance structures, it serves as a reminder of the various strengths of democracies over other forms of governance. But for anyone using a more inclusive definition of democracy, beyond institutional strengths and the ability of governments to work together, something is obviously missing.  While the capacity for innovation and diversity of opinions is rightfully emphasized as a significant advantage of democracies over authoritarian forms of government, the innovation capacity is concentrated in the free market and the private sector. The book does mention in passing the role of civil society and makes the point that stronger democracies have strong public participation (p. 45), but it is not clear why the author ignores the role that bottom-up approaches can play in determining climate policies. He also neglects the role of scientific experts. Scientific advances are essential for successfully addressing climate change and in my view, one has to be able to imagine a form of democracy in which science plays a more important role in advising policy. 

All in all, the book offers a wide range of evidence against skepticism about democracy’s ability to handle climate change. Researchers working on sustainability issues might be familiar with many of these strengths; nevertheless, the book serves as a strong theoretical basis for research as well as pragmatic solutions for governance. However, the reader might be left with unfulfilled expectations. Despite dedicating a book to challenge the assumptions and arguments made by skeptics of democracy’s ability to handle climate change, Fiorino downplays the relevance and importance of such criticism, describing it as distracting and unproductive (pp. 110 - 111). By differentiating between what democracies can do versus what they are actually doing, the book misses an opportunity to examine the factors that prevent democracies from making noticeable progress on climate change, or to offer insights on how to improve their performance. In other words, democracies have all that is structurally necessary to rise to the challenge. Whether or not they will, is still to be determined. 

Crystel Hajjar is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Philosophy. Her research is on Energy Ethics and the relationship between justice and acceptance.

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