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New Book Explores Whether Democracy Can Handle Climate Change

Flooded suburbs

From wildfires in California to hurricanes in the Carolinas, the recent extreme weather in the United States highlights the threat of climate change. Yet, the Trump administration has been rolling back policies to protect the environment, raising concerns that democratic governments are incapable of responding to the growing danger to the planet.

In his new book, "Can Democracy Handle Climate Change?" published by Polity Books, SPA Distinguished Executive in Residence Dan Fiorino challenges those who are skeptical of democratic countries’ capacity to address climate change.  

“There is a school of thought that protecting the environment is so difficult in a consumer-oriented society that capitalism and democracy are not up to the task, so more authoritarian, top-down regimes are needed to make the hard choices,” says Fiorino, director of the AU Center for Environmental Policy.

Critics of democracies maintain the system is cumbersome and voters are too short-sighted in their thinking. Also, pressure from special interest groups makes it nearly impossible to make substantive change to energy, agriculture, transportation, and land use policies.

Fiorino criticizes these arguments in his book, which was released this summer. He cites research showing that, despite their failure to mitigate the causes of climate change, democratic countries have made more progress than authoritarian ones on environmental issues, including climate change.

“When you have rapid change and a move away from democracy you actually get less attention to environmental issues,” said Fiorino, who indicates that this is the case in Venezuela, Hungary, Poland – and even in the United States. “Authoritarian regimes don’t tend to pay attention to the environment.”

He maintains that democracies are more innovative when it comes to technology, policy and climate governance than autocracies, and that the transparent nature of democracies means citizens can access environmental data, pressure the government to respond, and hold officials accountable. However, Fiorino says more accountable and responsible politics are needed to ensure strong environmental policies.

“You have to have better democracies with people who participate in decisions,” says Fiorino. “Maybe the failure isn’t democracy per se, but distortions in democracy or a failure of participation.”

Fiorino pushes back on climate authoritarianism solutions such as rationing energy, controlling population, and mandating smaller houses. He suggests democracies can instead make progress by promoting energy efficiency, modernizing the electrical grid, and adopting sensible land use policies.

It may be that no form of government can meet the complex and pressing challenge of climate change. Still, democracies may have the advantage.

“Democracies aren’t inherently incapable of dealing with this issue,” says Fiorino. “I hope this book gets people thinking that this is serious problem, but we shouldn’t jump at what appears to be easy solutions or take draconian measures. You can follow sensible policies so long as you move in right direction.” And do we really want to give up the advantages of democracy for the unproven and unlikely claims about authoritarian regimes possibly doing better?

Fiornio is also the author of 2018's A Good Life on a Finite Earth: The Political Economy of Green Growth.