Can democracies beat climate change?

This article is part of the special report The World in 2050.

Dale Jamieson is professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University, and the author of “Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle to Stop Climate Change Failed and What It Means for Our Future” (Oxford University Press, 2014).

NEW YORK — In the West, it is practically an article of faith that democracy is good for whatever ails us: Democracies don’t go to war with each other. They respond better to pandemics. They are uniquely able to protect human rights.

All these claims can be contested, but the supremacy of democracy is perhaps most obviously vulnerable in the fight against climate change.

Since 1992 — when nations promised to stabilize “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous interference with the climate system” — the problem has accelerated. Annual CO2 emissions have increased more than 60 percent, atmospheric concentrations more than 15 percent, and the Earth has warmed more than half a degree centigrade. This has contributed to shrinking Arctic sea ice, rising sea levels, and increasing damage from wildfires and extreme weather events.

As climate change plays a role in a broad range of human tragedies, including pandemics, we know the worst is yet to come. But are we — that is, our democracies — equipped to tackle it?

As Plato identified more than 2,000 years ago, democracies are vulnerable: Their voters can be ignorant, their leaders incompetent, their law and policies unstable due to abrupt and irrational shifts in public opinion.

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