Does the urgency of the climate change debate demand that we give up on democracy? The answer seems to be yes – at least in the minds of some academics.

Exhibit A is a call last month to criminalise climate change denial. Lawrence Torcello, a philosopher at the University of Rochester, in New York, argued in The Conversation that “We have good reason to consider the funding of climate denial to be criminally and morally negligent.” Ideally, he says, “all activities of the climate deniers who receive funding as part of a sustained campaign to undermine the public’s understanding of scientific consensus.”

The inspiration for Dr Torcello’s proposal is the manslaughter conviction of six Italian scientists and a local defence minister after the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake. That killed 300 people and left nearly 66,000 people homeless. The scientists appeared to acquiesce when a local official reassured the public that there was no danger.  

Climate change is already killing more people than the L’Aquila earthquake, says Dr Torcello. Since there exists a scientific consensus that this is due to anthropogenic global warming, “denialists” deserve to be jailed – especially if they are funding rogue scientists, shills who line their pockets while telling lies for pay.

“What are we to make of those behind the well documented corporate funding of global warming denial? Those who purposefully strive to make sure ‘inexact, incomplete and contradictory information’ is given to the public? I believe we understand them correctly when we know them to be not only corrupt and deceitful, but criminally negligent in their willful disregard for human life. It is time for modern societies to interpret and update their legal systems accordingly.”

Exhibit B is another article in The Conversation co-authored by a professor of law, a professor of education, a professor of philosophy, a leading author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and a lecturer in management, all at Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia. But they are by no means marginal figures. David Griggs has a world reputation as a climate change scientist and was interviewed earlier this month by the leading science journal Nature.

Their approach is gentler. Instead of jailing climate change denialists, they want key figures in business management, law, medicine and education to pass tests in character and virtue before they are licensed to participate in the debate. It’s reminiscent of the working-with-children clearance which people are required to have to screen out potential child abusers. Except this speaking-to-voters clearance would screen out “denialists”.

The academics’ model is the Global Financial Crisis of 2007 and 2008. Had financiers, businessmen and lawyers had been subjected to character-education programs, the GFC would not have occurred. Accordingly, indoctrination in “the virtues of courage, resilience, compassion and integrity” is needed before people are allowed to intervene in the debate.

 “We try to ‘train up’ managers, lawyers and medical professionals to be conscious of codes of ethics and all sorts of rules with, it seems, only some effect. But we don’t seriously attempt to build character capacity in those sectors where the most important and long-term global agendas are at stake.”

Incredibly, no matter how Orwellian it may sound, the academics insist that “global sustainability” is at risk unless governments implement “education, testing and licensing for character”:

“Some will say virtue cannot be assessed or that the process is oppressive, but that remains to be seen. Character regulation, in itself, appears to us as a fundamental sustainable development goal. It is perhaps the only one that will truly make a difference in the time we have left to act.”

Whichever side you are on in the climate change debate, surely you must find these schemes for stifling debate, by threats of jail or character tests, alarming. Neither proposal has a snowball’s chance in hell of being implemented, but they give an insight into the disdain that some academics have for the democratic process.

In a healthy democracy, a character test is already in place. It is administered at regular intervals, carefully regulated, and regularly updated. It’s called an election. Voters are already choosing the people who will represent them on the basis of their “courage, resilience, compassion and integrity”. Democracy is not a perfect system, but it has been better at protecting human rights than government by technocrats. While mitigating climate change is clearly an important issue, it is not more important than the life-and-death issues which voters tackle in every election — like whether to go to war, whether to grant human rights to minority groups, or whether to legalise abortion and euthanasia.

In a democracy, policies are debated before the electorate. The side with the best argued policies wins the election. If the policies fail, their supporters will be booted out at the next election. It is a protracted and often painful process, but it produces the goods.

The harebrained scheme cooked up by the Monash academics is characteristic of sceptics of democracy. More than 2,000 years ago Plato said that the ideal state should be run by Guardians distinguished by their wisdom and virtue. He viewed democracies, which were messy and easily manipulated by unscrupulous politicians, with contempt and fear.

History shows that democratic governments are bad at planning for the long-term good of their nations, although somehow they nearly always muddle their way through, as Alexis de Tocqueville showed in his classic analysis of American democracy. But the years of muddling can be nerve-wracking; there will be calls for the firm hands of aristocrats to take control.

Climate change is precisely the kind of protracted crisis that democracies approach in a fumbling, bumbling fashion. But in the end, they survive. As David Runciman points out in his recent book, The Confidence trap: A history of democracy in crisis from World War I to the present, democracies bury their aristocratic alternatives. The Victorian legal historian Henry Maine, he recalls, also despaired of democracy, writing: “The gradual establishment of the masses in power is the blackest omen for all legislation founded on scientific opinion, which requires tension of mind to understand it and self-denial to submit to it.“ However, says Runciman:

… this is hard to square with the evidence of the twentieth century. Western democracies promoted scientific achievement and technological advance; their publics more or less happily submitted to the advantages these brought. It was autocracies that ended up stifling science, because they couldn’t adapt to accommodate its benefits. Autocratic regimes are the worst polluters and the greatest squanderers of natural resources. Over time democracies make far better use of their resources because they are far more resourceful.

What these two essays in The Conversation show is that climate change debate is more than a dispute over whether global warming is anthropogenic or one episode in a history of natural variation. It is also a dispute about the ability of democracies to function effectively. It’s ironic that the academic aristocrats who claim to think long-term about climate take such a short-term view of the wisdom of voters.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.