Factories, such as the Baykalsk Pulp and Paper Mill, have contributed significantly to water pollution in Russia. via Wikimendia 

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

With the election of Donald Trump as President in 2016, and recent setbacks for political parties supporting aggressive action on climate change in Australia and Canada, there is grumbling in the ranks of some environmentalists and academics about the efficacy of democracies achieving the goal of mitigating emissions of Greenhouse Gases and climate generally.

Gaia theorist James Lovelock expressed his concern that “Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being.”

“I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war,” said Lovelock. “It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.”

That old curmudgeon, Garrett Hardin (of “The Tragedy of the Commons” fame), believed the world had to relinquish “the freedom to breed, and that very soon.” That was back in 1968. And David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith, in The Climate Challenge and the Failure of Democracy (Praeger 2007) stated their firm belief that “authoritarianism is the natural state of humanity, and it may be better to choose our elites rather than have them imposed.” Battling climate change is warfare, and “humanity will have to trade its liberty to live as it wishes in favor of a system where survival is paramount.”

The moral equivalent of war

This is reminiscent of William James’s famous lecture, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” given at Stanford in 1906 in which he declared that war “is the only force that can discipline a whole community.” According to political pundit, Jonah Goldberg, James, a pacifist, still believed in martial virtues that “must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built.”

So it is no surprise that candidate, now Member of Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated, in support of her “Green New Deal,” that “none of these things are new ideas”; and that World War II provides “a blueprint of doing this before.” (quotes from Jonah Goldberg, “Everyone a Conscript,” National Review).

Compare, on the other hand, James Madison: “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

Climate change: ‘the largest collective action problem in history’

These and other criticisms of democracy are outlined in Daniel J. Fiorino’s short, concise, well-sourced book, Can Democracy Handle Climate Change? (2018). Many of the complaints revolve around governance challenges presented by many environmental and sustainability issues. As to the environment, though, challenges include long time frames, spatial scale crossing political boundaries, economics and demography, complexity and intergenerational conflicts. Climate, of course, is a distinct problem which he deems “the largest collective action problem in history.”

“One cannot touch, feel, or smell climate change, and our understanding of it comes mostly from complex scientific models that reflect a great deal of uncertainty about the rate and magnitude of the change and its effects. As a result, it has been more difficult to establish a political consensus on climate than on more conventional and politically salient environmental problems.”

A social science perspective, not political philosophy

In these pages I have previously reviewed, quite positively, Fiorino’s The New Environmental Regulation in these pages (See “In With The New: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along,” TEF, September/October 2008) and have since become a friend and colleague, now serving on the advisory board of his Center for Environmental Policy at American University. He formed the Center after retiring from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) where he ran several cutting-edge voluntary, collaborative programs pioneering newer models environmental protection. He is a prolific author of serious, academic works.

Dan Fiorino is a social or political scientist and brings to his subject both the strengths and weaknesses of those disciplines, at least as it relates to evaluating democracy and its relationship to climate change. In sum, he comes to the right verdict for reasons that are only partially correct. His is a more instrumental view of democracy although he does, briefly, mention the “normative” reasons for valuing democracy. Nowhere in his book is there any reference to James Madison, The Federalist Papers, Montesquieu, the Magna Carta or the liberty interest for example.

This is a book of social science, not political philosophy. Taking it on its own terms, it reviews all the studies purporting to evaluate, empirically, various forms of governance classified by social scientists around the world, including “flawed democracies”, along with their successes and failures, not just as to climate but other environmental challenges. It also compares them to existing authoritarian regimes and tries to envision what a utopian “ecological authoritarianism” might look like and how it might come into existence (It cannot!).

Fiorino brings a train-load of common sense to this discussion, has mastered the relevant empirical research and defends democracy against the ecological authoritarians, again, despite his seemingly instrumentalist view of that brand of government. I say “seemingly” because he is writing for other social or political scientists who must adhere to something called the “fact-value” distinction and never want to be caught dead making a value, much less an a priori, judgment. You should never, never derive an “ought” from an “is.” Democracy, despite temporary setbacks on the climate front, works best over time. Period. No need to explore broader philosophical matters.

The evidence: democracies do better

Basically, the evidence confirms that “democracies do better on most environmental problems, especially those that affect health and well-being in direct and visible ways.” Early studies examining air and water pollution found “that liberal democracies are more willing to regulate environmental effluents” and “the degree of democracy has an independent positive effect on air quality” (citing Congleton 1997 and Bernauer and Koubi 2009).

Fiorino cites numerous other studies making the same point on forest protection, international environmental cooperation and overall environmental performance.

Can Democracies Handle Climate Change? makes only brief mention concepts such as the rule of law, private property rights or other constitutional constraints on government; but it does point to second-order benefits of these democratic principles. Democracies do a better job of facilitating the free flow of information and encouraging transparency, holding leaders accountable, seeking and disseminating scientific information and fostering policy and technological innovation. In fact, “democracies account better for longer-term issues.”

Fiorino never uses the word “federalism” or “subsidiarity,” but he describes widespread and energetic action on the climate front by “sub-national governments,” i.e., state and local governments. With the election of Mr. Trump, environmentalists are rediscovering the joys of states rights, or so it seems.

Democracies’ ability to generate economic growth and accelerate a nation’s environmental performance up the Environmental Kuznets Curve (“richer is greener”), or EKG, is relegated to a footnote and deserved more discussion at least as to whether or not this is unique to democracies. The EKG posits that the relationship between economic growth and environmental quality is an inverted U-shape according to which environmental conditions deteriorate during early stages of economic growth but begin to improve after a certain threshold of wealth or per capita income is reached as happened in Europe, North American and Japan. This is, in part, a function of democracy and public demand.

The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is whether or not a capitalist-authoritarian China will make a similar transition. See the discussion of this question in my review of Blue Skies Over Beijing: Economic Growth and the Environment in China (“China’s New Urban Cohort: A Journey Up and Down the Kuznets Curve,” TEF, July/August 2017).

Exhibit A, the Soviet Empire’s environmental disaster

Interestingly, the book makes no mention of the lessons learned after the fall of the Soviet Empire and the horrendous environmental disaster left in the aftermath, Exhibit One against authoritarians supposed concern for the environment. Who regulates the government when the government owns or controls everything? It is no accident that John Paul II, who grew up under the Nazis and Communists in Poland, was the first of the modern popes to elevate the environment as a moral concern.

Dan Fiorino brings it all home when he asserts:

“The normative case in favor of democracy is a powerful one…it is hard to dismiss the benefits of a system which protects individual rights against arbitrary or discriminatory action by government; which ensures an open flow of information and opinions through freedoms of speech, press, and assembly; and in which people have a say in decisions that affect them, even if only when it comes to choosing their leaders.”

There is absolutely no evidence that authoritarian regimes do anything significant for the environment or climate change specifically. Moreover, “populist” authoritarians, as found in Venezuela, are viewed by political scientists as having the worst outcomes of any type of political regime. The barriers to better climate mitigation cannot be overcome by “autocratic rule by scientific elites,” writes Fiorino. Indeed, “the democracy critics are pretending that politics does not exist or can be wished away.”

How can I not end this review without quoting Winston Churchill’s famous line that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

G. Tracy Mehan, III is executive director for government affairs at the American Water Works Association, and an adjunct professor at Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University. He may be contacted at tmehan@awwa.org. This article was originally published by the Environmental Law Institute in The Environmental Forum and is republished here with permission. Sub-headings have been added.

G. Tracy Mehan III

G. Tracy Mehan III is a consultant in Arlington, VA, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law. He served as Assistant Administrator for Water at the US EPA in the administration...