In early 2009, there was much optimism for climate change policy in the United States and worldwide. US voters had just elected a Democratic President and large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. A fairly strong climate change policy, the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), was working its way through Congress. Passing ACES would pave the way for a strong global treaty in the December United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in Copenhagen.
This optimism had been building up over several years, following a series of major events that put climate change atop the national agenda: Hurricane Katrina, An Inconvenient Truth, The Stern Review, the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the 2006 and 2008 US elections, which swept pro-climate action Democrats into power. These events, combined with the upcoming UNFCCC meeting in Copenhagen, made it seem like the time for action on climate change had finally come.
ACES passed the House of Representatives on 26 June 2009. Then, unfortunately, it died quickly in the Senate. The Senate has more difficult voting rules than the House, and while Democrats had enough votes to pass legislation within these rules, some Democrats opposed ACES, especially those from states with large fossil fuel and agriculture sectors.
Since summer 2009, US climate policy has taken several big steps backwards. The illegal hacking of a UK climate research group fed disinformation. The Copenhagen meeting produced no climate change treaty of any significance. Finally, the 2010 elections gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives. The public will and political votes that existed in 2009 simply don’t exist anymore, and there’s no sign of them coming back any time soon.
The US’s story on climate policy is important for two reasons. Firstly, the US remains a major force in global climate change treaty negotiation. With much of the rest of world already in support of a treaty, US support might be the only missing piece. Indeed, the 2008 UNFCCC meeting in Poznań focused heavily on planning for Copenhagen 2009 in anticipation of stronger collaboration from the new US government. Thus, if the US passes domestic legislation, then it could show up to the annual UNFCCC meetings and make something happen. Unfortunately, right now, that is a very big “if”.
Secondly, the US’s story offers several important lessons for the ability of democracy to handle climate change:
The geographic scale of the democracy is important. It’s no surprise that the strongest opposition within the US comes from states with fossil fuel and agriculture industries. But what if the whole world voted in one global democracy? Indeed, it is from the US democratic tradition that we have the idea that “all men are created equal”. Since climate change affects people worldwide, perhaps everyone should get to vote together for a global body to set climate policy. Global governance poses its own issues (who would keep it in check if it got out of line?), but at least then regional fossil fuel and agriculture interests would have less influence.
Similarly, the details of the voting procedures matter. The US came within inches of passing ACES. Were it not for the Senate’s difficult voting procedures, ACES would likely have passed. The importance of voting procedures is an important lesson for emerging democracies in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere to take note of. The procedural decisions made by emerging democracies today can reverberate throughout all of their future politics, not just in climate change.
The perceptions and values of voters are even more important. Climate change research has repeatedly shown that it is in society’s overall interest to reduce emissions. But many people have misperceptions about the realities of climate change, making for a major impediment to climate action. But even if they knew the realities, many people would still vote against climate action if it was in their own self interest to do so. I would guess that many people in the fossil fuel industry understand climate change research quite well but prefer advocating policies that make them richer and more powerful. If this were not the case – if people would act in society’s interest – then the world would have acted on climate change a long time ago.
So, is democracy up to the challenge of climate change? Maybe. It will take more efforts to raise awareness of the realities of climate change and to promote global values. This is a massive project, but not an impossible one. Even the US, with its powerful industries and difficult voting procedures, came very close to passing a fairly strong climate policy. Meanwhile, the alternative – a more dictatorial form of government – is sensitive to the whims of the dictators. Maybe they’d care about climate change; maybe they wouldn’t. At least with democracy, those of us who care have some means of trying to make a difference. For the sake of the planet and of humanity, let’s hope that’s enough.