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Climate change, is democracy enough?

By David Shearman - posted Thursday, 17 January 2008

Perhaps the most significant news last week on the climate change front was the announcement that plastic shopping bags will be banned in China in six months’ time. Let me analyse why this is so significant.

The science contained in the IPCC reports tells us that the ecological crisis being generated by climate change is an overwhelming threat to humanity. Unfortunately it seems increasingly likely that the IPCC underestimated the speed of climate change and failed to recognise the likely effect of a range of tipping points which may now be acting in concert. This is the basis for the statements from many scientists that drastic reduction of greenhouse emissions must occur in the next two decades or it may be too late.

To many of us, therefore, a change in light bulbs by the citizenry is important in terms of the recognition of the problem, but the effect is infinitesimal in contrast to the actions required by governments. These are often the governments that pride themselves on greenhouse leadership yet facilitate and approve vast carbon-generating projects in wealthy societies in the name of perpetual economic growth.


Let us return to the plastic bags. The ban in China will save importation and use of five million tons of oil used in plastic bag manufacture, only a drop in the ocean of the world oil well. But the importance in the decision lies in the fact that China can do it by edict and close the factories. They don’t have to worry about loss of political donations or temporarily unemployed workers. They have made a judgment that their action favours the needs of Chinese society as a whole.

China has become, or is just about to become, the world’s greatest emitter of greenhouse emissions. Its economic growth suggests that it may soon emit as much as the rest of the world put together. Its environment is in a deplorable state, with heavily polluted rivers and drinking water, serious air pollution, both of which have a heavy burden of illness. Pollution and climate change are reducing productive land in the face of an increasing population which is compelled to import some of its foodstuffs. Its population centres will be candidates for early inundation by sea level rise and the melting of Himalayan glaciers will reduce its water supply.

All this suggests that the savvy Chinese rulers may be first out of the blocks to assuage greenhouse emissions and they will succeed by delivering orders. They will recognise that the alternative is famine and social disorder

Let us contrast this with the indecisiveness of the democracies which together produce approximately the other half of the world’s greenhouse emissions. It is perhaps reasonable to ask the reader a question. Taking into account the performance of the democracies in the reduction of emissions over the past decade, do you feel that the democracies are able and willing to reduce their emissions by 60-80 per cent this century or perhaps more importantly by approximately 10 per cent each decade?

If you say “yes” then you fly in the face of a track record of persistent failure in a wide range of environmental management leading to depletion of natural resources and fresh water, biodiversity and ecological service loss, loss of productive land and depletion of essential food sources such as ocean fish. In Australia, a surfeit of democracy carries much responsibility for the demise of the Murray Darling River, where debate has replaced action.

Such an analysis of democracy is conducted in the book The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy, co authored by myself and Joseph Wayne Smith, in a series from the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy. The fundamental reasons why democracy is shackled in its present form relate to its fusion with the needs of corporate enterprise but also important is the human denial to recognise its limitations and the inhibition to criticise democracy and implement reform.


Liberal democracy is sweet and addictive and indeed in the most extreme case, the USA, unbridled individual liberty overwhelms many of the collective needs of the citizens. The subject is almost sacrosanct and those who indulge in criticism are labeled as Marxists, socialists, fundamentalists and worse. These labels are used because alternatives to democracy cannot be perceived! Support for Western democracy is messianic as proselytised by a President leading a flawed democracy

There must be open minds to look critically at liberal democracy. Reform must involve the adoption of structures to act quickly regardless of some perceived liberties. It is not that liberal democracy cannot react once it sees a threat, for example, the speedy response to a recent international financial emergency. If governments can recognise a financial emergency and in an instant move heaven and earth (and billions of dollars, pounds sterling and euros) to contain it, why are they unable to do the same in response to a global environmental emergency? Quite simply our system is seen to live and breathe by the present economic system; the problem is that living and breathing within the confines of the world ecological systems is contrary to the activity of progress and development as defined within liberal democracy.

The Chinese decision on shopping bags is authoritarian and contrasts with the voluntary non-effective solutions put forward in most Western democracies. We are going to have to look how authoritarian decisions based on consensus science can be implemented to contain greenhouse emissions. It is not that we do not tolerate such decisions in the very heart of our society, in wide range of enterprises from corporate empires to emergency and intensive care units. If we do not act urgently we may find we have chosen total liberty rather than life.

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About the Author

David Shearman is Emeritus Professor of Medicine and Hon Visiting Fellow, Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences, University of Adelaide and Hon Secretary, Doctors for the Environment Australia. He is coauthor , with Joseph Wayne Smith, of two books: The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy, Praeger, Davenport, Connecticut 2007, a series from the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy; and Climate Change Litigation. Analysing the law, scientific evidence and impacts on the environment, health and property Presidian Legal Publications, October 2006.

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Democracy and climate change: a story of failure, by David Shearman

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