Why climate politics are hitting the wall

This is a longish post but definitely worth reading if you want to understand the difficulties parliamentary democracies have responding proportionally and rationally to climate science.

First published in Meanjin, Volume 74, Number 3, 2015

Democracy and Climate Politics for the Long Term

by Robyn Eckersley

One of the great ironies in the story of modern representative democracy is that its geographic expansion in the closing decades of the twentieth century has been accompanied by a thinning out in its liberal Western heartland. The short-lived triumph of liberal democracy that followed the crumbling of the Berlin Wall has given way to a slowly building chorus of more sceptical voices, no less in Australia than elsewhere. Alongside the familiar problems of rising political inequality, declining political party membership and general political disaffection there is the creeping worry that liberal democracies may not be capable of handling the major challenges of the new millennium. The looming ecological crisis is widely recognised as one of these challenges, with climate change featuring as exhibit A.

Cambridge political scientist David Runciman is part of this chorus of concern. In The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present he argued that while liberal democracies have muddled through the multiple crises of the twentieth century, we should not be lulled into thinking that they can muddle through the looming crises of the twenty-first century. The ecological crisis is singled out as one such crisis because it is unfolding too slowly, and the serious effects are too distant, for democracies to handle.

When it comes to climate-change politics, Australian democracy has been caught not only in a confidence trap but also in a political impasse arising from deep political polarisation. The former occurs when governments dither and postpone taking strong action on a wicked policy problem but it does not necessarily entail denial of the problem or lack of concern. The latter is more deliberate and defiant. It arises when a major political party chooses to make climate change a wedge issue or constructs climate scepticism and resistance to any serious climate action as a marker of political identity. Both strategies have put a serious bipartisan response to climate change out of the political reach of the legislature.

In this essay I want to explore both the confidence trap and the problem of deep political polarisation in Australian climate politics. The former is a generic problem that is common to all liberal democracies. The latter is largely confined to the Anglosphere, and is especially concentrated in the United States and Australia.

Let’s start with the generic problem. Here Runciman’s analysis does not fully reveal the tragedy of the situation. He argues that democracies have a knack of muddling out of crises. They don’t get stuck with their mistakes because they don’t get stuck with their leaders, unlike authoritarian regimes. This has been the key to the stability of liberal democracies thus far, notwithstanding their messy and fractured surface. But looking forward, Runciman is concerned about their capacity to deal with problems such as climate change, which unfold slowly and produce serious and harmful but distant effects.

Runciman is right to be concerned but the problem runs even deeper than he suggests, since it is precisely the routine changing of the political guard that can make a durable policy solution to climate change so difficult. As Tocqueville and many others have argued, it is the provisional character of the authority to rule in liberal democracies that is the key to their legitimacy and stability because it allows policy change and prevents withdrawal or rebellion by disaffected citizens and disgruntled stakeholders. But this also means that liberal democracies cannot guarantee durable policies when disagreement is rife, least of all lasting environmental or climate protection. Each policy win in favour of climate change protection can be undone (as we have seen in Australia), while each win for policies that contribute to climate change cannot be reversed. The tragedy is that it also makes it progressively harder and ultimately impossible for subsequent governments to make up for past mistakes.

paris shoes

Liberal democrats would argue that climate advocates must simply work harder to win their case since it is better to have a durable democracy than durable climate policies. While more and better climate advocacy is certainly needed, this response assumes that the democratic credentials of liberal democracy are impeccable and that good democracy and good climate policy are necessarily a zero-sum game. Here I want to suggest that liberal representative democracy is producing weak climate policy because it is not representative or accountable enough.

Climate change is the wickedest of all ecological problems because it is characterised by complexity, multiple causes and transboundary effects, geographic variability, unpredictability and long lead times. The most common lament about liberal democracies is that their temporal horizons are woefully short and are typically tethered to election cycles. The shorter the cycle, the more difficult it becomes to enact environmental (and other) policies for the long term. However, the more fundamental problem is that political representatives in liberal democracies are not obliged to answer to wider communities in time or space (whether ‘foreigners’, nonhuman species or future generations) for the inter-generational or transboundary ecological consequences of their decisions, even when it can be clearly foreseen that they will be seriously harmed.

This is a democratic problem because these wider communities are, in effect, ‘subjected to’ decisions without their consent. Rob Nixon has called this ‘slow violence’—the gradual and sometimes invisible displacement of environmental impacts onto others who have no political representation and no means of calling decision-makers to account. This organised irresponsibility towards ‘non-citizens’ arises from the fact that liberal democracies are attached to nation-states, embedded in a system of sovereign states that was founded in the early modern, pre-democratic period on the principle of exclusive territorial rule. Notwithstanding increasing economic and ecological interdependence, governments can avoid taking responsibility for the transboundary ecological consequences of their decisions by hiding behind the principle of sovereignty, national interests and their institutional responsibility to the citizens they claim to represent, just like corporations hide behind their responsibility to shareholders.

Even in liberal democracies, some interests and concerns are harder to represent than others. Significant inequalities in political participation and bargaining power typically favour short-term, well-organised private interests in the policymaking process at the expense of more diffuse, less well organised, long-term public interests. This is exacerbated in the case of climate change, which (unlike the day to day weather) is not visible or understood by most people and would not be known were it not for the knowledge generated by highly trained scientists. So how do we avoid the politicisation of science (which prevents problem recognition and social learning about major new threats) and the scientisation of politics (which is alienating and undemocratic)? As a general rule, the lower the levels of climate literacy in the broader community, the more political representatives (along with community and business leaders) need to lead, persuade and bring the public with them by bridging the divide between experts and the broader community, rather than following or exploiting public ignorance or inattention. Indeed, given the many other institutional constraints of liberal democracy, political leadership of this kind is essential if the climate challenge is to be met.

Despite being more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change than most developed economies, Australia has remained a relative climate laggard in terms of mitigation ambition and climate policy output during more than two decades of climate negotiations. When set against this longer history, the short-lived Clean Energy Future package enacted by the minority Gillard Labor government in 2011 begins to look like an uncharacteristic blip.

Many critics have argued that the reasons for this inertia lie in our political economy, not our political institutions. Australia, like Canada and the United States, has pursued a model of ‘carboniferous capitalism’, based on the exploitation of cheap fossil fuels and extensive land development. This in turn has produced powerful political stakeholders, such as the fossil-fuel and energy-intensive industries and their industry associations (dubbed ‘the greenhouse mafia’), along with allied unions and regional communities that are dependent upon fossil fuel exploitation.

It is true that a heavy historical dependence on fossil fuels raised the political bar for Australia when it entered the climate negotiations. But it does not explain why successive Australian governments have defiantly raised the bar further by stepping up their commitment to a carboniferous economy over the past two decades. Even the minority Gillard government—hailed for its Clean Energy Future package—looked forward to strong growth in coal and gas production and exports. This stance by successive governments has made less and less economic and political sense over time in the face of an increasingly confident climate science, since it increases the risk that Australia will be left with a host of stranded assets in the fossil fuel sector as international markets dry up.

Nor is the problem a lack of public concern over climate change, although it has certainly fallen dramatically from its peak in 2006 largely due to the Coalition’s pugilistic campaign against the carbon tax. Yet the 2014 Lowy Institute poll showed that some 63 per cent of those randomly surveyed believed that Australia should be playing a leadership role in reducing emissions rather than waiting for an international consensus.1

To understand Australia’s climate laggard status we need to turn the critical spotlight onto our major political parties. Although their democratic roots have become perilously thin due to declining mass membership, and despite the rise of new party formations such as the Greens with a stronger base in grassroots social movements, the major parties remain the primary gatekeepers of Australian politics. They supply our political leaders, they largely set the political agenda and they determine our international diplomacy. This gatekeeping privilege is primarily an artefact of the two-party-preferred voting system in the House of Representatives, reinforced through tight control of the preselection of candidates and tight party discipline in the parliament on pain of losing preselection.

climate march

So while we don’t get stuck with our leaders in a democracy, we are stuck with our major political parties and their ideologies, which have retreated from their origins but without undergoing any major conceptual refurbishment in the response to the global ecological and climate crisis. Given the dominance of the major parties in our political system, which is more adversarial than most, it takes only one side of politics—the Coalition—to convert climate change into a wedge issue, or otherwise construct a highly polarised debate, to kill the prospect of strong and stable climate policy. The Coalition has made this choice, but this is hardly a simple reflection of community divisions. Creating a politics of deep party polarisation requires hard work and constant vigilance. It requires an active social construction of ignorance and/or doubt by denying the problem of climate change, denying that it is largely human-induced, denying that it is a problem worth worrying about and/or pretending to take it seriously but introducing policies that are woefully inadequate to meet the challenge. (The last strategy moves the problem beyond the realm of the confidence trap and into the territory of a confidence trick.) As Bruce Tranter has shown, whereas ALP and especially Greens candidates are more concerned than their party identifiers and have led them on the issue, Coalition candidates are much less concerned and much more sceptical than their party identifiers.2 The Coalition clearly emerges as the most out of touch with the electorate yet it has managed (with the help of the Murdoch press, but that’s another story) to shape the agenda over the long haul.

However, it is not all bad news if we look at broader international trends. Governments everywhere are now caught in a growing pincer grip from heightened international expectations from above and below. Environmental multilateralism, propelled by rapidly advancing science and domestic and transnational environment movements, has created a set of new environmental responsibilities that have expanded the purposes of the modern state. Unlike the welfare state, which was a national creation for national purposes, the new environmental and climate responsibilities of the embryonic green state are increasingly an international creation and their larger cosmopolitan purposes can only be fully secured by international cooperation.

This demands that governments be responsive and accountable not only to their own people but also to wider communities in space and time to ensure that they do not inflict serious harm without their consent. From the standpoint of the global community the territorial borders of nation-states are democratically and ecologically arbitrary. We therefore need to stop thinking about democracy and political responsibility as restricted to the nation-state and its particular interests, and acknowledge that the ecological crisis arises from a major structural deficit in political representation and accountability.

Of course, international cooperation on climate change is far from secure. And it is unlikely to be secured in the absence of climate leadership by governments in developed countries through, for example, setting a national example in mitigation ambition and climate policy, engaging diplomatically to support a fair and ambitious treaty and providing significant financial and other assistance to developing countries. This requires the cultivation of an outward-looking national imaginary and sense of national responsibility that connects the welfare of the nation with the welfare of the rest of the world. This calls for bridge-building politics, not wedge politics.

This might seem like a big ask, but many European countries, most notably Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Britain, have more or less achieved and maintained bipartisan support for ambitious climate and energy policies. But not so in Australia. The default discourse, which reformist governments have struggled to dislodge, is one that unashamedly favours ‘nation before planet’ and fossil-fuel energy before renewable energy. It is fixated on the up-front costs of action rather than the longer term costs of inaction, keeps a nervous eye on what major trading partners are doing, and addresses Australians as fearful and anxious economic actors who are threatened more by the costs of climate policy than the impacts of climate change. Climate leadership, we are told, is nothing but a sucker’s game. The sad irony is that Australia will be the sucker.

It is clearly the conservative side of politics that is most deeply ensnared in Runciman’s confidence trap in thinking that Australia can somehow muddle through the looming climate crisis and flourish in splendid isolation from the rest of the world. While it is hard to change our political institutions and major parties, the same cannot be said for national narratives and policy ideas, and there are many bubbling up in the community. There is also plenty of untapped potential in all modern political ideologies, and not just green ideology, to respond to the challenge of climate change because it threatens most of the core social and political values of the modern world, including security, health, life, justice, equality, freedom and prosperity. But until such time as we see the proliferation of outspoken climate champions on the conservative side of politics—in the community, in the parliament and above all inside the Coalition—a more bipartisan and durable commitment to tackling the biggest challenge of the twenty-first century will remain out of reach.

  1. Lowy Institute Poll, 2014 (Climate Change), http://www.lowyinstitute.org/lowyinstitutepollinteractive/climatechange.php>
  2. Bruce Tranter, ‘The Great Divide: Political Candidate and Voter Polarisation over Global Warming in Australia’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 59, no. 3 (2013), pp. 397–413.


Robyn Eckersley is Professor and Head of Political Science in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne, Australia.

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