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Only Democracy Can Save The Planet

James Sadri
7 December 2009

The only certainty at Copenhagen is failure - either a bad deal or no deal. This is because of the fundamental disconnect between those affected by climate change and those with the power to address it. Unless people have an equal say in the issues that affect them, we will never achieve just or sustainable agreements for global issues. We need democracy.

Dr. Jean Ping, chair of the African Union, said “although Africa is least responsible for global warming, it is however suffering most from the impacts of climate change”. Whether more disastrous flooding in Bangladesh, advancing desertification in Sudan or increased hurricanes in the Caribbean - no one disputes that it is those living in the poorest regions of the world who are hardest hit by climate change.

So why is it politicians from rich, polluting countries who ultimately decide how we address climate change? These politicians are not accountable to the vast majority of people their policies affect – why should they respond to the needs of people who neither fund their election campaigns nor tick their boxes on the ballot paper? Can a US President pursue a policy agenda that considers Bangladeshis and Americans as equals? Not if he wants to keep his job. Especially not when he’s trying to push through unpopular health reform at home, and needs to shore up all the support he can get.

Some people think that because Copenhagen is a consensus process, that makes it fair or equitable. But clearly incentives to reach agreement are not balanced. Failure to reach agreement will mean business as usual: no meaningful reduction in emissions in rich countries, and more destruction, poverty and death in poor countries. Rich countries have little to gain; poor countries have everything to lose.

Deep down we all know this. We know the current setup of backroom horse-trading between “national interests” can never produce the outcome we require.

But rather than challenge the system itself, reformist politicians use arguments of enlightened self-interest while NGOs plead with rich country politicians, begging them to do a "bit more" to tackle climate change.
"The US will lead the world in building the next generation of clean cars", is how Obama sells his greening plans to a doubtful US public.
"Climate change costs lives", says the Oxfam website, before telling us to take action by "reminding decision makers why the stakes are so high". And finally, "tell the UK climate negotiators to watch the videos". Watch videos.

Is this how we affect global change in today’s world? Beg our “decision makers” to watch our YouTube clips about how their policies affect people on the other side of the planet? This assumes that the climate negotiators – leading experts and politicians – don’t know how high the stakes are. Of course they do. But their hands are tied by the system that requires them to prioritise their national industries over foreign lives.

What gives these “decision makers” credibility to decide world fates anyway? We know that 95% of the world did not elect Barack Obama or Hu Jintao, the two leaders with most influence in the negotiations.

So what do we do? Our only alternative is to rethink who these “decision makers” are and raise our ongoing struggle for meaningful democracy to the global level. Until those making decisions for the future of the world are accountable equally to all those they affect, we will never reach just, effective or sustainable outcomes.

A truly democratic process at Copenhagen – representing people, not states – would be our best hope at stopping climate change. It would produce a far more radical result than anything likely to be agreed at the summit. How could it not? To give equal voice to those whose lives are threatened by climate change is to instantly change the power balance against heavy polluters. And if you believe in protecting the planet, that’s a good thing.

But it’s not just the climate that would benefit from a democratic world. It would change the way we deal with everything from poverty to war. Extreme poverty would not be a photo shoot for a charity campaign, but a real electoral issue. Labour rights would no longer be circumvented by exporting production to foreign sweatshops. Financiers could no longer deflect regulation with the threat of moving capital elsewhere. Freedom of movement would no longer be a selective term. The legality of war would not be decided by the world’s biggest arms traders.

This is not a new or radical idea.

Over sixty years ago Ernest Bevin, Britain’s Foreign Secretary and one of the Labour Party’s greatest figures, stood up in the House of Commons and declared that we needed to think about ‘creating a world assembly elected directly from the people of the world, as a whole, to whom the governments who form the United Nations are responsible”.

This was an issue that transcended party politics. His opposite number Anthony Eden, who later became Prime Minister, said that he wanted a world where relations between nations become like “the relations between this country and Scotland and Wales”.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Clement Davies, called on us to “do away also with all the barriers which divide us… let us share the benefits that Nature has provided in the world”.

All parties could see that the future of a stable, peaceful world depended on us changing the global system.

So this month the whole world will descend on Copenhagen, to a United Nations sponsored conference that suffers from the same flaws our politicians identified sixty years ago. A lack of democracy.

The poor and the vulnerable will be marginalised in a process that amplifies the voices of the rich, powerful, heavy polluting countries.

These problems are institutional, they are hard-wired into the way global decisions are taken. No number of facebook groups, global flash-mobs or YouTube videos will change that fact.

So we all have a choice: we can tweet-bleat in the background while other people make decisions for us, or we can take a stand for democracy, real democracy, from the local to the global level. We choose the latter - that's the message we're taking to the streets of Copenhagen.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics based on class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put the need for protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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