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To solve the climate crisis, we need more democracy, not less

Do we need benign dictators to deal with the climate crisis? A new index of intergenerational solidarity provides the answer

Roman Krznaric
5 August 2020

Do you sometimes secretly dream that a benign dictator would come along, brush aside all those squabbling democratic politicians, and take the concerted long-term action we need to deal with issues such as the climate crisis or put a serious plan in place for the next pandemic on the horizon?

If so, you are not alone. There is a quietly growing sentiment, especially in the environmental movement, that our myopic democratic governments caught up in the short-term swirl of electoral cycles and 24/7 news, cannot deal effectively with the long-range threats facing society. The standard argument is that we need to become more like China, with its impressive record on long-term policymaking such as investment in renewable energy. Or like Singapore, which may put some limits on civil and political liberties but manages to take a far-sighted approach to everything from education reform to public housing.

Such thinking builds on the increasing scepticism about democracy from prominent public figures. Back in 2010, Gaia scientist James Lovelock declared that ‘it may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while’ to deal the global ecological emergency. More recently, in an article on critical threats posed by climate change and bioweapons, astrophysicist Martin Rees wrote that ‘only an enlightened despot could push through the measures needed to navigate the twenty-first century safely’. 

Lord Rees is hardly calling for a goose-stepping dictatorship – he is, after all, an active member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations. But the sense of frustration with elected government is palpable and part of an emerging pattern. 

A comprehensive study from Cambridge University reveals that dissatisfaction with democracy in developed countries is at an all-time high, jumping from around one-third of citizens in the 1990s to more than half of them today. The failure of traditional parties to tackle issues such as economic stagnation, migration and climate change is fuelling the rise of far-right populism in Europe and beyond. Even Marine Le Pen has called for Europe to become an ‘ecological civilisation’, revealing a shift towards what Naomi Klein has described as ‘eco-fascism’.

The problem with the benign dictatorship school of thought is that it cherry-picks the best policies of countries like China or Singapore, while ignoring the record of other one-party states and authoritarian-leaning regimes around the world such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and Cambodia. Examining the evidence is crucial: could it really be true that autocracies perform better than democracies when it comes to long-term public policy that benefits future generations?

The Intergenerational Solidarity Index

Over the past decade, academics and policy experts have begun to devise quantitative indices that measure and compare the long-term policy orientation of national governments. The most conceptually coherent, methodologically rigorous and geographically comprehensive of them is the new Intergenerational Solidarity Index (ISI), created by the interdisciplinary scientist Jamie McQuilkin. The ISI, first published in the peer-reviewed journal Intergenerational Justice Review, appears in updated form in my latest book The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long-Term in a Short-Term World

So what does the ISI look like, and what does it tell us about the virtues of democracies versus authoritarian regimes?

The ISI provides a single index score for 122 countries each year between 2015 and 2019, and is based on combining ten different indicators of long-term policy performance. Environmental indicators include carbon footprint and deforestation, the economic indicators include measures such as wealth inequality and net savings, while the social indicators cover areas such as investment in primary education and child mortality (a full list of indicators and the complete dataset is available here). The scores range from 1 (low intergenerational solidarity) to 100 (high intergenerational solidarity).

A first step is to take a snapshot global view of intergenerational solidarity. The map above reveals that the highest scores on the ISI are concentrated in Europe but with parts of Asia also performing well on measures of long-term policy performance.  

By drilling further into the individual country data, we can examine which countries can justifiably claim to be acting with regard to the interests of future generations. The table below presents the 24 highest ranked countries for the 2019 index. 

Screenshot 2020-08-05 at 11.05.06.png

The league table is striking in that the highest-scoring nations, such as Iceland, Nepal, Costa Rica and Uruguay, come from a wide range of geographical regions and income levels. While wealthy OECD countries occupy many of the top spots, some of them are far down the rankings: Germany is ranked only 28th out of the 122 countries, with the UK 45th and the US far down the ladder in 62nd place. A country like Norway, which often comes out at the top of surveys of global sustainability and wellbeing, is ranked in only 26th place, primarily because of its high levels of fossil fuel production: Norway is an international carbon drugs dealer, exporting its gas and oil worldwide while mainly relying on renewables for domestic energy consumption. 

Where is China, that apparent bastion of long-range planning? It doesn’t even make it into the top tier, being ranked 25th largely due to its poor scores on measures such as carbon footprint and renewable energy (the country is still burning plenty of fossil fuels per person, despite its growing renewables sector). Singapore is even further down the league table at 41st, partly as a result of its weak performance on renewable energy generation. Clearly both countries are not as long-term in their public policy as they first appear to be.

Benign dictators are not the answer

What about the big question of whether authoritarian governments are more far-sighted than democracies? This analysis, which I conducted jointly with McQuilkin, required selecting among the large number of democracy indices created in recent years. We chose one of the gold standards among political scientists: the V-Dem Liberal Democracy Index, produced by the Varieties of Democracy research centre at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. 

Governments are given scores by expert assessors, who rank them on a scale of 0 to 1 based on the presence of free and fair elections, freedom of expression and information, equality before the law, civil liberties, and checks and balances between the executive, legislature and judiciary. The index gauges what is commonly known as ‘liberal democracy’ or ‘representative democracy’, rather than alternative forms such as ‘participatory democracy’.

By plotting each country’s democracy score against its intergenerational solidarity score, we created a unique global picture of political systems and their long-term policy performance at the national level (see figure below). Each index was also divided at its midpoint, enabling the classification of countries into the categories of Long-Term Democracies, Short-Term Democracies, Long-Term Autocracies and Short-Term Autocracies.

Screenshot 2020-08-05 at 11.06.55.png

It is worth looking in detail at what the data reveals:

  • Out of the 25 countries with the highest scores on the ISI, 21 of them – 84 per cent – are democracies. Out of the 25 countries with the lowest scores on the ISI, 21 of them are autocracies.
  • Out of all 60 democracies, 75 per cent are Long-Term Democracies, while out of all 62 autocracies, only 37 per cent are Long-Term Autocracies. The average intergenerational solidarity score for democracies is 60, while the average for autocracies is just 42. So autocracies tend towards short-termism, while democracies tend towards long-termism.
  • The most populous quadrants are Long-Term Democracies and Short-Term Autocracies. If authoritarian regimes were significantly better at delivering long-term policy performance, we would have expected Long-Term Autocracies and Short-Term Democracies to be the most populous, which is clearly not the case.

This analysis reveals the fundamental weakness of the claims in favour of autocracies: there is no systematic empirical evidence that authoritarian regimes perform better than democratic governments when it comes to long-term policies that serve the interests of future generations

In fact, the data suggest the opposite: the average ISI score for democracies is far higher than for autocracies. In other words, you are much more likely to find high levels of intergenerational solidarity in a democracy than in an authoritarian regime, whether it is a classic military dictatorship or a one-party state. Moreover, the trend line through the data, which runs from bottom left to top right, suggests that more democracy is accompanied by more long-termism. Countries like China are an exception to the rule.

And let’s not forget the obvious point that authoritarian regimes are also unlikely to be high performing in terms of other things we might value, such as political freedom and human rights. The problem with benign dictatorships is that they don’t stay benign for very long.

Yet none of this implies that democracies can give themselves a congratulatory pat on the back. Every democratic government in the world could be striving to get a higher score on the ISI, even top performers such as Sweden, France and Austria. There are several policy innovations they could be pursuing, which I have written about elsewhere, to design myopia out of their political systems, such as the introduction of Future Generations Commissioners, citizens’ assemblies and radical devolution of decision-making power away from central government. 

Ultimately, the value of the Intergenerational Solidarity Index is as a rigorous standard against which we can hold governments to account, and which can potentially incentivise them to perform better when it comes to long-term public policy. 

“We owe it to future generations to build back better,” said Boris Johnson in a recent speech about Britain’s emergence from the COVID-19 crisis. Fine words. But with the country ranked only 45th in the Intergenerational Solidarity Index, there is a very long way to go before he can justifiably claim that his government is truly acting in the interests of the citizens of tomorrow. 

Roman Krznaric’s new book is The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World, published by Penguin Random House.

Click here for more information and to order.

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