Democracy Itself Is the Solution to the Climate Crisis

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Can democracy in crisis deal with the global warming crisis? Yes! But only by addressing the crises of democracy and climate together.

I see four steps.

Reign in the Power of Big Oil

The crisis of democracy is largely fuelled by the unprecedented power of transnational corporations, and the richest, most powerful industry sector in the world is big oil. Not only does it influence elections, in many countries, it often sets domestic and international policy. In my country (Canada), the energy industry wrote Prime Minster Stephen Harper and outlined the six environmental protections it wanted gutted so that it could build new pipelines—east, west, and south—unimpeded. In two recent budgets, our government fully complied, leaving our land, water, and air unprotected by law. Big oil companies, like other industry giants, are protected by bilateral, regional, and global trade and investment agreements that allow them to sue governments at will. US-based Occidental Petroleum successfully sued Ecuador under the US-Ecuador Bilateral Investment Treaty for $2.4 billion in compensation when that country terminated its contract after Occidental broke its terms.

The power of these corporations to influence politics and policies as well as the trade deals that insulate them from the rule of law must be ended if we are ever to move to alternative and sustainable forms of energy. Ending corporate rule would go a long way to restoring democracy.

Reject Carbon Markets

Many environmentalists promote a market model to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Governments set a cap on greenhouse emissions and then sell emission permits that can be traded, bought, and sold in the market in the belief that putting a price on emissions will encourage reductions. But this market model is part of the problem. Carbon trading in effect privatizes the atmosphere by creating a new form of property rights over natural resources and is predicated less on reducing emissions than on the desire to make carbon cuts as cheap as possible for large corporations. Carbon trading very narrowly measures success simply in terms of cost effectiveness and ignores issues of power, social justice, inequality, and community control over local ecosystems. Most important, carbon trading maintains the essence of the current growth model that has led us—and the planet—to the current crisis.

Smokestacks releasing plumes of smoke into the air Carbon offsets are another “created commodity” that lets consumers and corporations trade alleged good behaviour—such as investing in a tree plantation far away—on the open market in order to offset their right to continue to pollute. The carbon offset market is a multi-billion dollar unregulated industry that permits the growth in trade of all kinds and lulls the public into thinking something real has been done for the planet. Saying no to carbon trading will take the “solution” to the climate crisis out of the market, where it is not open to public scrutiny, and pave the way for legislation that is transparent and accountable to the public, thereby addressing the current democratic deficit.

Promote Climate Justice  

Climate justice is a worldview that sees the climate crisis as an ethical issue as well as an environmental one. It recognizes that those most impacted by the climate crisis are often the least responsible for it and places greater onus on the countries of the industrialized North to curb their emissions. Climate justice is critical of the consumption and growth patterns of the wealthy. It exposes how the causes and effects of a consumer lifestyle perpetuate endless energy demands and relate to poverty, human rights abuses, inequality, and structural economic exploitation around the world. Climate justice recognizes the unequal burdens created by climate change and the resulting struggle over land, water, culture, food sovereignty, and human rights. It is also highly critical of the false solutions put forward by governments and the energy industry, such as mega-dams, agro fuels, tree plantations, and carbon markets. Hence the slogan, “Change the System, Not the Climate.”

Defending the social and environmental rights of communities around the world, particularly those of indigenous peoples, is central to finding the solution to the climate crisis. So is recognizing that local communities know best how to care for their land, water, and air. Climate justice requires addressing four key themes, says Mobilization for Climate Justice: root causes, rights, reparations, and participatory democracy.

Protect Water

When most people think of the climate crisis, they think only in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. If they think about water at all, it is as a victim of the climate crisis, not as part of the cause. However, human demand for water is escalating out of control, and we are quickly destroying our supplies of accessible water. This, in turn, is creating deserts that contribute to warming. We are now mining the groundwater far faster than it can be replaced by nature. Water is moved—from where nature has put it in watersheds and aquifers—either for flood irrigation for food production, or to supply the voracious thirst of mega cities, where it is usually dumped as waste into the ocean. A recent study by Marc Bierkens of the International Groundwater Resource Assessment Center at Utrecht University says that a full quarter of the rising of the oceans is linked to the displacement of land-based water. Water is also lost to ecosystems in the form of virtual trade—water used in the production of crops or manufactured goods that are then exported. And urbanization, deforestation, and wetland destruction greatly destroy water-retentive landscapes and lead to the loss of precipitation over the affected area.

One huge part of the solution to the climate crisis is the restoration of watersheds and the protection of surrounding wetlands and forests. Replenishing lakes, rivers, and groundwater will allow water to return to the atmosphere to regulate temperatures and renew the hydrologic cycle. This requires tough new laws to protect water, and that, in turn, protects the health and livelihoods of everyone who lives on that watershed.

A healthy planet can only thrive in a healthy democracy. Any solution to one crisis must be a solution for both.

Image Credit

“Smokestacks” by Salim Virji. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • Maude Barlow

    Maude Barlow is the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and chairs the board of Washington-based Food and Water Watch. She is also the author of dozens of reports, as well as 16 books, including the international best seller Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and The Coming Battle for the Right to Water.

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