There have been 20 years and more consciousness raising, bringing the science to the attention of voters, waiting for the increasingly green rhetoric of politicians to turn into the real commitments needed to mitigate climate change. In the meantime, untold billions have been spent on the waste of war, at the whim of a cabal of leaders - though all in the West were democratically elected and all re-elected to further terms of office. The deep disappointment at this is understandable, and the sacred cow of democracy can start to look less sacred and more bovine.
As a consequence, some people are turning to look with some envy at authoritarian regimes. For those who see a populist drive remedying the deficiencies of liberal democracy – and its post-socialist assumption regarding corporate capitalism that there is no Plan B - Chavez has a certain folk hero status. Though his recent chaotic handling of the Venezuelan economy may be a reminder of the hubris that so often afflicts populist leaders. ‘All power tends to corrupt’. But you need power to get things done on a large scale, and there can’t be a much larger scale than halting climate change.
For some, reflecting on that, the Chinese regime starts to acquire glamour. Memories of Tienanmen are growing dim, the vitality of China is palpable throughout the world and startling to those who have witnessed directly the development of the Chinese littoral. Even though China has played fast and loose with regard to climate change; seizing the heights of legitimacy in demanding that the first moves to constrain carbon in the atmosphere be made by those historically developed nations which put most of it there, but then Chinese deal-making helping to undermine the forces at Copenhagen which aimed to do just that.
A brief historical digression: the lure of authoritarianism does not merely have contemporary glamour but deep roots in the history of thought. In the Western tradition, there have been, to name a few, Plato’s appeal to the philosopher king; Hobbes’s response to life in the state of nature (‘nasty, brutish and short’), being the all-powerful Leviathan; and Rousseau’s perception that the general will may be something greater and different from the sum of individual preferences.
But none of these theories had the practical purchase their authors envisaged.
Plato found that his prospective model ruler, Dionysius of Syracuse, played with power in a way that broke all the Platonic rules. Hobbes, though still used by conservatives today as intellectual shears on the woolly-thinking of liberal minds, never did usher in a Leviathan – states where power has been concentrated have proved of greater frailty than those with stable constitutions where power has been distributed. And the difficulty with Rousseau was in finding the right expression for the general will – that for many, who half understood Rousseau, was to be Napoleon, though it was a will which was extinguished in the millions who perished in his megalomaniac and catastrophic wars. All of these were futile attempts to end history, to flee politics itself.
A fundamental flaw in idealist authoritarian thinking is to neglect the fact that power is not just a means to an end but a domain in itself with its own objectives and dynamics. (Hobbes was probably the least illusioned, with the Leviathan, however dreadful, always in his view being better than a free-for-all – not one for muddling through or a third way.) Politics – with its tension in any society between clashing and reconciling diverse ideals, beliefs and, above all, interests – continues relentlessly.
The authoritarian regime does not sit above the society it dominates. It conciliates sufficient of the chief interests in the society it dominates, or terrorizes those it cannot (though even then it must maintain a solid core of support), or it perishes. Take China. It has apparently contradicted that most cherished nostrum that economies can only develop strongly if under-pinned by freedom embedded in liberal democracy. Now it seems we find ourselves in the age of G2 with the rise of an economic super-power more rapid than the world has vever seen before, a rise brought about under the aegis of a one-party state which, however hollowed out in its ideology, has provided the control, the direction, the predictability for this to take place. But this image of control, and therefore any hope of its being turned to combat climate change, is misleading.
China has an undoubtedly resilient central party apparatus but it has not escaped the play of interests, it has not escaped a politics which is about obstruction as well as getting things done. Instead of public, legitimate dissension, there is massive resistance at the provincial level, where independent power-broking and corruption are rife. For instance, the central government is very much alive to the more immediate environmental disasters threatening the country – its poisoned and increasingly desiccated waterways being a prime example – but many of the provinces still evade the necessary minimum measures to react to this. It is sustainable development as a whole, not just climate change, which China finds difficult to manage even where it is manifestly in the national interest and there is political will among the leadership.
Chinese authoritarianism is in many of its aspects a facade. That does not mean the central government is not capable of deploying decisive force in brutal or more subtle ways – as Tibetans or those who wish to google freely would testify – but this decisiveness is in the domain of power itself, its preservation, and not in the mundane ways of getting things done. And in another of its crucial characteristics, Chinese authoritarianism is not so categorically different from liberal democracies.
In China power no longer derives only from the barrel of a gun but from relentlessly high economic growth figures. Some commentators argue that if growth dipped for any length of time below 8% there would be serious unrest. This may be an exaggeration, but it is clear that it is growth which conciliates the newly emerged capitalist class and it is only growth which both stimulates and then accommodates the migration of 100s of millions of workers from the country-side to the cities, the largest mass migration in history.
Political parties rise and fall in liberal democracies according to their capacity, or luck, in presiding over short-term growth and prosperity, with longer term ideal goals, such as tackling climate change, taking a poor second. Whatever the issues at the margins in different societies, legitimacy at its core comes from stewardship of the economy. The same is true for China, which in this aspect is like a democracy on speed. Delay a new coal-fired power station, or await carbon capture technology, when neighbouring factories might lie idle? That’s not an option for a regime which wishes to preserve itself.
Conciliation of interests is the hard reality of politics in the Forbidden City as it is in the White House or Downing Street or their equivalents. In the face of climate change, authoritarianism is simply not an alternative. But there is a glimmer of hope in democracy – for all its current addiction to a particular type of prosperity, it can allow for re-alignments of interests and values through open debate and peaceful struggle as it has done through its history, in a former age focussed on redistribution. With so much power and responsibility still lying with Western liberal democracies, the question is now how, and how rapidly, we can bring about the alignment between democracy and sustainable development in general and the mitigation of climate change in particular.
That is the key question for the 21st century.