In his review of Stephen Gardiner’s A Perfect Moral Storm: the Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (LRB, 24 May), Malcolm Bull airs a much needed discussion as to how far democracy can respond at all adequately to the challenge of climate change. He discusses, for instance, ‘the tyranny of the contemporary’, whereby democracy is concerned exclusively with the rights and interests of a present generation, future generations not being represented, their needs therefore neglected.
He considers two ways to escape this quandary. There is a Burkean ‘virtual representation’ of those dead and those yet to be born, connecting a community through time, though Bull worries that this would ‘have the effect of entrenching the stranglehold of the past over the future’. On the other hand, there could be a Leninist style vanguard, though this could ‘create a dictatorship of the future over the present’. Either way ‘insofar as we move beyond the tyranny of the contemporary, we invite other forms of dictatorship’.
This betrays a very absolutist view of democracy. Democracy does not represent some single, coherent generation, it is a forum where voices are heard (or not), where interests jostle and compete, and where much horse-trading takes place and compromises result. We do not need to replace one ‘tyranny’; with another but to allow some voice to future generations – ‘virtual representation’ in one form or another- and to give greater reckoning to their interests in democratic deals being struck.
Hungary, for instance, in recent years instituted a Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations. In the UK we could perhaps have thought more deeply about the opportunity of House of Lords reform, extending our democracy rather than just duplicating the essential role already played by the Commons.
But could constitutional experiment and change meet the ever increasing exigencies of climate change? It is not certain, but, for many of us democracy is the only game in town.
James Lovelock says ‘it may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while’. But who would be the guardians in a position to undertake this? There is little evidence that such Platonic fantasies can approach reality. Among some who despair of democracy in the face of climate change, there are murmurings that the Chinese model might be the way forward (however regrettably, they say) – as if that model weren’t at all dependent for its present precarious stability on a carbon fueled rush to growth. And this turn to extremes reveals as much exaggeration in our economic outlook as in consideration of democracy.
The Stern Review has been subject to much detailed criticism but a central contention stands firm – the costs of curbing emissions will slow, but will not destroy, growth. Tackling climate change is within the realm of the possible, if we do not fall prey to fatalism. A householder may want any number of consumer goods but she will still find the money to pay for insurance in case her house burns down.
If we include future generations virtually in the democratic political mix we can do the trade-offs between now and the future, and, as Stern was the first to make clear, we can afford the insurance.