The issue of the suitability — or unsuitability — of democratic systems for tackling issues such as global climate change is not a new one. But does the remedy lie in scrapping democracy, in strengthening democratic practices, or in removing obstacles to democracy?

This early in the proceedings the world can still hope for better, but the most likely outcome of the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change now assembled in Durban is yet more evidence for Australian Clive Hamilton’s argument — first published by The Conversation and recently re-posted here — that “democracy is failing the planet.”

A closer look at the evidence, however, suggests that un-democratic aspects of our democracies are the real problem.


Although Hamilton himself ultimately concluded that effective action on climate change required more rather than less democracy, whether other forms of government are better able to address large-scale environmental challenges has been a matter of scholarly debate for some time. In his 1957 tome, Oriental Despotism, Karl Wittfogel argued that the intricate irrigation systems on which ancient Mesopotamian and some Pre-Columbian societies relied necessitated a stable, centralized power structure. By an analogous argument, Harold Dorn, author of The Geography of Science (1991), attributed the ingenuity of the ancient Greeks, including their politics, to the more fractured but comparatively rain-rich landscape in which they lived. More recently, in The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy, Australians David Shearman and Wayne Smith applied elements of these earlier arguments to the problem of climate change. In their view, developing and sustaining a global regime to reduce CO2 emissions appears beyond the capacity of our bitterly divided and easily distracted politics. And their chapter on “The Revenge of Plato” is echoed in William Ophuls’ new book, Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology (2011).

So, yes, there are good reasons to question whether democracy can meet the centuries-long challenge being presented by global climate change.

But the sovereign debt crises in Europe and the deficit and debt impasses in the U.S. demonstrate that climate change is not the only challenge our democracies are now failing to meet. And compared with climate change, those problems are concrete, immediate, and certain. In other words, our self-defeating efforts to solve these problems suggest that we have lost capacities we once had. How did this happen?

In Australia, Hamilton points to the divisive role played by the Murdoch media empire; on climate change this has meant promoting skeptics like Christopher Monckton and thereby legitimating the public skepticism of some politicians, celebrities, and opinion-makers. But the Australian public, through their elected representatives, still acted on climate change. What then is the explanation for the inaction of the U.S., where, as Hamilton notes, “the House, dominated by the Tea Party, voted 240-184 to reject the basic propositions of climate science.”

Hamilton points to one answer when, paradoxically, he refers to “the democratic right of the Australian to tell lies.” Democratic right? As Hamilton notes “a free press is essential to democracy,” but freedom of the press is a limit on democracy, not a democratic right. Could other limits on democracy, rather than failures of democracy per se, explain U.S. inaction on climate change?

There are, in fact, good reasons to believe that, in some important respects, the U.S. is less democratic than many other developed countries.

First, from its inception, the political system of the U.S. included mechanisms to placate the anxieties of more rural, less populous states, especially in the South. (Indeed, one could say that the U.S. constitution was designed, at least in part, to make democracy safe for slavery.) The most notable of these mechanisms is the Senate, in which the 584,000 people of Wyoming have the same number of votes as the 37.2 million people of California.

Second, because elections for the executive and legislative branches are held on different cycles, levels of participation can vary significantly, often with dramatic consequences. The votes cast for the Republican majority elected to the House in 2010, for example, totaled only 44.6 million, just under 65 percent of the 69.5 million votes cast for Obama in 2008; yet, perhaps because of the two years separating those two elections,  Republicans are perceived to have a mandate that supersedes Obama’s.

Third, in the current interpretation of the Senate’s procedural rules — the Constitution grants each body the authority to decide on its rules; it does not spell these out — a minority of the Senate can block a bill simply by threatening to filibuster. To overcome this obstacle, the majority must muster 60 votes to thwart the threatened filibuster. This makes it much easier to block legislation. If the opposition is centered in the Midwest and West (excluding the coast), for example, then the blocking coalition of senators may have been elected by less than 10 percent of the nation’s eligible voters. And according to a 2010 study by the liberal Center for American Progress, Republicans’ use of the filibuster has increased dramatically in recent years. (The consensus model followed by the IPCC and UNFCCC produces a similar result: determined dissenters can exercise a disproportionate influence.)

Fourth, the Senate’s procedural rules allow an individual senator to put a hold on a presidential nominee or on a judicial appointment. This makes it much easier to block or stall executive programs, initiatives, or regulations. Although the Senate made a nominal effort in January 2011 to limit the practice of anonymous holds, Senators representing parochial or marginal interests still have the power to block the choices of an executive elected by a majority of the nation’s voters. To take the most extreme example, if Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski were to put a hold on an Obama nominee, a senator elected by just over 100,000 votes could thwart the will of a president elected by 69.5 million.

These profoundly undemocratic elements of the American political system were important factors in the Senate’s failure even to take up the House’s cap-and-trade bill in 2009 (and again in 2010). In effect, climate skeptics in the U.S. have benefited from a system of affirmative action that far surpasses any hand-up ever offered to women, minorities, or the disabled.

Reducing the number and/or influence of these undemocratic elements would result in more democracy. Perhaps that’s what Hamilton has in mind when he “calls for the reinvigoration of democracy.” But removing impediments involves a different set of muscles than quickening one’s pace. Little will be accomplished by trying the wrong thing harder.

Editor’s Note: As a taxpaying resident of the District of Columbia, Svoboda has no representation in the Senate and only token representation in the House.

Postscript: Two just-published studies offer some interesting counterpoints to Hamilton’s essay. In “Models of Democracy in Social Studies of Science,” Darrin Durrant argues that social scientists typically approach the problem of science in democracy with one of two very different conceptions of democracy: German philosopher Jurgen Habermas’s normative model of deliberation or American philosopher John Rawl’s vision of liberal egalitarianism. In their working paper for the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (Japan), Eric Zusman, Koji Fukuda, Madoka Yoshino, and Jun Ichihara more directly ask “Why the United States Lacks a Federal Climate Policy” and turn to “Collective Action Problems, Tea Parties, and Blue Dogs” for their answer.

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since...