The words “democracy” and “climate change” too seldom occur within the same document.

That should change.

While separate and distinct issues confronting modern society, the two have a web of important interconnections, many of them likely very threatening to the well-being of both.

Some of the implications of the threats posed to democracy – writ large and in the U.S. – are that they can almost certainly have negative effects over the short term for dealing effectively with climate change; but equally or even more likely positive implications over the longer term. That’s assuming (risky assumption here) that society in fact has a long period of time in which to effectively manage our climate change-related risks. And time too for the Russian war on Ukraine to come to a decent end point.

Threats to democracy globally …

The latter is perhaps the most significant current global risk to small-d democratic principles, the war on Ukraine. Set aside for a moment that war per se is seldom, if ever, beneficial to environmental protection and natural resources overall. Recognize simply the shifting of public attention on, and concern over, the warming planet as media and national and international policy makers refocus their concerns and efforts on to the threats posed to democracy by that war. Or think of the shifting approaches by policy makers – at least over the short term as measured in months and years, and not days or weeks – on finding and drilling for more fossil fuels to power our diesels and internal combustion engines, high prices at the pump notwithstanding. Think of the irony of U.S. President Joe Biden’s going to Saudi Arabia, hat in hand, palm up, to help quench the thirst of our cars and trucks as mid-term election jitters mount.

It’s almost as if we’d returned once more to the days of “Drill, baby, drill.”   OK … not quite. But it seems inarguable that the inflation-spiked drive (no pun) to soften the blow of spiraling gas prices at the pump will only fuel more the thirst for more access to and combustion of fossil fuels over the short term. And also, one can easily imagine, growing interest over the long term, and in a post-war-driven future, in increased emphasis on renewables, electrification of cars and trucks, and freedom from despotic sources of polluting fossil fuels.

No need to look just overseas … domestic threats ‘real … deadly serious’

Regrettably, one need not go overseas to find very real threats to democracy – and therefore to our climate. Domestic threats to U.S. centuries of democratic governance and democratic traditions and institutions are also in play. One need turn only to a few of the many informed voices, from all sides of the ideological spectrum, to appreciate the seriousness of these issues:

  • [Scientist James Lovelock] “is pessimistic, noting that human inertia is so great that, barring a catastrophic event, the best democratic governments can do is to adapt to climate change – i.e., building sea walls around vulnerable cities. Lovelock argues that, to make the hard decisions needed to deal effectively with climate change, it may eventually be necessary to put democracy on hold, opting instead for environmental authoritarianism.” Robert Looney, economics professor at Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, writing on June 1, 2016, in Foreign Policy magazine.
  • “Democracies are much more likely than authoritarian regimes to give environmental sustainability priority over either energy security or affordable energy supplies …. In the U.S., a long-term campaign of disinformation funded by the fossil fuel sector has given rise to a large group of climate-change naysayers … Even in these countries, however, democracy is at work subtly prodding the government toward greater environmental sustainability.” Robert Looney in Foreign Policy, June 1, 2016.
  • “… blaring signs that our democratic system is in peril.” Sam Rosenfeld, Colgate University, writing in The Washington Post, January 7, 2022. 
  • “No one wants to see prime time about January 6 [congressional hearings on January 6 breach of the U.S. Capital]. They want to see prime time about how they’re going to have baby food on the shelves.” Liz Harrington, spokesperson for Donald Trump, as reported by Newsweek, June 6, 2022.
  •  “No one wants to hear about democracy. They want to hear about why the trains aren’t running on time.” Bill Kristol tweet on June 7.
  • “Democracy is very much on the line right now …. I’m for defending liberal democracy …. The crisis democracy faces is real …. A time for choosing: liberal democracy or illiberal authoritarianism.” Conservative commentator Bill Kristol tweet on June 9, 2022.
  • “The enemy of democracy is complacency.” The Economist, June 9, 2022.
  • “The crisis democracy is facing is real. It is deadly serious.” Bill Kristol tweet on June 9, 2022.
  • “The democracy emergency is closely linked to the climate crisis.  Each is grounded in a big lie …. Defusing the global climate emergency therefore depends on protecting democracy.” Mark Hertsgaard, writing in The Guardian, January 10, 2022.

All the “doomism” focusing on both issues – democracy and climate change – aside, there clearly remains reason for optimism: It is not yet too late to beat-back the anti-democratic challenges confronting our country, and also not too late to make progress in holding back the most serious impacts of a warming climate. (One must here acknowledge that this later effort is likely slowed as a result of the June 30 Supreme Court ruling in West Virginia v. EPA.

Also see: Does Supreme Court decision doom power plant rulemakings?

The myriad challenges involved in effectively managing the risks posed by our warming atmosphere rise daily. Those will need to be addressed with full-throated efforts for years and decades to come.

With defending our democratic principles, traditions and institutions, these efforts warrant a daily all-hands-on-deck effort. But the measure of those efforts is gauged each election day and in local, regional, national, and international campaigns.

Climate and democracy. Our successes in protecting one rely in significant part on protecting each: As one goes, so too goes the other. These two inseparable challenges rise or fall in unison.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is Editor of Yale Climate Connections. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as Assistant Director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission on Air Quality,...