When the CEO of an oil company urges politicians to develop policies for energy, water and food, it's time we sat up and took notice.
by Lars Moratis
Recently, Dutch citizens experienced a democratic climax in the fifth national elections in 10 years. Strikingly, even as more debates have concentrated on competing visions on the future of Dutch society than on measures to cut the national deficit or start new government programs, the issue of sustainability has remained absent.
It seemed like the term 'climate change' was somehow deleted from their vocabularies. In the recently televised Prime Minister's debate , it took over an hour for one of the political leaders to mention the S-word.
Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Monti encountered the resentment of many in Europe when he proposed recently in Der Spiegel that a temporary bypass of parliaments might not be a bad idea in taking on the continent's debt crisis. Such a proclamation, especially done by a statesman of the caliber of Monti is more or less a form of political blasphemy and has been qualified as an attempt to assassinate democracy as we know it.
However, the fact that Monti´s suggestion touches an open nerve may not be reason enough to withhold such suggestions – democracy, too, has its limitations and the last thing we need to do is shut our eyes to these. Monti, after all, will neither be a threat to the Euro nor for democracy, but climate change will be so all the more.
Putting Democracy on Hold: A Wicked Problem
The complexity of issues such as climate change is obviously huge. The problem disregards national boundaries and has gotten entangled in political dependencies. It touches the development of emerging economies and the great challenges of poverty and emancipation and is intricately woven into other global crises. When you combine this, as scientist and originator of the Gaia theory James Lovelock does, with the stupidity and inertia of man, then you're confronted with what academics call a 'wicked problem.'
Lovelock suggests that it may well be necessary to put democracy on hold for a little while in order to solve this kind of a problem – only then can we hope to solve the issue of climate change. A scientist with some controversial ideas may dodge criticism easier with such an extreme point of view than the (unelected) Italian Prime Minister, but they're talking about the same thing.
Shell CEO Demands Political Action on Impending Water Crisis
The cogent relationship between climate change and democracy was also recently emphasized – albeit indirectly – by Shell CEO Peter Voser in an interview with a Dutch newspaper. Warning the emergence of worldwide conflicts and water shortages, the CEO called upon politicians to develop policies for water, energy and food. If we don't act now, he said, there will be an 40 percent increased need for water by 2030 compared to 2012, while the supply of water gets scarcer and scarcer.
Besides the irony that the leader of an oil company that has become an icon for disinvestments in clean alternative sources of energy and whose activities have been more than once proved a source of conflict and social unrest, there is of course little dissension about this analysis.
Climate change isn't just an environmental problem.
Or a social problem as the recent Oxfam-Novib report Extreme Weather, Extreme Prices: Feeding a Warming World painfully shows. It is also becoming a bigger economic problem every day. The longer we wait with taking appropriate climate measures, the higher the costs of the problem and the measures will get, according the infamous report Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change.
Rising Temperatures & Economic Growth
Recent research by MIT scientist Olken and his colleagues found that rising temperatures reduce economic growth in developing countries and that the effects of climate change slow economic growth rates. Is climate change then at the heart of our international society's wellbeing and prosperity as well? The paper describes it as the societal equivalent of a coronary artery that is rapidly clogging up and is becoming a tale of war and peace by the day.
The inevitable conclusion:
Ineffectively combating climate change is synonymous with putting the axe at the fundamentals of democracy and an important source of social disruption.
There is no time for inertia, whether by our politicians or our scientists. A democracy that has run aground will undoubtedly lead to problems and pleas from people like Monti or Lovelock serve the purpose of protecting democracy against itself – nothing more and nothing less.
Putting democracy on-hold may well be an all too radical panacea, but the current climate problems and their effects are too complex to counter with traditional solutions from a system with inherent limitations. Let the topic be debated far and wide because not effectively combating climate change is democratic suicide.
About the Author:
Lars Moratis is an author and expert in the field of CSR and sustainability and is associated with NCDO (the Dutch expertise and advisory centre for citizenship and international cooperation) and the Open University Faculty of Management Sciences in the Netherlands.