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A climate change rally in Sydney on January 10. Photo/Getty Images

Is democracy strong enough to tackle climate change?

Australia's bushfires are stoking concern about our ability to save the planet democratically, with some calling for "eco-authoritarianism".

The smoke from Australia’s devastating bushfires blew all the way to Germany this month – metaphorically at least – and it left a dark cloud hanging over Australian leader Scott Morrison.

“It’s impossible to imagine what’s going on in this man’s head,” one German editorial writer exclaimed in a national newspaper, criticising Morrison’s party-political promotional video.

“What’s happening in Australia is a warning to the rest of the world,” an editor at national radio station Deutschlandfunk wrote. When Morrison won re-election, Australian voters’ “fear of change was greater than their fear of fire”.

Voters’ apparent inability to accept the difficult changes needed to save the environment is not exclusive to Australia. The gilets jaunes protests in France started over an increase in petrol prices meant to help France become more environmentally friendly. In Berlin, angry farmers drove an estimated 8600 tractors into the city last year, mostly because they were upset about new rules to protect insects and groundwater.

All of which is why it sometimes seems as if democracy isn’t the right system to deal with the climate crisis. The environment is “bigger than democracy”, Roger Hallam, the British co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, said in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine. “Global politics are clearly too weak to bring about the radical change that is needed,” he argued.

“We need to rethink democracy,” Luisa Neubauer, one of Germany’s Fridays for Future movement’s spokespeople, told journalists last summer.

In fact, this is not a new proposal. Almost 10 years ago, British scientist James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia theory, which says that all organisms on Earth are connected, put it this way: “Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold … I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war.”

Other scientists have said similar things. Last November, Phil Saxby, of Aotearoa Climate Emergency, the group that wants the New Zealand Government to declare a climate emergency, told media, “What we really need is the message that ‘this is war’.”

Anyone who’s seen the pictures of incinerated baby kangaroos may be tempted to agree. However, caution is needed. Wars tend to be finite affairs; the environment is forever. Wars involve an enemy. Anthropogenic global warming is trickier, because we are our own enemy.

This is where perceptions of environmental justice come into it. Experts including Peter Newell, a professor at the University of Sussex who studies the political economy of environment and development, say that imposing policy from above provokes protests such as those by the German farmers and French lorry drivers, and this impedes progress.

And that, advocates say, is why democracy matters. Because, to meet this existential challenge, everybody needs to be on board for the long haul.

A number of innovations are being considered in Europe that would promote, rather than lessen, democracy. They include lowering the voting age, introducing commissioners for future generations, defining “crimes against nature”, and “citizens’ assemblies” in which representatives from the general population are brought together to deliberate policy. France is organising one of the biggest, with a panel of 150 citizens formed late last year, a direct result of the gilets jaunes protests.

In the end, though, as the world watches Australia burn, whether you think we need eco-authoritarianism probably all comes down to your answer to another question: Are humans so selfish, stupid and involuntarily evil that we need an eco-dictator to tell us what to do? Or not?

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash.org, based in Berlin.

This article was first published in the January 25, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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