10 May 2010: Can the climate wait for democracy?

The world faces an urgent climate crisis. There is no time to lose. However, the UK general election has produced no winner and, at the time of writing, it is still not clear who will form the next government. The most likely outcome is an agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Yet, as if to warn of the dangers of right/centre co-operation, German Chancellor Angel Merkel’s CDU and its coalition partners, the FDP, yesterday lost power in the German Land (region) of North Rhine Westphalia, the industrial centre of Germany.  The effect of the loss is that the coalition will not have a majority in the Bundesrat, Germany’s upper house (which consists of representatives of regional governments). This will make Merkel’s progressive efforts to decarbonise much more difficult to implement. In the US, Obama cannot get a climate bill though the Senate. Events like these are making some people question – privately and some even publicly – whether democracy is now a luxury we cannot afford. After all, the country now doing best on harnessing wind power is China, and some are arguing that this is because they don’t have to worry about trifles like land-use planning, consultation or votes. The men in charge (and it is almost always men) simply stick pins in a map to decide where the wind farms will go.

This line of thought and argument is wrong and dangerous. Democracy, as Winston Churchill famously once said, is the worst form of government apart from all the others. A benevolent dictator might be nice, but how to ensure that he or she is and remains benevolent? The Chinese government may be doing well on wind, but is still building huge numbers of coal power stations, and is certainly not benevolent. Multi-party democracy is the only moral form of government. People concerned about climate change need to win the arguments and build public support for solutions, not give up on democracy. In the UK, the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour manifestos all accept the importance of controlling climate change (see 18 April 2010: UK manifestos and climate proposals). So do the Scottish and Welsh nationalists.  The Green Party won its first seat. The parties that deny human responsibility for climate change, such as the UK Independence Party, won no seats.

One of the main concerns about UK politics now is that about half of Conservative candidates surveyed before the general election said that they did not believe in human-induced climate change. And very few Conservative candidates said that it was one of their priorities. However, this is a case where a strong party structure and prime ministerial patronage have advantages. David Cameron is genuinely committed to strong climate action. Those Conservative MPs who do not care strongly about climate change are not likely to choose to damage their career prospects by voting against the party line. And, sensibly, the Conservatives stress the energy security advantages of renewables, CCS and nuclear, as well as the climate advantages. The UK has enormous wind (and, longer term, wave and tidal) potential, and enormous quantities of coal.

The EU is important in controlling climate change. Nuclear power is an important bridge technology. A Conservative/Lib Dem government would consist of a pro-nuclear, anti-EU party and an anti-nuclear, pro-EU party. Yet William Hague, who leads for the Conservatives on foreign policy and is definitely no fan of the EU, has accepted that the EU is important in climate policy. Lib Dem Nick Clegg has said that opposition to nuclear is not theological. So progress on both fronts is not impossible.

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