Of Democracy and Climate – Two Lessons from Paris
ROME – In the space of just a few days, two fundamental lessons have come from Paris for the world about democracy and climate. The media have been dealing with them as separate issues, but they are, in fact, linked by the same problem that can no longer be ignored: democracy is on the wane.
While all media have reported the defeat of the Front National in the French administrative elections, and while few have made the old observation that to win a battle is not to win a war, there is no doubt that the FN is becoming a mainstream party.
In these elections, the traditional political system – the centre-right under former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and the socialists under current president François Hollande – again joined forces to keep the FN under Marine Le Pen out.
But it is time to consider that the right wing in Europe (as well as in the United States), is going beyond nostalgia and xenophobia. Its growth in every European country is due to an expanding number of disaffected citizens, many of whom come from the working class and the poorest sections of society. They are citizens who once vote for the left, but have become frustrated with the decline of welfare structures, unemployment for them or their children, a state in retreat in favour of the market, growing social injustice, immigration felt as a threat, loss of national identity and strident corruption.
This has created a new category of what could be called “economic nationalism” which wants to combat all forms of foreign intrusion, whether it be the European Union, immigrants, NATO or multinationals. The traditional parties are looked on as a self-referent mechanism of unaccountable elites, who are interested in perpetuation in power and do not deliver what citizens need. It is mix of xenophobia, nationalism, nostalgia for a past that was better, a call for an economy that enhances the nation without giving any space to foreign forces and institutions – it is a container large enough to accommodate a growing part of the electorate.
The traditional parties have done their best to foment those feelings. They have become more and more based on personalities than idea and vision. They have lost the classical structure of party affiliation, increasingly becoming movements of public opinion, with campaigns closer to brand launching than programmes.
As I write, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was telling his followers what many of the political elite are thinking. There is no longer a left and a right, he said, explaining that his party (Democratic Party) would become a party of the nation, replacing the centre-left party that he took over in December 2013.
This lack of the identity of the left has led to the success of right-wing politicians, first in Hungary and then in Poland, whose leaders claim to act on behalf of the nation, and insist that there is no more a left wing.
When the next presidential elections are held in 2017 in France, it is not so clear that Marian Le Pen will again be left out by the system. While the trick of erecting a dam by the two traditional parties which joined forces has worked until now, the effect is will be that people are convinced that the NF is really a victim of the system.
Meanwhile, Hollande went to the polls with a very expensive war that he has undertaken against the Islamic State (ISIS) under his belt. That will further reduce the resources necessary to address the country’s problems, which will make disgruntled citizens leave the Socialist Party and turn to the FN (and, we must add, young excluded second and third generation Arabs to ISIS).
We cannot afford to ignore that since the economic crisis of 2008, the right wing has been on the rise in every European country. And the policy of the left wing to mimic the right in order to ride the trend has in fact strengthened the flight to the right.
If there were elections today for creating the European Union, the large consensus that accompanied its foundation would be largely missing. And would it be possible today to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
The last World Values Survey report found that democracy as a concept is becoming brittle. A growing number of citizens would be ready to accept a non-democratic system, if this was more efficient in satisfying what they consider vital needs. Just consider the United States where, in 1956, only one in 15 approved the idea of “having the army rule”. Now this has risen to one in six. Among those born since the 1980s, only 30 percent gave maximum import_ance to living in a democracy. One-third of Americans believe that they do not live in a democratic country.
The coming U.S. elections will have an estimated cost of at least 4 billion dollars. Of the estimated 468 million dollars spent until now, fewer than 400 families have contributed nearly half of that money. The oil mogul Koch brothers alone have announced that they will donate close to one billion dollars. No wonder citizens feel that their votes do not carry the same weight.
Now let us turn to the Climate Summit which has just ended in Paris. One of the most serious limitations of the Climate Pact that has been agreed is that it is not a treaty, and is not therefore binding. This is due to the fact that the U.S. Republican-dominated Congress would immediately kill any treaty on climate. The official Republican position is that there is no climate change, and that those who claim so are part of an international conspiracy against the U.S. energy sector.
Republican U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has led the charge against U.S. President Barack Obama’s climate change agenda, has declared: “Before his [Obama’s] international partners pop the champagne, they should remember that this is an unattainable deal based on a domestic energy plan that is likely illegal, that half the states have sued to halt, and that Congress has already voted to reject.”
As it obviously impossible to think that Republican senators are unaware that 66 percent of Americans support a binding climate treaty, the fact that the largest contribution for their election comes from Koch and the likes is a clear example of how politicians can insulate themselves from reality if it is in their interest. And, is it acceptable for 54 U.S. senators (the Republican majority in the 100-seat senate chamber) to block whatever the 7.5 billion making up humankind want?
What the Paris climate agreement means is that the targets that each country decides on its own will have no enforcement. The first appraisal of the situation will be done in 2018, and again the world will be hanging on who will be the President of United States. A Republican president would completely change the U.S. position, and several countries would be only too happy to follow.
The fact is that we are probably too late to reverse the mess we have created. If the first U.N. Climate Change Conference in Berlin 20 years ago had taken the issue of climate change seriously, we would have had the time to do something. But now we are already at 1 degree Centigrade over the temperature of the industrial revolution. The engagements taken by countries will lead to an increase of at least 3.7 degrees Centigrade. The hoped for goal had been to not go beyond 2 degrees, and this goal was widely known to be as a political expedient, a means to bring all parties on board.
The fact is that an increase of 1.5 degrees Centigrade would already bring serious problems. The research organisation Climate Central recently predicted that a 2 degree increase would place 280 million people under water, and with a 1.5 degree increase “only” 137 million would be submerged. But if we have already used up one the two degree Centigrade before reaching an agreement, how we will be able to remain within 1.5, if we start so late?
What is incredible is that climate change has been seen basically as a technical event, with political implications. In fact, the real problem of climate change is a question of justice, as the Laudato si encyclical of Pope Francis has affirmed.
Industrialised countries have become wealthy by burning fossil fuel for the last 200 years: countries with just 10 percent of the world’s population are responsible for around 60 percent of the greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere. So, they have an “ecological debt” with the countries which are industrialising now. The International Energy Agency estimates that to bring the climate under control (at 2 degrees Centigrade) would require 1,000 billion dollars per year by 2020. However, the Paris Pact commits only to mobilising 100 billion dollars by 2020 – just one-tenth of what is required – and there is no commitment to increase this figure, only to review it by 2025.
Of course, 100 billion dollars is a huge amount, but the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – not a champion of social justice but of monetary rectitude – has just published a study which reports that post-tax global energy subsidies rose 3 billion each year from 2011 to 2015 and will reach the staggering amount of 5.3 trillion dollars this year, or roughly 6.5 percent of the global gross domestic product (GDP). That, according to IMF, is significantly more than emerging and low-income countries spend on public health and other core social and economic priorities. The industrialised countries have spent 14,000 billion dollars in bailing out banks. That, again, is more than what industrialised countries have spent since the crisis of 2008 on health and education.
The Paris climate summit also ignored a number of relevant issues: human rights, funds for people in poor countries who are the victims of climate change (the United Nations estimates that by 2050 we could have well over 250 million “climate refugees”, a category that is simply non-existent in international law).
We could continue listing the many inconsistencies and holes in the Paris Pact but what is clear is that we do not have even a minimum system of global governance. Climate change will add to the sense of insecurity that many citizens of the world feel. Poor countries, of course, will suffer a disproportionate share of the disasters. But the industrialised countries will also have to undergo some change in lifestyle. Without that, the action of governments alone will be unable to save the planet as we know it today.
It is interesting to note how the political actors in Paris saw this. They issued several declarations acknowledging that the Climate Pact does not solve the issue of stabilising our climate. Of course, cheery declarations have been made that this is just the beginning of a process, and that progress will be continued in the future, so we must be optimistic. This is because those political actors oozed confidence that markets will play a forceful role by investing in new technologies, which will speed up the process.
Markets are not, of course, related to the issue of justice. Little has been said about the real force for change: the citizens from all over the world who have taken action and occupied public space to demand that governments act before it is too late. All this citizen action started with the Limit to Growth declaration of the Club of Rome in 1972. It has taken nearly 45 years to bring political leaders to accept that the problem exists (at the 2009 Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, this was still under debate). And then we had undeniable data about record heat waves, melting glaciers, expanding deserts, intensifying hurricanes, and much more. Even this was not enough to have those political leaders listen to reality (and to people), and clinch a deal. We had to wait until 2015.
In 2050 we will know how many degrees we will be over our normal climate level, but it is safe to say that the growing deterioration of the planet will only increase the sense of insecurity in which we already live … terrorism is just the latest stroke. For so long as governments expect the market to do their job, citizen disaffection will grow.
A few days ago, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman wrote a column in the New York Time entitled “Empowering the Ugliness”, where he reflects on why the Donald Trumps and Marine Le Pens are on the rise: “… this ugliness has been empowered by the very establishments that now act so horrified at the seemingly sudden turn of events … [now they] are facing the monsters they helped create.”
But we should not forget that it is out of a similar process that “men of providence” have risen and taken over democratic governments. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have lived an era of uncontrolled greed. We are now entering a period of fear and insecurity. We should agree that fear and greed are not pillars for democracy.
*Roberto Savio is founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News.