An Authoritarian Climate

Certain influential forces in the environmental movement – most notably James Hansen of NASA – have expressed disquiet with the inability of democracies to deal with their imagined “climate crisis,” leading to sentiments like this one from Australian authors David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith:

We need an authoritarian form of government in order to implement the scientific consensus on greenhouse gas emissions

Climatologists Nico Stehr and Hans von Storch discuss this argument at Roger Pielke Jr’s blog.  Thankfully, the demands for an “Ecologocracy,” for want of a better term, are not yet universal in the environmental movement.  They conclude:

Finally, the growing impatience of prominent climate researchers constitutes an implicit embrace of now popular social theories. We think in this context especially of Jared Diamond’s theories on the fate of human societies. Diamond argues that only those societies have a chance of survival which practice sustainable lifestyles. Climate researchers have evidently been impressed by Diamond’s deterministic social theory. However, they have drawn the wrong conclusion, namely that only authoritarian political states guided by scientists make effective and correct decisions on the climate issue. History teaches us that the opposite is the case.

Therefore, today’s China cannot serve as a model. Climate policy must be compatible with democracy, otherwise the threat to civilization will be much more than just changes to our physical environment.

Indeed.  In fact, there may be another reason for those who despise greenhouse gas emissions also to despise democracy. and it is precisely linked to the threat to civilization.  We know that the best indicator of low greenhouse gas emissions is poverty.  As Daron Acemoglu shows, rejecting Diamond, poverty is strongly linked to the lack of market institutions that democracy protects:

People need incentives to invest and prosper; they need to know that if they work hard, they can make money and actually keep that money. And the key to ensuring those incentives is sound institutions — the rule of law and security and a governing system that offers opportunities to achieve and innovate. That’s what determines the haves from the have-nots — not geography or weather or technology or disease or ethnicity.
Put simply: Fix incentives and you will fix poverty. And if you wish to fix institutions, you have to fix governments.

To put it another way, the authoritarian solution to the global warming problem, in so far as it exists, is the imposition of poverty, for that is the inevitable result of the restriction of energy use that is the authoritarians’ sine qua non. Those of us who are trying to think of alternative solutions to the problem, however, are convinced that it is the same institutions that have delivered us from poverty that will deliver us from whatever ills a warmer world might impose. To see more on this, check out Marlo Lewis’ film Policy Peril, in particular this segment.