In a summer of broken records, it is hard not to sound like a broken record. Something has to change, and let's hope democracy can help.

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In a summer of broken records, it is hard not to sound like a broken record, but… Last month was the hottest June ever recorded on this planet. That really is worth emphasizing, since we have had a number of record-breaking years and months over the last 20 years.

To couch the statistics in another way, every June for the last 47 years has been hotter than the 20th-century average for the month. And this is not constrained to air temperatures since the oceans are also trending hotter, with this June being the hottest month ever recorded for the planet’s oceans.

The US and Canada are burning up. Europe is a tinderbox. Asia is dangerously sweltering.

The alarms have been ringing for decades, but it seems like the bell has finally melted.

This is a global problem. And global problems require global solutions. Global solutions require extensive cooperation from particularly the most populous and polluting nations on Earth. The US, Europe, China, and India, together with Nigeria, Mexico, Indonesia, and the Middle East need to come together to work in unison toward a common goal: survival into the future.

I’ve often quipped that the only way to bring the world together and set aside our differences is to be attacked by aliens. Earthlings need a common enemy to strive for global unity. Here, global warming acts as the common enemy. But there are still too many people who deny its existence or its causal determinants. It also gets rather more difficult when certain individuals and nations stand to lose an awful lot of money in finding solutions to this existential threat.

Take the Middle East. The root of all its massive and concentrated wealth is fossil fuels. Without those hydrocarbons continuing to generate income, it is hard to see how some of those nations will be able to operate sustainable economies for the benefit of all of their citizens.

As The Business Standard reported in 2020:

Lesser oil money for the Arab countries, however, does not only mean a weaker economy. Most of the Middle Eastern countries’ existence is so much intertwined with petrodollars that absence or lack of it has deeper geopolitical repercussions than it would have on other oil producers like Russia and the US.

For Arab monarchs and dictators, oil brings public loyalty and unquestionable obedience to their militaries. Minus oil, it means government subsidy from Arab life disappears and people rising for their long-lost democratic rights. And the biggest nightmare of all, the militaries no longer unconditionally support the regimes.

The Middle East in a post-oil world

Perhaps the sun is the key. Harnessing solar energy consistently and in exceptionally concentrated ways might provide something of an answer. Whatever the solutions may be, one can predict how desperately those used to the constant flow of petrodollars might not want the cascades to stop.

It will be interesting to see if the manifestations of the current climate disaster spread across the world will do anything to change public opinion concerning the cause of climate change. It might be that there is a greater chance of lawmakers and citizens waking up to the heat of reality when those effects aren’t just about seeing a wildfire rip through scrubland in another country. The wake-up call might be all the more effective when it concerns experiencing clouds of smoke firsthand that have drifted en masse from a neighboring country or state. People might pay all the more attention when they are experiencing firsthand scorching temperatures when they leave their home or office. Voters might finally become all the more attuned to their local environments when they notice the flora around them withering and dying.

“When it’s someone else’s problem, it’s not my problem.” Up until now, it has seemed like someone else’s problem for too many people.

Perhaps we have become impervious to doom and gloom messaging. But at some point, it’s got to hit home. It’s no good relying on you and people like you doing a bit of recycling. That’s not going to touch the sides. This is about massive changes to the way we operate in society, root and branch change that can only really be achieved at the governmental level.

But for so many people, the word “regulation” is a dirty word. Far dirtier than the polluting fumes belching out of the coal-fired power station. Still dirtier than a lungful of diesel-engine fumes. Nevertheless, that is what it is going to take—regulation—to effectively solve this problem. And in order to have effective regulation in place, you need effective governments in place. Moreover, in order for regulations to be most effective, they need to be in place across the world. This means that you need effective governments in place everywhere. Finally, in order for effective governments to be in place everywhere, you need free and fair elections to be operating in functioning democracies.

It’s a voting thing.

Sadly, relying on voting is a risky business. Not only are we seeing evidence that the world is democratically backsliding, but also many of the nations that produce hydrocarbons are not nations that have functioning democracies. It is worth noting that the move away from fossils fuels and the democratic ideals of those nations seem to go hand in hand. The Center for Global Development has a paper, “Declining Oil Production Leads to More Democratic Governments.” In it, the authors say the following:

Many oil-rich countries have authoritarian governments. How will these governments be affected by a global transition away from fossil fuels? We use new, detailed oil data and an event-study design to analyze political change in 36 oil-producing countries that experienced at least 10 years of declining production. We find that when their production starts to decline, they become significantly more democratic, relative to both the overall sample trend and the parallel pre-peak trends. Ten years after their oil peak, 33 of the 36 countries had become more democratic. After 15 years, their relative democracy scores increased by an average of 9 percentage points. For countries that transitioned after 1980, these scores rose about 13 percentage points, and for larger producers, by about 20 percentage points. Our findings suggest that a global transition toward renewable energy may make the governments of oil-rich countries significantly more democratic.

Unfortunately, many of those countries with the highest consumption of such fuels (and in general) are often victim to the effects of monied interests: lobbying.

As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) states:

Although lobbying can be a positive force in democracy, it can also be a mechanism for powerful groups to influence laws and regulations at the expense of the public interest.

This may result in undue influence, unfair competition and policy capture, to the detriment of effective policy making.

While many countries are addressing lobbying related risks, practices to influence public policies have evolved beyond lobbying, and more than half of OECD countries have yet to address risks related to interactions of lobbying groups with public officials. 

If climate change really is the existential threat that it appears to be, then we should be obligated to make voting decisions that reflect the seriousness of our predicament. Furthermore, if we live in democratic nations, we should be looking out for the most damaging forms of lobbying.

On top of that, we need to be striving to defend our countries and democratic mechanisms from democratic backsliding. This should be done while trying to encourage the many nations of the world that do not have functioning democracies to move toward a more representative governance.

In short, solving climate change is one heck of a tall order. Especially when we are pitting one human behavior (voting in the hope of making the world a better place) against another, the “tragedy of the commons” (where “if numerous independent individuals should enjoy unfettered access to a finite, valuable resource…they will tend to over-use it, and may end up by destroying its value altogether”).

On the other hand, the costs of not doing so don’t bear thinking about.

If you are someone skeptical who has the good fortune to live in a life as yet unaffected, spare a thought for the Greek villager, or the Canadian farmer, or the koala, whose households, livelihoods, lives have been ripped apart or lost to the ravages of climate change.

And if you are one of those such inhabitants of Earth?

I’m so, so sorry. We need to try harder. Much harder.

And a damn sight more quickly.

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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