A fairer democracy is vital to our fight against climate change

We must decentralise power and reform our voting system to regain people’s trust—and pass legislation to save the planet

March 15, 2021
David Attenborough speaking at the first UK-wide citizens' assembly on climate change. Photo:  PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
David Attenborough speaking at the first UK-wide citizens' assembly on climate change. Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Democracy, Winston Churchill famously said, is “the worst form of government except for all the others.” 

It can be cumbersome, slow and inefficient—the very opposite of what we need to address an accelerating crisis like the climate emergency. But I don’t believe we will successfully tackle climate change without a thriving democracy. Nor do I believe that democracy can survive our failure to keep the climate safe. We must succeed at both, or we will lose both. Faced with the scale of change that’s needed, it’s useful to draw some lessons from the coronavirus pandemic.   

The first lesson is that there is a huge well of common decency, generosity and community spirit: this came to the fore as we went into the first lockdown last spring. People across the country pulled together to help each other through the disruption. Trusted leaders can rely on people’s astonishing capacity to react well to a crisis.

The second lesson is that we need to pay early attention to the science. We knew that a pandemic of this kind was coming—scientists have been warning of it for years, and there have been three earlier outbreaks with the potential to become global pandemics this century: SARS, MERS and Ebola. Yet governments, including our own, were not ready to step up. 

It is only because of the brilliance and ingenuity of our scientists that we now have vaccines which may allow us to return to some version of normality. That’s not an option in the event of climate breakdown. 

Scientific curiosity means we’ve known for decades that we are endangering the climate by burning fossil fuels, yet governments are still not ready. The scientists, who are urging faster and more ambitious action, are being ignored—and so are the warning signs. 

Wildfires, floods, droughts and extreme storms have become regular features of a climate under stress. Without a stable climate, maintaining food, water and energy security will become progressively more difficult, eventually impossible, leading to political collapse.

It’s not surprising that, faced with this impending disaster, there are voices saying we don’t have the luxury of time for democratic debate and decision-making; that democracy is standing in the way of an effective response. 

While I understand this position, I believe it’s wrong.

An authoritarian approach would mean silencing civil society and academic and press freedom, losing the independence of the civil service and judiciary, and being subject to the enforcement of whatever path the government chose to take, with no opportunity to challenge where it might be going wrong or to take corrective action.

It would throw away our chance of ensuring that the transition to a greener, sustainable future is a fair one that leaves no one behind, and one that addresses the deep-rooted inequalities in our society.

And it would destroy trust in political leadership, when trust is essential for people to embrace the scale and pace of change that’s needed to respond to the climate emergency. 

We are already seeing the erosion of trust. Alarmingly, growing numbers of people say they no longer have confidence in democracy. Election turnout is on a long-term downward trend, and unregulated social media platforms are undermining the shared acceptance of what is factually true, which is crucial to democratic debate. 

People lose trust in democratic government when they feel their vote doesn’t count and their voice is not heard. 

We need to address that, with a fairer voting system which reflects the range of views in this country. We need to modernise electoral law to prevent abuse. We need to decentralise power away from Westminster, giving local government more fiscal freedom. And we need to enshrine this revitalised democratic system in a written constitution. 

These reforms would be worthwhile whether or not we faced the existential threat posed by the climate crisis. But climate change makes the renewal of faith in democracy, and active engagement with it, essential. If they’re to be successful, the huge changes that need to happen must be done with people, not to them.  

A revitalised democracy, with greater participation, including via citizens’ assemblies, would give people ownership of the decisions that need to be made. As we saw in the UK Citizens’ Assembly on Climate, when groups of people hear and interrogate a range of opinions, they can come up with solutions and a shared vision for the future, often supporting much bolder action than governments have been prepared to consider.  

They can help to provide a direct mandate, not only strengthening accountability, but legitimising the difficult choices that too many politicians try to avoid.  

The existential threat of the climate emergency is the most powerful case for rebuilding our democracy, and a revived democracy is the best way of ensuring we successfully tackle the huge challenges of climate change. 

The prize of a re-imagined democracy could be not only a stable climate but a fair and cohesive society, and an economy which offers dignity and opportunity.