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“Why have the democracies done so little to tackle climate change?”

I opened “The Confidence Trap” by David Runciman, a political scientist from Cambridge, in search for fresh insights into the history of ‘democracy in crisis’. Runciman talks in general terms about seven points in history when democracy was indeed in crisis, including the period that followed the recent financial crash of 2008. He does not have a lot to say about the role of popular mobilisation and protest during this most recent crisis, concentrating instead on the actions of the leading political actors as well as unelected officials. This particular approach made me wonder what he was going to say about democracy’s ability to face the challenge of climate change.

He recognised that over the past decade the established democracies failed to take meaningful action on climate change. He identified the persistent lack of decisive action on the most important environmental issues as one of the four main challenges that the democracies were now facing. Hence, the question: why have the democracies done so little to tackle climate change?

One explanation has often been to blame the inaction on the complexity of climate change science that democratic publics simply cannot grasp to understand the urgency of the issue. A similar kind of criticism has often been levelled at democracy by those who prefer a more elitist form of governance. In the current context, however (when citizens often seem to know more about science related to environmental issues than their elected representatives), this critique could hardly stand up to scrutiny.

But then Runciman suggests an alternative explanation and one that is in keeping with his analysis that presents democracy as a deeply paradoxical exercise in governance. “The democracies have failed to act (…) because they know they are not stupid and will take the necessary action when it is required” (315). In other words, democracies know very well that they have been able to muddle through many crises in the past thanks to their remarkable ability to adapt to straitened circumstances. What’s paradoxical is that precisely because they know that, it is so difficult to make a decision to face up to the challenge of climate change. Democracies are so confident that they will be able to tackle all sorts of distress and hardship that they fail to act at the right moment, which in the case of climate change, can bring about irreparable harm worldwide.

In a more recent review article, Runciman poses another pertinent question: if democracy looks more like part of the problem, wouldn’t it be logical to find a way around it to deal with climate change? If global warming requires only a technological solution, maybe it would be possible to bypass politics with its short-sightedness and dependence on electoral cycles altogether? Runciman does not believe that this is the right thing to do because it would mean sacrificing democratic accountability that we depend on for our long-term future. Sustaining democracy in the face of climate change may then be another formidable challenge that democratic populations will have to deal with in the nearest future.


Runciman, D. (2015). The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present (Updated edition). Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Runciman, D. (2015, September 24). A Tide of Horseshit. London Review of Books, pp. 34–36.

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