Now even Cambridge professors argue for deliberative democracy and sustained street protest, to tackle our climate breakdown


A very concise and useful article from David Runciman, Professor of Politics at Cambridge, and a major thinker on the future of democracy. A pretty establishment figure, you might imagine (and this piece is written for the US-based Foreign Policy).

But as he grapples with the generational divide around the importance of climate change - the young holding it as a high priority, the old much less - Runciman shows that even elite thinkers are having to question our current forms of democracy. They are opening themselves up to radical, ground-up solutions.

For example:

If democratic politicians are to make good on their promises to Thunberg and her peers, one of the largest barriers in their way are their own electorates. And citizens may become more antagonistic as governments push forward on new policies.

Tackling climate change is going to require significant behavioral change: in what we eat, where we live, and how we travel. Current patterns of food and energy consumption are unsustainable. If we and the planet are to survive, that will mean less meat, smaller homes, and fewer cars.

The old, however, tend to find changing their behavior to be more difficult than the young do. Again, this is not because they don’t care about the future of the planet nor simply because they won’t have to live with the consequences of failing to change. It is because age brings experience, and experience brings an aversion to loss.

The older we are, the more likely we are to have things we don’t want to give up. People who have never driven a car will find it far easier to do without than people who have used one for their entire lives.

One solution to this generational imbalance might be to simply wait it out, since younger generations will replace older ones before too long. If generational divisions are primarily attitudinal rather than material, there is reason to think that young people will persist in their concern about climate change as they age.

Eventually the college-educated young of the present will become the college-educated old of the future. The climate crisis will rise up the political agenda as climate-conscious generations ascend the age ladder.

The problem is that the climate can’t wait that long. Today’s enlightened young will not age quickly enough; decisive action needs to be taken before 2030, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change now insists.

Or earlier! Runciman here picks up a point he’s made before (and which generated some controversy) about one way to rectify the generational political imbalance - which is to extend the voting franchise to younger ages, even way below the current options of 16/17 years. (He’s now revising his support - it may look like “gerrymandering” against older generations).

But Runciman generally concludes:

…The evidence of the last 30-plus years of climate politics suggests that electoral democracy is not well suited to reaching a consensus on what is to be done. The inevitable partisanship of this form of politics reinforces wider social divisions.

Different perspectives on the long-term future get turned into polarized positions on climate change, making it harder to reach a shared perspective on carbon emissions and renewable energy. Party politics drowns out the pursuit of common ground.

If electoral democracy is inadequate to the task of addressing climate change, and the task is the most urgent one humanity faces, then other kinds of politics are urgently needed. The most radical alternative of all would be to consider moving beyond democracy altogether.

The authoritarian Chinese system has some advantages when it comes to addressing climate change: One-party rule means freedom from electoral cycles and less need for public consultation. Technocratic solutions that put power in the hands of unelected experts could take key decisions out of the hands of voters.

But there are two reasons to doubt that this is what the climate emergency needs. First, any transition from a democratic to a post-democratic system would be massively disruptive. The barriers in the way of action on climate are also barriers to other forms of radical political change. There would be resistance, including from older generations.

David Runciman

David Runciman

Second, it would not satisfy Thunberg’s generation either. She was not asking for less democracy. She was asking for a democracy in which she could be heard.

What’s needed instead are democratic reforms capable of moving past the generational impasse in electoral politics. One alternative is more deliberative democracy, which would allow individuals with different points of view to engage with each other directly, free from partisan representation.

They might not end up agreeing, but at least they would be speaking for themselves and encountering new opportunities to reach consensus. In citizens’ assemblies, school-age children and their grandparents’ generation could jointly participate in political discussion and decision-making—so long as policymakers agree to bind their own decisions to the outcomes of these deliberations.

Another alternative would be more radical direct democracy. Politicians who are unmoved by electoral threats, and citizens otherwise committed to status quo policy, can sometimes be jolted into action by street protests, especially if they are sustained over long periods of time.

Thunberg’s London trip coincided with widespread protests by the group Extinction Rebellion, which has adopted tactics inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and the U.S. civil rights movement. Acts of civil disobedience brought parts of London to a halt to raise awareness of the moral urgency of the issue. Some of those taking part were very young—Extinction Rebellion has a youth wing. But others were not, including Phil Kingston, who was arrested after climbing onto the roof of a train at 83 years old.

Channeling more energy into these other forms of democracy—into citizens’ assemblies and civil disobedience, rather than elections and party-building—will change our politics drastically. But it may be the only way to ensure our planet does not change beyond recognition. 

More here.

Runciman’s blog, Talking Politics, is an entertaining wonk-fest about contemporary affairs. David himself is an open-minded figure, who has reviewed interestingly on the futurist Harari, climate science denial, and against rule by experts. But for A/UKs interests, it’s Runciman’s conclusion at the end of an article about contemporary British political leadership that really intrigues:

…If the result of the turmoil of the past few years and of the months and years to come is that we end up with less faith in the power of presidents and prime ministers to make all the difference, that will be no bad thing. Maybe what comes after the myth of the strong leader is the idea of leaderless democracy. There are far worse ideas.