That democracy will lead to effective action on climate should not be assumed.
Some climate change 'contrarians' maintain that scientists who warn of dangerous man-made global warming are scaremongering doomsayers. Government spending on environmental protection will, say others, send the economies of rich nations to rack and ruin, while condemning the world's poor to stay that way. Ideologues of a certain ilk believe that salvation will only come through unfettered capitalism and the unbridled forces of the market place, and characterize environmentalists as hopeless romantics who would have us revert to a pre-industrial agrarian existence devoid of life's necessities, such as medicine and flat-screen TVs.
It is in the nature of democracy — rightly so — that individuals holding such views should be, and are, free to express their views, mount campaigns, lobby lawmakers and vote for those that share their values and ideals. No one doubts that climate change sceptics, in particular, have been expert at playing the politics game. Whether they have been as good at winning the hearts and minds of the general populace is much less clear (see Snapshot, page 86).
Moreover, they face powerful opposition. In an address last summer, for example, US President Barack Obama called on his fellow Americans concerned about climate change and its impacts to flex their own democratic muscles to help ensure a cleaner, greener future: “Remind everyone who represents you, at every level of government, that there is no contradiction between a sound environment and a strong economy — and that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote.”
Across the world, the political battle lines on climate change and the environment are being drawn. Although a handful of high-profile scientists, such as James Hansen of Columbia University, have campaigned on climate for decades, researchers are entering the realm of political debate and advocacy in increasing numbers. Canada has at least one prominent climate scientist politician, former researcher Andrew Weaver having been elected last year to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia (N. Jones, Nature Clim. Change 3, 698–699; 2013).
But despite its manifest benefits — at least as compared with totalitarian or authoritarian alternatives, past or present — governance based on democratic principles, whether at national level or as enshrined in supranational bodies such as the United Nations, is not guaranteed to deliver decisive, and effective, action on climate. As an example, Australians now have a democratically elected government apparently set on increasing coal production and overturning the carbon tax. More generally, it remains an open question whether national and international governance, as currently formulated, will respond effectively to the challenges of climate change (see Feature, page 81).