Oh, would some Power the gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
— Robert Burns
When you walk out of the Scottish Event Campus and travel west down the Clyde toward the Atlantic Ocean, passing the sleek menagerie of Glasgow’s revitalized waterfront and the fading remnants of the industry and empire and desolation that followed in their wake, you will eventually come upon the mouth of Gare Loch, on which sits a naval base known as Faslane, the home of Trident, Britain’s nuclear arsenal. Stretching before you, in the sublime beauty of the Scottish Highlands, will be some of Europe’s most pristine wilderness, while behind you sits a storied city that lives in the constant shadow of humanity’s capacity for self-destruction, a silent but ever-present reminder that human progress has reached a point at which it is able to undo all that it has achieved in an instant.
It seems unlikely that such a juxtaposition was on the minds of whoever decided that a Glasgow exhibition centre would be a suitable venue for recent high-level discussions about how to avert the impending breakdown of the earth’s climate. Self-awareness is rarely a virtue of global politics.
If nuclear annihilation is frightening in its suddenness, climate collapse is the opposite. The comparatively gradual pace at which we are making the planet uninhabitable for human life has allowed inaction to be the norm in the face of ruin; we deny the problem, downplay its severity, and maintain our faith that we will eventually get around to solving things at some ill-defined point in the future. But with every record-breaking storm, every suffocatingly sweltering summer day, every once-in-a-century wildfire or flood or atmospheric river, the case for denialism, for procrastination, for ineffectual half measures grows increasingly hollow. The realization that our day of reckoning may at last be in sight is evidence that climate change has replaced nuclear war as the centrepiece of secular eschatology, bringing with it all of the fire and brimstone that one might expect to follow our collective sin of straying from the path of righteousness. We may yet have time to repent, but it is, doubtless, running out.
And thus representatives for 197 attending parties, a who’s who of climate activists, and countless others descended upon Glasgow for COP26, our latest last best hope to pull ourselves back from the brink. The Paris Agreement, negotiated at the twenty-first Conference of Parties, in 2015, left a glaring gap that needed to be addressed between our pledges and our plans, meaning that as participants arrived in this great city of Caledonian antisyzygy, their task was to reconcile a long-established reluctance to act with a presumed desire to secure for humanity a reasonable future. And at this task COP26 manifestly failed.
We needed to find some way of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels; instead, our commitments through 2030 have us on a path to 2.4 degrees, wholly inadequate to head off catastrophe. Once again, we had a historic opportunity to act. Once again, we delayed. “The Glasgow Climate Pact,” as the British columnist George Monbiot put it, “looks like a suicide pact.” A headline in the conservative Scotland on Sunday was even more blunt: “Make no mistake, we are still on the road to hell.”
With the pageantry over — with the politicians and celebrities having flown home — it is hard to escape the feeling that little will come of the glamorous high-level summitry that is periodically able to capture our attention, or indeed of any decisions that are made so brazenly without the input of ordinary people. We almost certainly possess the technological and economic solutions that we need to address the climate emergency; what is lacking is a politics that is up to the job. The fact that we have reached this point and may yet travel further down the road of self-destruction represents a profound failure of liberalism. If we really are to save ourselves, what we need is a solution that at last grounds our response to the climate crisis in democratic politics. And we need it now.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the liberal international order — despite the cant and the bromides that it so commonly inspires — is how little it has to do with democracy. Most countries are not all that democratic in any meaningful sense, and even if they were, to assume that a collection of democracies would itself be democratic would be to commit a basic fallacy of composition: a whole does not always share the characteristics of its parts. What exists instead is a stifling and hierarchical institutional architecture that is ruled by a strange combination of technocratic managerialism and myopic hard-nosed realism, one that was built on the might of the American state in the power vacuum following the Second World War and that continues to buttress an economic system driven by endless production and consumption (the scale of which was made difficult to ignore by the garbage strike that accompanied COP26).
Even the sentiment that “we” got ourselves into this mess is misleading, given that a small fraction of us are responsible for an overwhelming share of the carbon emissions that are threatening our prospects for a brighter tomorrow. In a grotesquely unequal world, the rigidity of the international system means that we are compelled to confront a global problem without a global democracy or a global demos — a situation that closes avenues for meaningful mobilization and precludes the emergence of a shared politics of distributive justice. Our record in such circumstances is lamentable at best; global poverty, the unspoken reality of which means existential crisis is neither new nor exceptional for countless millions, would cost relatively little to solve. The uncomfortable truth that we’ve never really cared enough to do it, or that the international system has never birthed a form of politics that might compel us to, says a great deal about how we might continue to tackle the climate crisis or even whether we’ll bother to do much else about it at all.
In such a profoundly inadequate institutional setting, any meaningful action, for better or worse, will ultimately take place at the level of the state, still the primary vehicle for solving collective problems and still the highest level at which the democratic process, at least for some of us, can reasonably be said to exist. Such a reality does not inspire confidence, if only because it means that the fate of humanity rests disproportionately on the stability and rationality of the American political system, the benevolence of the Chinese Communist Party, and the altruism of a Putin, Modi, or Bolsonaro. But we have to work with what we’ve got.
As things stand, what we, as Canadians, have been able to achieve is nothing short of abysmal. COP26 came at a curious time for us, with our not-so-new government bolstered by a new cabinet and a fresh mandate that seemed to be delivered with a collective shrug of the shoulders and little of the inspiration that had swept the Liberals to power just before that meeting in Paris. The fact that, six years later, Glasgow was not a turning point reflects a far deeper problem than a temporary malaise brought about by underwhelming electoral performance.
Climate change appears to have decocted the true nature of our politics, exposing, in a pattern that is depressingly familiar, the gulf that separates how we like to see ourselves from reality: the Climate Action Tracker rates Canada’s plans, policies, and financing as “highly insufficient”; until recently, the Climate Change Performance Index ranked us fifty-eighth out of sixty-one countries, above only Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Perhaps this sorry state of affairs is just part of the eternal curse of Canadian self-government: our only real frame of reference is our often dysfunctional next-door neighbour, so we get to comfort ourselves with a misplaced sense of smug satisfaction after setting the bar so low that mediocrity can be mistaken for excellence. Perhaps the panegyrics about our record on the world stage are primarily for domestic consumption and mean little beyond our borders. Or maybe we simply hope that, because of our middling status, nobody notices when our actions fall short of our lofty words (although our second unsuccessful Security Council bid in a decade suggests that our posturing may finally be failing to resonate). Whatever the reason, Canada is, at the moment, part of the problem.
Many who wish to see a more proactive response to the climate emergency — and indeed much else — have rallied behind the Green New Deal, a loose collection of proposals that combines a recognition of the clear need to invest in the infrastructure and technology necessary to support a low-carbon future, the Keynesian principle that state spending can stimulate economic activity, and the obvious moral imperative that the benefits such spending would bring should accrue to those who need them the most. The modest idea that the state is capable of solving collective problems by undertaking large-scale spending should be uncontroversial in light of modern economic history, but the fact that we have torn down over successive decades both the capacity and the intellectual case for such intervention has made the task at hand far more difficult than it otherwise would be.
Still, the choice of the New Deal as a precedent for the mobilization of state power offers some useful points for reflection: that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Depression-era program not only saved capitalism but gave it a broader popular base by laying the ground, however imperfectly, for a more widely shared prosperity; that bureaucracies can be distanced from the communities they are supposed to serve, sometimes profoundly so; that on the global stage, the state that we implicitly mean, even after all this time, is still primarily the American one. Most importantly, though, the historical reference highlights how responding to the climate crisis is an economic question. And economic questions are fundamentally political: Who has power, who doesn’t, and what can we possibly do about it? Get the politics right, and we can get the economics right. Get the economics right, and we might just be able to pull ourselves out of this mess.
As a place to chart our collective course to a sustainable future, the setting of COP26 could scarcely have been more apposite. Glasgow did not have a just transition from earlier upheavals: its people were cursed first by being pulled into the dark satanic mills of industrial production and later by being callously cast out of them, a process made worse by the rollback of the protections offered by the postwar British welfare state and a breathtaking lack of concern for those who would lose out in a modern globalized economy. If working people in carbon-intensive industries in the rich world fear job losses as a result of a transition to a green economy, it is hard to say their concerns are unfounded. The potential costs of repeating such negligence are easy to imagine, particularly given the extent to which a widespread feeling of disempowerment has, in the years since Paris, shaken liberal democracy to its core. Glasgow is rather exceptional for having mercifully shunned the false promise of reactionary populism, a fate to which even Toronto, our own great beacon of enlightenment, has succumbed in living memory. It would be optimistic in the extreme to assume that it is possible to impose policies that ostensibly seek to save us from the climate emergency without provoking a strong backlash, that the gilets jaunes were not a sign of things to come, that it is still possible to substitute expert opinion for the forms of debate, compromise, and consensus that make up the democratic process.
And herein lies the problem. While what we urgently require is a democratic renewal to meet the demands of the moment, it is hard to remember when our politics was last about big ideas rather than tinkering at the margins, shallow personality assessments, or often forgettable allegations of corruption, incompetence, or mendacity. The lack of serious discussion in the civic arena is the logical consequence of a marked refusal to allow most decisions of any real consequence to be taken up by ordinary citizens. That a vaguely defined campaign of hope — as Trudeau found, like Obama before him — can inspire in such an environment is unsurprising, but it is bound to lead to disappointment because the hopes that people project on it will be for action that would far surpass anything that those who are peddling it are willing to do. Our politics, as the sloganeers might have it, at last needs real change.
Given the time horizon imposed by the climate emergency, any practical discussion of institutional reform is best limited to what can be done now for the greatest immediate impact. Some ideas, while not necessarily considered so far in the context of climate change, are nevertheless well rehearsed: electoral reform, long overdue, could at last free us from the bind of regionalized representation that produces false majorities. An improvement here could be particularly beneficial given the current ideological balance of our party system, how this expresses itself geographically, and how this expression seems to overlap with a reliance on carbon-intensive industries and an indifference to climate issues. It would be wrong, however, to view changes in how we vote as a panacea; much more needs to be done. Remember that neither a Liberal government federally nor an NDP one provincially has been able to transcend the politics of the Alberta oil sands, for example.
A far more consequential step would be to find spaces in which deliberative democracy can flourish. While the process of ordinary Canadians coming together to express their desires and concerns, learn from each other, and reach some sort of agreement about a collective response to the climate emergency would probably best be done locally, few things would empower the public as much as transforming the Senate — an anachronistic institution built on patronage and the principle, in the words of Cicero, which are inscribed in Latin in the Speaker’s chambers, that “it is the duty of the nobles to oppose the fickleness of the multitude”— into a forum for citizen deliberation. The United Kingdom, on which we have modelled so many of our own institutions, established a Climate Assembly in 2020. There’s no reason we can’t begin experimenting as well.
Another simple step would be to dramatically expand the franchise. David Runciman, who teaches politics at Cambridge, thinks the voting age should be lowered to six. Not sixteen, which is currently the lowest voting age in the world, in places like Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Austria, and Scotland, but ten years younger, which would empower every child who is in full-time education to participate in electoral democracy. Given that this is a generation of young people who will have to live with the consequences of the decisions that we make today — and who will live not only with climate breakdown but with potentially extreme forms of economic insecurity that could be addressed, at least in part, through climate policy — it is difficult to justify their continued exclusion from civic life. If we circumscribe the rights of children because we think we are guarding the rights of the adults they will become, surely we cannot say we are adequately protecting them with respect to our stewardship of the climate. If we don’t let them vote because we think they lack the capacity to understand the issues or make sound judgments, we are following a standard to which we clearly do not hold ourselves. And if we deny them the right to have their say because we think that they would be unduly influenced by their parents, we are almost certainly underestimating the extent to which our own party affiliations are based on our personal relationships and social status.
Opposition to change usually comes from those who benefit from the status quo; we shouldn’t forget that the Factory Acts, which regulated child labour in nineteenth-century Britain, were bitterly opposed in the name of free markets by those who profited the most from Dickensian exploitation. But the status quo isn’t working, and young people have a lot to offer. Given the state of the planet, could anyone honestly argue that giving them more power to shape their future would make things any worse?
For many Canadians, the journey down the Clyde from Glasgow to Gare Loch has an additional significance, for it was often the first step, literally and figuratively, of a migration route that has shaped our country like no other. Few places have provided more new Canadians than Scotland, many of whom have had an outsized influence on how we view ourselves and understand our place in the world: John A. Macdonald, our first prime minister, was born in Glasgow; Tommy Douglas, the founding figure of our health care system, was from nearby Camelon. In fact, more people claim Scottish descent in Canada than in Scotland itself, a startling testament to the promise of a brighter future that, for much of its history, our country has embodied. That promise — however imperfect, however exclusionary, however misguidedly self-congratulatory — has nevertheless been real enough for millions to leave behind everything they know based on little more than the belief that a better life, a better world, is possible.
But standing along the Clyde in the wake of COP26, one sees a much different view of Canada emerge. The hope of a brighter future — of any meaningful future — now hangs in the balance, and we are tipping the scales in the wrong direction. This country of ours, in the world of climate change mitigation, is a pariah, at least for those who care to look and see past the branding. If our politics, in its present form, is so manifestly unable to adequately respond to the challenge, then what we need, clearly, is to try something new.
Sadly, the prospect that we might use this crisis to reinvigorate our democracy seems remote. Behind the bland facade of Canadian statecraft lies a deeply conservative attitude toward change, understandable in a country with a quality of life that is virtually unimaginable in the faraway places that are much worse off. While such blithe complacency produces broad stability, it is unsuited to moments that demand urgent and drastic action, even when, as with climate change, things must change if they are to stay (relatively) the same. The fact that we have a government that initially came to power promising democratic reform before presumably realizing there was, in fact, no need to dispense with an electoral system that was working in its favour does not bode well, nor does the more fundamental truth that politics everywhere is primarily driven by a desire to win or hold on to power. Canadian parties, time and again, put their own interests above the greater good, and the climate is no exception.
Beyond the obvious practical obstacles that stand in the way of greater democratic control over our shared future, we need to confront much deeper and disturbing questions about who we are and what we really value. How many people truly, sincerely believe that democracy can wrench us from the path to oblivion before it’s too late? How many really trust each other when the stakes are so high and the hour is so late? How many would actually be willing to dispense with compromise to stave off crisis, surrendering, as so many have before, to enlightened despotism if doing so would allow them to get what they want? Hostility to democracy is not confined to reactionaries. It is the dark side of a liberalism that privileges the nobles over the multitude, one that is baked into our institutions at home and abroad. And if we’re not careful, it could be the dark side of climate politics. In our current crisis, environmental breakdown isn’t our only concern. So is the possibility that fewer people have faith in democracy than any of us would like to admit.
But as we stare into the face of an apocalypse of our own making, maybe a little bit of faith is what we need most right now — not in a higher power but in each other. Faith that in spite of our differences, in spite of everything that makes us intransigent and distrustful when it comes to change, we still have the ability to work together and figure this problem out. Maybe where we end up will look nothing like where we are now. And maybe that’s a good thing.
Graeme Young is a research fellow at the University of Glasgow.