Climate change and democratic legitimacy

The ordinary understanding of the legitimacy of democratic governments is that their authority derives from a popular mandate; the government can legitimately impose laws on citizens because those citizens have the ability to replace the government if they choose.

The argument that popular consent makes the decisions of democratic governments legitimate is based on the assumption that the people impacted by those decisions are the citizens who are alive and voting.

Because greenhouse gas pollution endures for so long in the atmosphere, people for tens of thousands of years will be affected by the choices we make now. In particular, how much fossil fuel we collectively choose to burn during the next few decades will have a huge impact on the kind of world many future generations inhabit. We have a choice between passing on a world that largely resembles the one we inherited or passing on one that is radically transformed, largely in ways that are deeply harmful to the life prospects of future generations of human beings.

In this way, citizens and governments have entered into a conspiracy against future generations. Governments do not meaningfully restrict the use of fossil fuels. Indeed, they positively encourage it. This policy is popular because it facilitates many things that people value: from inexpensive domestic and foreign travel to cheap and uninterrupted electricity, air conditioning, winter heating, consumer goods, and all the conveniences and pleasures that exist in our energy-intensive lives. In order to maintain those lifestyles, we choose to burn vast quantities of fossil fuels.

The consequence is that many people with no political voice are made to suffer. This in turn undermines the moral legitimacy of the arrangement. The consent of the governed is a point in favour of democratic governments, but they must also be held accountable for the consequences of their actions on defenceless members of future generations who will suffer from the pollution we produce but who have no political voice.

What we are doing now is effectively treating members of future generations as our slaves, or at least as people whose interests do not matter at all. When democratic governments choose to treat people in that way, they lose the ability to convincingly argue that their behaviour is ethical. The question for individuals then becomes: “What should I do personally, living in this unjust society?”

4 thoughts on “Climate change and democratic legitimacy

  1. .

    Andrew Nikiforuk denounces the Energy of Slaves

    Published on Friday August 24, 2012

    Every oil company and petrostate today whistles a patriarchal tune. The American Petroleum Institute says the world needs more energy because oil drives “the American dream” and gives people the freedom to move anywhere, anytime. For Rex Tillerson, chairman and ceo of Exxon Mobil Corporation, the recipe for global prosperity is simple: “We must produce more energy from all available and commercially viable resources.”

    Pipeline builders echo that the world is “clamouring for more energy.” With religious fervor, Shell executives swear that they will “produce more energy for a world with more people” so that millions can climb up “the energy ladder.”

    These self-serving arguments from the world’s petroleum brokers are based on a singular falsehood: that more energy translates into better living. Decades of human slavery peddled the same lies. Eighteenth-century Liverpool and Bristol slave traders contended that trafficking in human energy was “the best traffic the kingdom hath”; the world needed more slaves to end global drudgery and provide the necessities of life.

    One 1749 pro-slavery pamphlet declared that “the most approved Judges of the Commercial Interest of these Kingdoms” had deemed slavery “most beneficial” because it employed ships and seamen. Slaves, the pamphlet said, were “the daily bread of the most considerable of our British Manufactures.”

  2. Byron Smith

    This is one reason to question whether consent of the governed is the only criterion of legitimacy. I am not saying that it is irrelevant, but I would put the pursuit of justice at the core of legitimacy, even if sometimes this pursuit is not immediately recognised by a majority of the people. In other words, I would not say that any non-democratic regime is ipso facto illegitimate.

  3. Milan Post author

    What about a government that opposes the popular will in order to correct an injustice? For instance, by ending slavery or introducing carbon pricing?

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