Can Democracy Handle the Heat?

12 December 2023

First published as an opinion piece with the Daily Maverick, South Africa's leading media house, under the title "Unless governments change soon, the climate crisis will be democracy’s trial by fire."


If democratic governments fail to address the growing climate emergency, they risk the rise of populist and authoritarian sentiments and the complete erosion of democracy as we know it. 


The legitimacy of every system of government rests on a fundamental obligation — to guarantee the safety and survival of its citizens. If democratic governments were to consistently fail to protect their citizens from harm, those same citizens would begin to question the value of democratic institutions and practices. While this obligation often goes unnoticed, we catch a glimpse of it each time a government responds to a crisis, whether that is a catastrophic earthquake, torrential flooding or a global pandemic

In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, democratic governments across the globe marshalled immense resources to protect their citizens from danger and, in doing so, fulfil their fundamental obligation. Apart from isolated instances of greed, corruption and stupidity, democracies proved themselves largely capable of responding to a serious threat to health and safety. The system worked. As a result, democracy’s legitimacy remains intact. 

This is no time for democratic governments to rest on their laurels. The threat of unchecked climate change looms large. Without immediate and drastic mitigation and adaptation measures, the impact of climate change on the health, safety and prosperity of democratic populations will be catastrophic. Food and water insecurity will become commonplace, while extreme heatwaves, wildfires, storm surges, flooding and drought will regularly assault our homes and businesses. Millions will migrate. Entire island nations may disappear completely. 

Terrifyingly, these catastrophic impacts are becoming a reality quicker than many of us realise. In a new report prepared by leading scientists, the authors underline the seriousness of the situation: “We are shocked by the ferocity of the extreme weather events in 2023… Conditions are going to get very distressing and potentially unmanageable for large regions of the world.” Are democratic governments capable of meeting such a challenge?

In a recent landmark report, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the world’s leading democracy support organisation, highlighted this concern when it argued that “democracy is on trial in the climate crisis”. 

Sensing vulnerability, critics have begun questioning the ability of democratic governments to mitigate and adapt with the required urgency. The first Global Stocktake report only reinforces such doubts, making clear that the United Kingdom’s net-zero U-turn is simply the most recent failure of democratic governments to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and address the climate crisis.

The question thus follows: will democracy survive the crisis of climate change?

If democratic governments fail — or are perceived to have failed — to address the existential problem of climate change, they will have neglected their fundamental obligation to ensure the safety and security of their citizens. Battered by heatwaves and unprecedented insecurity, citizens may angrily begin to wonder: What is democracy good for? Should democracy’s legitimacy begin to erode in this way, a window of opportunity will have been created for populist and authoritarian sentiments. They will not fail to seize the opportunity.

The populists will be subtle. Following in the footsteps of Donald Trump, Julius Malema and Jair Bolsonaro, these new “champions of the people” will exploit widespread anger and frustration to take aim at the established democratic government. The corrupt elites, they will shout to vast crowds, have robbed you and your children of a safe future. Once in power, democratic norms and values will steadily disappear.

The authoritarians will be bold. Against the backdrop of democracy’s failings, these would-be autocrats will insist that the urgency of the climate crisis does not require slow democratic consultation but decisive centralised decision-making. Democratic governments, bogged down by corporate capture and the short-termism of election cycles, are simply not capable of securing a climate-safe future, they will say. Citizens may listen.

Consider the rise of the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany. In this case, a toxic mix of insecurity and citizen dissatisfaction served as the perfect incubator for the National Socialists and facilitated their ascension to power. If democratic governments fail to mitigate and adapt with the required urgency, the catastrophic impacts of climate change are likely to create a similarly toxic environment. From the chaos of mass displacement and crippling heatwaves, a new brand of environmental authoritarianism may emerge. It will be difficult to dislodge.

If democratic governments continue with business as usual, climate change promises to be democracy’s trial by fire. In a world already faced with unprecedented democratic backsliding, in which there are now more dictatorships than liberal democracies, there is no guarantee that democracy will survive the assault. The democratic citizens of South Africa, living in a country with increasingly toxic politics, weak state capacity and unique climate vulnerability, should be deeply concerned. 

So, what do we do in the face of such a threat?

We can start by embedding citizen participation at the heart of climate policymaking. As France’s recent Citizens’ Convention on Climate illustrated, citizens’ assemblies generate more ambitious climate policies than do elected officials, while also improving political participation and support for democracy.

As recent research shows, our democratic systems must also evolve to better suit these times of crisis. Long-term decision-making must become institutionalised, the corporate capture of climate-critical discussions must be eliminated, and the spirit of democratic solidarity must be revived. 

Should democratic governments fail to heed this and other urgent warnings, democracy as we know it will struggle to survive the coming crisis. In South Africa we understand the value of democracy — it is still new to us and we remember how difficult democracy can be to win, and why it is therefore so very important that we do not let it slip from our grasp.