Democracy in the Anthropocene

As the Anthropocene era accelerates, humanity will be thrusted into a world of profoundly inhospitable conditions that will threaten the basic tenets of democracy and human rights. Even if the world meets the best-case scenario outlined in the Paris Climate Accord, the future will likely be riddled with mass migration, resource scarcity, and regressive shifts in both geopolitics and domestic social policies.

Yet, despite global calls for planetary salvation, political and private sector leaders have failed to meet the demands of scientists and public will. On a national scale, more than half of the world’s domestic emissions are produced by four nations: China, the United States, India and Russia. A 2017 report indicated that just 100 companies are responsible for nearly three quarters of all global emissions.

In this sense, the climate crisis is one of the most profoundly anti-democratic phenomena in human history. It is an era defined by the avarice of a select few deciding the fate of every living organism on the planet. There was no consensus, dialogue, or democratic process – just massive allocation of corporate profits invested in disinformation, regulatory capture, and the continuation of environmentally destructive practices.

The following explores the strained intersection of democracy and the Anthropocene. Historical context illustrates how Western oil corporations hid the dire implications of scientific consensus from public knowledge, preventing an informed populous. At present, early onset planetary warming has already ensued massively antidemocratic implications for constituents across the globe. Lastly, as a warmer future will exacerbate trends of migration, ethno-nationalism, and geopolitical instability, new outlooks for human rights, justice, and democracy must be envisioned.

Historical Context: Big Oil vs The World
While the effects of fossil fuel combustion on planetary warming have only recently become mainstream knowledge, they have been known for over a century. In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius published a report detailing how doubling CO2 combustion would catalyze a level of warming in surface temperature that today’s models have subsequently confirmed as accurate. However, such findings lay dormant as industrial growth, and its relentless demand for petroleum, became the essence of 20th century modernization.

By 1977, American oil major Exxon (now ExxonMobil) had obtained conclusive evidence from its internal scientists that oil combustion would catalyze drastic shifts in planetary warming. In fact, in 1982, the firm’s scientific reports estimated that by 2060, levels of atmospheric CO2 content would double, reaching an unfathomable 560 parts per million and accelerating planetary warming between 1.3 and 3.1 degrees Celsius. For context, homo sapiens have never experienced a world with more than 350 parts per million of atmospheric CO2.

Such findings were echoed, if not reinforced as more severe, by the Dutch oil major, Shell. In 1988, a report was internally published detailing how carbon concentrations would double, not by 2060, but by 2030. Furthermore, the findings suggest that such shifts in atmospheric CO2 would cause extreme weather events and drastic disturbances to fresh water resources. In a dismally prophetic note, the report concludes that:

The changes may be the greatest in recorded history. They could alter the environment in such a way that habitability would become more suitable in the one area and less suitable in the other area. Adaptation, migration and replacement could be called for. All of these actions will be costly and uncertain, but could be made acceptable.

The same year that Shell’s apocalyptic report was published internally, NASA scientist Jim Hansen testified to the US Senate about the urgency of planetary warming. Speaking with an equal sense of moral and scientific clarity, Hansen told the Senate thatthe evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here,” and implored that drastic cuts in fossil fuel combustion were needed to avert the type of catastrophe also predicted by Exxon and Shell. And yet, despite this horrifying news being published on the front page of the New York Times, global carbon emissions continued to skyrocket year after year.

There is much debate as to why so little action was taken to address such a cataclysmic threat. Some argue that meeting scientific demands would have been antithetical to the new paradigm of deregulated political economy set forth in the neoliberal era. Others have argued that addressing long term threats were simply out of the capacity of human nature and that failure was inevitable. Hansen’s news had been delivered only a year after nations addressed, and temporarily solved, the threat that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) had posed to a dwindling ozone layer, perhaps giving the illusion that the “climate problem” had been sufficiently wrangled.

Illusions aside, it is evident that the public was not privy to the internal findings of the oil majors at the time of their discovery. In fact, the aforementioned reports from Exxon and Shell were not released until a slew of leaks in 2015 made them public. Instead of forwarding their internal reports to the governments that had subsidized their growth, oil majors set course to enthrall the public with disinformation campaigns that lay the foundations for widespread science denialism degrading society today.

As of 2015, Americans lead the world in climate change denial and, until 2016 less than half of the American populous believed that anthropogenic climate change was “scientific consensus” according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Thomas Jefferson notoriously wrote that “whenever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government.”

With this in mind, it is apparent that the American people are not able to adequately and effectively participate in a democratic decision around what type of climate future they, let alone their fellow planetary citizens, desire. No democracy can function when the fundamental fabric of the natural world is so widely and baselessly repudiated.

Thus, the historical context of the climate crisis is inherently constructed around an unjust and antidemocratic power dynamic. The climate disruption that marks the Anthropocene was initiated with the knowledge that the effects would cause irreparable harm to so many around the globe. It is difficult to find a parallel historical analog to the devastation that was set into motion by Western oil majors. While past acts of genocide and crimes against humanity were unforgivably deplorable, the scale of destruction set forth by such willful negligence “may be the greatest in human history” to use Shell’s own words.

The Injustices of the Climate Crisis
Today, the climate crisis predicted by Western oil majors has very much come into fruition. Hurricanes are forming at greater speeds and strengths, devastating parts of the Caribbean and Americas. Floods of biblical proportion have swept through China, India, Bangladesh, and neighboring Asian nations. Forest fires have ravaged entire communities at record scale – Australia, for example, recently experienced fires nearly the size of the nation of Great Britain. Heatwaves have broken records across the Middle East as Baghdad saw temperatures rise to 125 degrees Fahrenheit (51.6 degrees Celsius). Above all, drought has threatened access to food and water across Sub-Saharan Africa, catalyzing migration and creating yawning vacuums for conflict.

None of the constituents affected by such unprecedented catastrophe were privy to the decisions made by wealthy nations and their petroleum monoliths. According to Oxfam, climate change is most destructive to societies’ poorest and that “the people least responsible for causing climate change bear the brunt of its impacts.” Such claims were recently substantiated by the 2019 report Hunger Strike: The Climate & Food Vulnerability Index, which illustrates how the nations with the highest food insecurity rates have had the least historical CO2 emissions.

But the injustice of the Anthropocene is not merely limited to society’s most impoverished. There is the undeniable issue of race as the white Western nations responsible for propagating the global petroleum economy are not expected to be as adversely affected as multi-ethnic regions of the global south. Within those frontlines communities the most marginalized are expected to face the greatest challenges. The UN has reported that women will struggle disproportionately to men as they have less access “to resources such as land, credit, agricultural inputs, decision-making structures, technology, training and extension services that would enhance their capacity to adapt to climate change.” Additionally, global LGBTIQ communities are four times more likely to be homeless than cis and heteronormative citizens – for context, nearly half of the US youth homeless population is estimated to be LGBTIQ. Without adequate housing and support systems, these communities face the immediate threat of violent climate disruption like storms and heatwaves.

The devastation of the Anthropocene is one of the great injustices of modernity. Western nations promised fossil fuel-driven growth and a better quality of life to their citizens, while leaving the most vulnerable to suffer the consequences. And while democracy today is widely regarded as a domestic process required in the election of leaders, its definition is in dire need of an update: Democracy should resemble the universal right to self-determination and a life of basic decency.

Such injustices have not gone unnoticed. The past several years have marked a profound shift in public engagement with the climate emergency. Youth movements have risen across the world, demanding immediate political and private sector action to address the scale and scope of the crisis. Some of these young advocates are not merely protesting the early effects of the Anthropocene today, but the horrors that future decades will likely bring.

The climate crisis is thus riddled with a new, generational injustice. That is to say, the actions of decades past will likely define the planetary conditions for generations to come. Such a shift in how, and perhaps when, injustice operates is likely a new phenomenon in human history. One where any form of accountability, let alone judicial justice against those responsible, is near-impossible. It goes without saying that many of the young climate activists around the world are not even of the age to vote, and thus engage with the confines of electoral democracy.

But demands for climate action are not merely endemic to the youth. According to the Pew Research Center, the overwhelming majority of 40 nations polled see climate change as a very serious problem, with 78% supporting their governments limiting greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Climate Accord.

However, with only a handful of exceptions, few countries are on track to meeting their Paris Agreement targets. While the US experiences its unique democratic failures in the Anthropocene, this should be regarded as a global failure of democracy. It is a perverse indication that the majority’s desire to preserve the sanctity of human civilization and our biosphere is being stifled by ulterior interests and political weakness.

Future Trajectory: Mass Migration and a New Democracy
Perhaps the most devastating effect of the Anthropocene is the refugee crisis. The World Bank predicts that by 2050, over 140 million people will be displaced as a direct cause of climate change. In some regions, these trends are already in full force. Both Honduras and Syria experienced unprecedented droughts, destabilizing rural economies, and creating ample pretext to violence and mass migration. These refugee crises have surged at the borders of the US and the EU. Such an influx of early climate migration has not caused Western powers to embrace egalitarian border policies, let alone accept responsibility in contributing to global emissions.

In both the EU and US, refugees have been used to bolster ethno-nationalist regimes with authoritarian tendencies. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, France’s Marine LePen, Holland’s Geert Wilders, Britain’s Nigel Farage, and the US’s Donald Trump have all used migration as a means to invoke medieval border policies. Such shifts towards ultranationalist, isolationist governance should be regarded as a pre-emptive climate policy in the age of mass migration. As the scale of climate refugees intensifies, it is imperative to question how democracies will be affected. Far-right nationalists have demonstrated little patience for liberal values and escalating climate migration could intensify these political shifts, further threatening the democratic gains made in the 20th century.

As climate refugees today do not yet have legal recognition for asylum, political strides to combat the climate crisis must set the narrative for an egalitarian agenda of human rights and porous borders. While democracy has been strained and threatened by the Anthropocene, it is also critical to ensuring planetary recovery. As Rebecca Willis writes in The Conversation, “the more we include people in genuine debate and deliberation, the more likely we are to find a way through the climate crisis.” In this regard, genuine climate justice cannot be attained without a democratic approach that recognizes the voices of the most vulnerable and works collectively for a more equitable vision of the Anthropocene era.