Democracy under threat as climate emergency deepens, according to Mile End Institute panel

The Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London has hosted a webinar on democracy and climate change. Panellists included Hilary Benn, former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Caroline Lucas MP, former leader of the Green Party.

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Research has shown that the public support taking action on climate change
Research has shown that the public support taking action on climate change

The climate emergency is the most important issue facing governments across the world but can Britain’s democratic institutions cope with a challenge on this scale? Hosted by Dr Robert Saunders, Reader in British History, Queen Mary’s Mile End Institute brought an expert panel together to discuss these issues. Watch the full discussion on YouTube.

Hillary Benn (former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Caroline Lucas MP (former leader of the Green Party), David Runciman (University of Cambridge and Talking Politics podcast) and Rebecca Willis (expert lead, UK Climate Assembly), explored the relationship between the future of democracy and the future of the planet.

Climate change, a challenge to democracy

In his opening statement Hilary Benn said that he believes climate change creates challenges to democracies in the world. Drawing on parallels between the global response to Covid-19 and climate change, he advocates for a more urgent and radical approach. He said: “How do we get our countries to respond in the same way as they did to Covid 19? Governments around the world have been able to do things in the Covid crisis. It reminds us of what we can do in an emergency, when others have said things are not possible.”

Hilary Benn also emphasised that those who make decisions need to be held to account, a view shared by Caroline Lucas MP. “I don’t believe we can succeed in tackling the climate change emergency without democracy,” she said. The Green Party MP also warned that democracy was under threat with the spread of misinformation and disenfranchised electorates around the world. She also pointed to the global response to the Covid-19 as an example of how action can be taken urgently when needed. Caroline Lucas said: “We need to pay early attention to the science […] governments have been unprepared when it came to the pandemic. It is only because of the brilliance of our scientists that we can return to some version of normality.” Caroline Lucas highlighted the amount of vested interests which have meant that progress on climate change has been slow, and in some cases, stifled.

New ways of doing democracy

Rebecca Willis explained that in her view, there is a disparity between government commitments to climate changes and the decisions they take. “There is a deep frustration that democratically elected governments are failing to tackle climate change,” she said. The decision to lower air passenger data was held up as an example of the inconsistency between pledges and action.

Rebecca Willis also discussed her recent research which showed that politicians from all parties felt that they did not have a mandate to tackle climate change. The work also revealed that public support for action on climate change is often underestimated. She referred to this as a “break down in the social contract” between the electorate and the democratic institutions they are represented in.

During the webinar there was a discussion about changing democratic processes and institutions. “The future must be constructed on the foundations of a thriving democracy,” said Caroline Lucas. She set out a range of reforms that she proposes including proportional representation, an enshrined constitution and lower voting age.

David Runciman believes that the risks associated with making changes to democratic institutions are overplayed.  “Our democratic institutions are more robust than this. I think in the US we have seen this, Trump was not the end of democracy,” he said. David Runciman also emphasised the urgency of action on climate change, challenging the notion that changes to democracies was destabilising. “I don’t think it’s as dangerous as people think […] destroying our natural habitat is what is dangerous,” he said.

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