(Bloomberg) -- For Episode 19 of the Zero podcast, Bloomberg Green reporter Akshat Rathi interviews Daniel Fiorino, author of Can Democracy Handle Climate Change? and director of the Center for Environmental Policy at American University, about which models of government are proving most successful at tackling climate change. Listen to the full episode below, learn more about the podcast here, and subscribe on Apple, Spotify and Google to stay on top of new episodes.

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Akshat Rathi  0:00  

Hi, welcome to Zero. I am Akshat Rathi. This week: dictators, Democrats and disasters.

Akshat Rathi  0:17  

The time we have to take action on climate change is in short supply.

Newsreaders  0:20  

Emissions of greenhouse gasses need to peak within the next three years if we're to stave off the worst effects of climate change. // The world’s top scientists say we only have until 2030 if we’re to stem devastating climate change. // It comes with a massive warning: It is now or never.

Akshat Rathi  0:34  

And the lack of time raises the question, are democracies up to the challenge? Do we have the time to let the natural course of consensus-building and debate play out? Or should governments around the world suspend the normal course of democracy in favor of climate action? Is an eco-authoritarian model the way to go? In my travels to China, for all the country's many problems, it was stunning to see how much progress it has made on green technologies. It has a plan to reach zero emissions within decades, and the country typically delivers on its promises. That's made many in the environmental movement question whether more of us should be taking the authoritarian route to zero. I wanted to put these questions to Dan Fiorino, the author of Can Democracy Handle Climate Change?, one of my favorite books on the subject. He's also the director for the Center for Environmental Policy at American University. Dan comes down strongly in favor of democracy but readily admits that no government is doing enough to meet the challenges of climate change. He worries that if left unchecked, democracies themselves may fall victim to the stresses and strains caused by our warming planet. A final note before we begin: We open our conversation talking about the scientist James Lovelock, who was still alive at the time of recording, but sadly passed away at the age of 103.

Akshat Rathi  2:02  

Dan Fiorino, welcome to Zero.

Dan Fiorino  2:04  

It's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Akshat Rathi  2:07  

You open your book with a quote from the scientist James Lovelock, the inventor of the Gaia hypothesis, and it reads, “Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change might be an issue as serious as war, and it may be necessary to put democracy on hold.” Do you agree?

Dan Fiorino  2:31  

No, I don't agree. And my point in writing that book was that democracy has many, many advantages. And we don't necessarily know that suspending democratic institutions and processes would improve our ability to deal with the causes and the impacts of climate change. And so I thought it was important to address statements like that. Climate change is obviously a very substantial challenge to modern governments, but I don't share the view that we need to suspend democratic norms, institutions and processes to be able to deal with it.

Akshat Rathi  3:10  

And what was it about this quote from James Lovelock that made you want to open your book with it? 

Dan Fiorino  3:15  

Well, the first reason is that it is, to me, a very stark statement of the lack of confidence in democratic systems to be able to deal with a fundamental challenge like climate change. The second reason I cited that quotation is that James Lovelock is a leading environmentalist, a leading scientist, and someone who obviously cares, and has made many, many contributions to our thinking and our ability to deal with environmental issues. I thought the quote made the point very effectively, a point which I then set out to refute. Those were the reasons that I opened with that quote.

Akshat Rathi  3:56  

I want you to entertain the opposite view for a moment. Why are people advocating for it?

Dan Fiorino  4:01  

Well, the the argument is that more top-down, centralized governments, relatively more authoritarian systems, are able to overcome entrenched interests, they're able to force hard choices on populations that may not appreciate the gravity or the complexity of the climate challenge, and that only by forcing through these tough decisions can the necessary changes be made. That's a very dangerous set of assumptions. And frankly, not really borne out by experience or history. The research tells us that authoritarian systems aren't necessarily better, and maybe even be less effective in dealing with the causes of climate change.

Akshat Rathi  4:50  

Let's walk through those limitations. What do you see as the main flaws in the argument in favor of a non-democratic approach to tackling climate change?

Dan Fiorino  5:00  

I think the main flaws are, first of all, that a highly centralized, non-democratic government and leadership would be more inclined to pursue both the mitigation and adaptation challenges of climate change. There's really not a great deal of evidence. People often point to China, which has made some progress in dealing with climate change, although, to some degree, I think a lot of that was motivated by a desire to reduce levels of harmful air pollution. I'm not saying that authoritarian governments are necessarily ineffective. But I think we have very little evidence that non-democratic systems and leaders can be any more effective. And in fact, I think a lot of experience and research tells us they're probably less effective.

Akshat Rathi  5:48  

If that's the case, let's then turn to democracies and look at what the benefits of a democratic approach to tackling climate change are.

Dan Fiorino  5:56  

Well, the overall argument is that democratic systems are more adaptable, they are less corrupt, and actually lower levels of corruption in democratic societies may be an important cause of their relative ability to deal with not only climate issues, but a range of environmental, economic and social issues. Democracies achieve better levels of economic growth, they provide better benefits for their citizens, obviously a much better record on rights and individual freedoms. The argument against democratic systems is that they're slow to change. That, for example, when you have an established fossil fuel industry, it is very hard in a democratic system to overcome those kinds of entrenched interests. And the record shows that is very difficult, whether it's the United States or Canada or Australia, which relies very heavily on coal exports, that is a major challenge. Generally, societies that have not historically relied on fossil fuels tend to have a better record at dealing with the causes of climate change. So I think the argument is that democratic systems can’t overcome those entrenched interests. They can't convince people that changes in lifestyle, and energy systems and food systems and so on, are needed, and thus have a much more difficult time making the required changes.

Akshat Rathi  7:20   

And to some extent, the corruption point is also that democracies are able to hold governments to account. Typically, if you have a representative system, and you have a way to make your voice heard, if you see corruption, you’d see people vote the regime out, or vote the government out, right?

Dan Fiorino  7:38  

Yeah, I think that identifies the benefits of democratic systems is that there is a more open flow of information. There are checks on the exercise of political power. You have a free press that can actively highlight issues and problems. So I think that generally accounts for the lower levels of corruption in democratic societies. And we certainly have lots of evidence that where there are high levels of corruption, that in general government policy is going to be far less effective. So I think that the corruption aspect is a very important part of the superiority of democratic regimes in dealing with a range of complex issues. And not only climate change, but others as well.

Akshat Rathi  8:23  

So I'm going to push it back a little bit here, because by 2020, not a single democracy had sufficiently lowered their emissions to meet the targets set in the Paris Agreement. And if we take that data point, one can conclude the democracies have so far largely failed in dealing with climate change. So why don't democracies seem to be able to take the requisite action?

Dan Fiorino  8:44  

Yeah, well, I would say no government has really succeeded in taking the requisite action. Climate change really calls for some very transformational changes. And these are very difficult to achieve in any system. So yes, it is fair to say, no nation has really stepped up to meeting the climate challenge. In general, the European Union, I would say, is better than many other countries, certainly better than the United States in terms of meeting the climate challenge. The United Kingdom actually has been making some substantial progress. But no country is changing energy systems and some of these other systems we've talked about at the pace that is needed to get us where we need to be by mid-century.

Akshat Rathi  9:34  

No government is currently acting fast enough on climate change, but the top performers still tend to be democracies. The Climate Change Performance Index ranks countries on how well they are tackling emissions. And out of the top 30 countries on the 2022 list, the vast majority are democracies: Denmark is fourth, Sweden fifth, the UK seventh. No countries fill the top three positions on the list, symbolizing the lack of progress. There are also important democracies that feature much further down that list, some of the world's biggest emitters. Out of the 64 countries ranked, the US ranks 55, Australia 59 and Canada 61. China is placed above all of them at 38. So I wanted to put a very specific question to Dan based on this data: Is the case against democracies based on the actions of democracies as a whole, or the failures of a conspicuous few?

Dan Fiorino  10:33  

Many of the critics of the ability of democracies to deal with climate change point to the United States, certainly there are fair criticisms to be made there. Australia, Canada, which is perhaps moving in a more progressive direction. I think it is fair to say that there are certain outliers in terms of climate performance. If we look at the European Union, certainly the northern European countries, or even France, which for reasons really unrelated to climate change invested heavily in nuclear electricity generation in the 1970s, 1980s, and so on, we see a lot more progress. So I think that is an excellent point: that certain democracies have not done well, and they tend to fuel this perception that democracies are incapable of meeting the climate challenge.

Akshat Rathi  11:27  

One of the things that anchors most people's attraction to authoritarianism is what China has done, because China has become this leader in green technology. Yes, it is the biggest emitter today, but its emissions have plateaued. And it has this ability to be able to build solar and wind and batteries at scales that no other country has been able to. Is the pro authoritarian argument mostly coming from people looking at China? Because if you look at other authoritarian regimes, it's very hard to make the case for them. 

Dan Fiorino  12:01  

It is harder to make the case with other authoritarian regimes. Certainly in the Chinese system, once the regime decides to move in a certain direction, that is more likely to happen than in democracies, where you need to build consensus and build agreement and work through institutions and deliver change in those kinds of ways. I think China is a mixed case. Certainly, we've seen some cleaning up of their energy system, some reductions in emissions of various kinds. The catch is with such a large population and with their very high economic growth rates, that there's just a tremendous demand for energy, and they still rely very heavily on coal. So I think it's still early, the results aren't quite in on where China will be in the longer term. But certainly, I agree with your assessment that the Chinese experience, and the potential for change in China has fueled a lot of the criticisms of democratic systems.

Akshat Rathi  13:07  

There's also this middle ground between democracies and authoritarian regimes. Emerging democracies, such as Bolivia, Malaysia, and Zambia, that are not yet considered full democracies. But they are moving in that direction. You cite studies in the book that show established democracies are the best at tackling emissions, then come authoritarian regimes. And then these emerging democracies are the least effective when it comes to dealing with climate change. If climate is the overriding concern, which you argue it is, then should we let emerging democracies fall back into authoritarianism? Or do we have the time to let them become mature democracies and then act on climate change?

Dan Fiorino  13:55  

You're citing some research that concludes that transitional democracies — in Latin America or Eastern Europe we have many examples — are still working to establish effective governments, to build the right sort of political cultures to be able to deal with complicated issues. I don't necessarily think that authoritarian systems are going to be better than those transitional democracies, although obviously, that's a very mixed bag. And bear in mind that climate change is only one of many, many issues facing governments in the modern world. It is an overriding issue, to be sure, but health and safety and economic security and all those kinds of issues are things that governments have to deal with. So I think again, it would be a very risky proposition to say that, well, we should let them evolve toward our authoritarianism, because that'll make them better at dealing with climate change. A commitment to democracy is the best way to deal with issues like climate change. And one factor is that democracies tend to not go to war with each other. And if there's anything that's gonna get in the way of dealing with climate action, it's its instability and conflict around the world.

Akshat Rathi  15:13  

Is the number one flaw in the pro-authoritarian argument that they assume there to be a benign dictator?

Dan Fiorino  15:20  

Yes, I think if you read some of the work critical of democracies, there’s this assumption — I call it in the book ecological autocracy —  that ecological autocrats will emerge, and they will place concern over the environment, and natural resources, and climate mitigation and climate adaptation. That they will put those at the top of the agenda. And we really don't have any actual evidence of that. So I think there's this assumption of a sort of ideal authoritarian system that in fact doesn't really exist. Generally, authoritarian systems have been much harder on the environment than democratic systems. So I think that is a bit of a myth.

Akshat Rathi  16:11  

The title of Dan's book, Can Democracy Handle Climate Change?, can be interpreted in two ways: Are democracies able to deliver action on climate change? And, will democracies survive the impacts of a warming world? After the break, I ask Dan which he is more concerned with.

Akshat Rathi  16:37  

I want to come back to the title of your book, which is called Can Democracy Handle Climate Change? There are two sides to the word handle, one is active and one is reactive. Are you more concerned with the former or the latter? That democracies will fail to deal with climate change actively? Or that democracies will fail as a victim to climate change?

Dan Fiorino  17:01  

I think I'm concerned about both but I'm far more concerned about the first. Democracies tend to react when there is an imminent threat. With sea level rise, with extreme heat, all these impacts of climate change, governments will have to respond. What I worry about is that by the time we respond to the immediate threats, much of the damage will already be done. That's the big challenge to me of climate change. It requires us to think in longer timeframes, and governments and societies generally are not all that good at thinking in longer timeframes. We tend to respond to short-term threats. So yes, I'm much more concerned about our ability to anticipate and plan and take measures to avoid longer term problems.

Akshat Rathi  17:55  

Would it be fair to say that the longer we wait to act on climate change, the more likely we are to see democracies become destabilized because of climate impacts?

Dan Fiorino  18:06  

I think that is a concern. Certainly it’s something that I and many other people working on environmental issues are concerned about. One side of the picture is how effectively governments anticipate and plan for and take action to mitigate the causes of climate change. The other part of the question is, what effects will the impacts of a changing climate have on democratic systems? This is an area where I think we all should be very worried. If you look at some of the likely impacts, we could have climate refugees, we could have lots of movement of populations from some areas to other areas.

Akshat Rathi  18:48  

Yeah, let me throw some numbers at you. Since 2008, an average of 21.5 million people per year have been forcibly displaced by weather-related events. By some estimates, that number is likely to rise to 1.2 billion by 2050 cumulatively. That is a stunning increase and that can have all sorts of downstream impacts: on food, on conflicts, on changing the politics of the countries that they end up in. And there'll be economic decline. That kind of threat, which for a long time, people were thinking was alarmism, people can now start to see that it might become real.

Dan Fiorino  19:30  

Yes, that absolutely is a worry. So as we have movement of populations, whether it's in the European Union, or the southern border of the United States, that has a couple of effects. One, it can be destabilizing, both in the places where people are trying to leave and places where they're going and instability always makes concentrated, deliberate policy change difficult. Also, I'm concerned about the impact that this could have on fueling interest and demands for right wing populist governments, which for reasons I've mentioned, tend to be not good, if not actively hostile, to climate mitigation and to effective government in general. A very serious long-term concern is that conflict and instability, all these different kinds of impacts of climate change, can actually undermine the effectiveness of democratic systems and governments in general to deal with complex issues like climate change.

Akshat Rathi  20:40  

And so what do we need to do then to strengthen democracies against the potential disruption that is coming? It's not just about cutting emissions is it? 

Dan Fiorino  20:51  

Well we certainly do need to cut emissions. And we need to actually prepare for what is needed to adapt to climate change. We have to do more than just respond when the problems become apparent, we have to build in resilience. One of my students used the term, we have to “climate proof” society. We can work on building better democracies that are more responsive, we can work on communicating to people what this problem is, and why it is so important. We can frame issues in a way so that climate change is one way of looking at it. But another way of looking at this is, “well, here's an opportunity for clean energy systems where there's less air pollution, where there's technology, innovation, and opportunities for exporting products around the world.” We know that renewable energy and energy efficiency, generate more employment, more jobs per unit of investment. So we need to make that case. I think we have to really persuade people that there are a number of reasons, not only the climate reason, to make these kinds of transitions, and then we need to build more accountable, more effective governments that are able to make the necessary decisions and carry out these kinds of changes. And that's not going to be easy to do. But, you know, that's what we ultimately have to do.

Akshat Rathi  22:14  

And it's certainly something that the IPCC reports — if you read them toward the end — that's what they're saying. Many of the IPCC reports, after they've laid out the impacts, and after they've laid out the mitigation steps that we need to take, they go into this place where they are creating, essentially a society that would be more democratic, more free, and more enabling of the human potential, because all those things also help fight climate change.

Dan Fiorino  22:42  

Absolutely. I mean, climate change is a relatively new and novel challenge. But throughout history, we’ve wanted good, effective governments that represent people's wishes, that guarantee human rights, that maximize opportunities for people. I've always thought that democratic systems were the best way to do that. It's not just climate change, it is generally, it's just a better way of having government. There's the famous Winston Churchill quote, where he says that “democracy is the worst form of government” – pause – “except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.” And I think that still holds true.

Akshat Rathi  23:29  

Climate change is going to place a huge strain on democracies around the world. But this strain won't be felt by democracies alone. Authoritarian governments will also feel the destabilizing effects of things like mass migration, more extreme weather events and shortages of food, and will face similar pressures to respond. So I asked Dan about this: What's going to happen to authoritarian regimes as they face up to the realities of climate change?

Dan Fiorino  23:57  

It could be destabilizing in those countries as well. First of all, we certainly should hope that authoritarian governments, and what are called hybrid systems that share many characteristics of authoritarian governments, are going to be able to deal with the causes and the impacts of climate change, because about half of global emissions come from those countries. These factors could be destabilizing in those countries as well. And you know, whether that leads to them moving more toward democratic transitions, or sort of pushes them deeper into our authoritarianism is an open question and will probably vary a lot depending on the country and the part of the world. I would say whatever form of government, political and economic instability undermines the capacity to deal with complex policy problems like climate change.

Akshat Rathi  24:50  

Right. Going back to the point that you were making about authoritarian regimes. If you take the example of the Arab Spring, partly caused because of climate change and the rising food prices, you know, people who are hungry will revolt whether it's a democracy or an authoritarian regime. And if we look at what's happened since the Arab Spring, now it's been more than a decade, it hasn't really gone the way of democracies. 

Dan Fiorino  25:17  

I think that was a disappointment. I just read something recently about Tunisia, where a lot of the movement associated with the Arab Spring occurred. And now it's not working that well. And rising food prices — that's another great example of instability that could come from a changing climate. And it's so hard to predict, generally, but the trend in recent years has been sort of moving away from democracy. And I think that's a concern for many of us.

Akshat Rathi  25:50  

When I look at what the situation in the world today is, with Russia attacking Ukraine, and Europe really struggling with its gas supplies that were coming from Russia, we could have very easily seen a backslide on the European climate agenda. And certainly there has been some increase in coal in the short term. And there's some approval of gas projects. But largely, if we look at the democratic process itself, the EU has been going forward with all its major climate targets. And it is now in this process of putting through legislation while these energy crises and the inflation and economic crises are also playing out. That speaks very highly of what democracies can do, if there are enough ways in which representation of what people want filters up to the people in power.

Dan Fiorino  26:44  

I agree. I think certainly, the invasion of Ukraine has created a number of challenges. I think, in general, the European Union has maintained a commitment to clean energy, to wind and solar and to energy efficiency, and to electrifying transportation and doing the many other things that are required. Certainly, it reinforces the logic, and certainly the case for a transition to clean energy, because they really need to get off this dependence on Russian gas in the short term. It's a big challenge in countries like Germany, but part of the problem there is that they shut down their nuclear industry, or they're still wrapping that up, and they've had to increase reliance on coal, which has had climate as well as public health implications. So these issues are very difficult. But I think in the EU we're seeing a commitment and in many ways, this whole experience reinforces the commitment to getting off fossil fuels.

Akshat Rathi  27:54  

Thanks for joining Dan, that was a fantastic conversation.

Dan Fiorino  27:58  

Well great. I enjoyed it. Thanks for having me.

Akshat Rathi  28:03  

The temptation to take the authoritarian route is not new. But as we face up to challenges that seem too big to handle, that temptation grows. And as the conversation with Dan showed, the temptation isn't worth falling for. The countries that are taking the most effective action on climate change, as messy as they may be, are democracies. 

Thanks for listening to Zero. If you like the show, please rate review and subscribe. If you've got a suggestion for a guest or topic or something you want us to look into get in touch at zeropod@bloomberg.net. Zero’s producer is Oscar Boyd and senior producer is Christine Driscoll. Our theme music is by Wonderly. Many people helped make the show a success. Each week, I'll tell you about one of them. This week, thanks to Siobhan Wagner, Bloomberg Green’s editor in London. An American who's raised the bar for British small talk. I’m Akshat Rathi, back next week.

--With assistance from Christine Driscoll.

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