Climate-charged democracy?

This “vision” is one of the 30+ that we’ll publish here in the next months. Most of them will go into Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 2 (expected publication: Dec 2017). We hope that you will comment on the message, suggest ways to sharpen the narrative, and tell us how the story affects your understanding of adapting to climate change.

Most importantly, we hope that you enjoy reading these stories and share them with your friends and family. —David Zetland (editor) and the authors

In many advanced democracies governments provide public goods, such as health care, education and property rights. Moreover, they provide those goods impersonally (if you meet certain characteristics, you can get those goods regardless of who you are or whether you support that politician). Voters vote for politicians because they believe in their platform or for other reasons. However, in most of the world, especially in most autocracies, politicians buy political support from the happy few in direct exchange for legislation or cash. In those systems it matters who you are (are you a loyal and powerful individual?), and what connections you have, as this determines whether you benefit from government expenditure, or suffer from taxation. One of the major questions in political science and economics is how countries get from the latter situation to the former situation. Lizzeri and Persico have argued that democratization of autocracies depends on whether the political elite prefers more public goods.

Climate change will increase the demand for public goods, such as dykes, large scale irrigation systems, desalination plants, or better protected water property rights. Could this spark democratization?

The link between public goods and democracy
Before trying to predict the future, let’s have a look at the past, namely at the United Kingdom during its industrial revolution, when it created the first parliamentary democracy. Let’s zoom in on London, the biggest city in the world, with its teeming millions, hundreds of factory chimneys, and its polluted water sources. Rich and poor suffered from killer smogs, cholera, and other problems created by the industrial revolution.

Politicians did very little about these problems, but why? While the UK’s government was constitutional, it was far from democratic, as the large majority of the population did not have voting rights. Those that could vote were often tied to specific political parties, based on their ideological preferences. This meant that politicians could win elections by financially rewarding those who were indifferent between the two parties, that is the swing voters. These financial rewards could come in the form of favourable regulation, sinecures or allowing corruption. The ideologically tied voters received much less in terms of patronage for their political support.

For most of history, elites had been quite happy with systems like these, in which the happy few enjoy rewards in exchange for political support, while the large majority of the population has to pay taxes to pay for these rewards. However, in the UK in the 19th century some aspects of the industrial revolution changed elite opinion about this political system. While the urban elite benefited tremendously from the industrial revolution (so going back to the feudal age to solve the problems caused by the industrial revolution was not an option), the industrial revolution did lead to pandemics due to high urbanization and excessive pollution. No matter how rich the elite was, these diseases also killed members of the elite, seeing modern medicine was not available yet. Therefore the elite started preferring public goods which could prevent these diseases over private goods. However, because of the political system described above, politicians did not supply the public goods that were needed to prevent diseases and pollution. This was mostly because many elite members did not want to vote for a party other than their ideologically preferred party, even if another party promised public goods.

Many elite members therefore started seeing an extension of the franchise as a way to get politicians to supply more public goods. The extension of the franchise would make it harder for politicians to buy votes. This is because of the difference between private and public goods. Private goods are rival, so if one voter consumes a private good supplied to him by a politician, other voters cannot consumer that private good. So, you can only hand out a Pound Sterling to a voter once in exchange for a vote. Meanwhile, public goods are not rival, so expenditure on public goods, like health care, allows politicians to spend one Pound Sterling which can benefit multiple voters. With a few voters it is not attractive to build a sewer system, giving them cash is more efficient to win their vote. However, with a large group of voters, handing them cash will result in paltry amounts of cash to persuade voters, while the same total amount of cash can, for example, build a lot of sewerage which multiple people can use at the same time. Thus, to force politicians to provide public goods, without repeatedly having to vote for an ideologically distant party promising public goods, the elite voted for an extension of the franchise once, to then be able to revert to their ideologically preferred party.

Climate change and public goods
Climate change will cause the situation in many countries to resemble the situation in the United Kingdom in the 19th century. To protect valuable farming land, factories and offices, and even their own lives, the elite will want their government to supply certain public goods. Such public goods could be protection from flooding (dykes and research on flood risk in specific areas), protection from environments which are increasingly hospitable to diseases (especially herd immunity is a public good, but also other prevention measures), protection from droughts (irrigation systems, and clear water management solving common pool resource problems), protection from increased pollution and reduction of pollution, reduction of CO2 emissions, etc.

Climate change could thus radically alter elite appetite for public goods. Essentially, the question is, how dependent are elites on environmentally vulnerable areas? This hinges on the mobility of those elites themselves and of their assets (nevermind the individuals who may suffer from an overemphasis on protecting assets vs protecting people or communities). The more mobile the elite and their assets, the less invested they will be in their local environment, because they can simply move with their assets to places which are not suffering from climate change. Although I am no expert on climate science, it does not seem far fetched to claim that in many countries elites will demand their government to protect them and their assets, as climate change starts wreaking havoc on economies the world over.

My prediction in two sentences
As climate change starts having a large impact, elite members too will be harmed by climate change, leading to a higher elite demand for public goods and thus more democracy.

Joes de Natris recently graduated at the University of Amsterdam in the Research Master Social Sciences after doing his BSc. at Leiden University College The Hague. His bachelor’s thesis was about how economic reforms alienated the Egyptian Army from Mubarak, which lead to his fall. His master’s thesis was on the economic roots of democracy and good governance.

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