An American flag waves between two wind turbines.

An American flag waves in the wind in front of a wind farm.

(Photo: DFeinman/Getty Images)

Climate Advocates Should Make a Pro-Democracy Case for Action—While They Still Can

By reframing the climate change debate, the existential imperative to refocus energy toward renewables can be buttressed by a practical logic rooted in democratic theory.

The climate change debate has been a proverbial firestorm for the last two decades, but as the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP28, just wrapped up we find ourselves little closer to averting the literal firestorm to come.

Scientists and activists have been fighting for a reduction in carbon emissions, concerned with the implications of anthropogenic warming, while industry and international competition have demanded a commitment to fossil fuels, from which emissions predominantly derive. Hence, the conundrum has been weighing the merits of these opposing standpoints, both being substantively justified—only driven by opposing values: economic prosperity versus environmental protection.

By one account, failing to enact strategic climate policy results in irreversible environmental degradation, species extinctions, sea-level rise, and health issues—ultimately threatening the survival of humankind. However, without a viable alternative energy source and a means for implementation, societies hardly have a choice, so the argument goes, if they seek to stay competitive in a world defined by realism. Therefore, climate skeptics, as they are generally referred, contend that, even if humanity is at some level of risk due to a changing climate, turning away from fossil fuels without a workable replacement would stifle production and crash profits, thus hindering innovation and technological progress while bolstering environmentally unconcerned enemies.

Climate change is a national security issue, and should be discussed as such, but Democratic leaders keep missing the ball.

The polarization within America today has seen this debate take on tribal form. Rather than continue to beat a dead horse using the same framework, environmental policymakers should consider a new approach, one in which the tribes—Democrats and Republicans—will find disagreement difficult.

By reframing the climate change debate, the existential imperative to refocus energy toward renewables can be buttressed by a practical logic rooted in democratic theory. Climate change messaging going forward should thus be: Transitioning to renewable and green energies will not only help save the planet from pollution and further destruction, but can also serve to destabilize unfriendly regimes, undermine terrorism, and encourage democratization abroad.

This may sound like a rhetorical gimmick, but revitalizing the discourse surrounding climate change to incorporate this broader range of positive outcomes that emanate from weaning ourselves off fossil fuels would almost certainly bring more Americans into the fold. As it stands now, a comment like, “The climate change agenda is a hoax”—espoused by Vivek Ramaswamy during the first GOP presidential primary debate—still gets applause from a Republican audience. That needs to change.

Instead of letting political hucksters like Ramaswamy—and for that matter former president and now-candidate Donald Trump— foment disdain toward electric vehicles and renewables on the premise that “fossil fuels are a requirement for human prosperity,” as Ramaswamy asserted during his closing statement at the same debate, proponents of climate action should be attempting to win over that susceptible swath of voters with an appeal to their entrenched American values.

The case should be made openly that converting the energy sector to renewables would help promote democratization in authoritarian regimes and conflict zones across the globe. There is good reason to believe that right-wingers would jump on board with the environmental movement if it meant undermining Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Venezuela, and other oil-producing state and non-state malefactors. Different moral reasons, but nonetheless the same result. After all, it was famed neoconservative Jeane Kirkpatrick that once said, “No idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments.”

The late Christopher Hitchens, labeled a conservative by some, put it this way: “We don’t have another planet on which to run the experiment. Just as we don’t have a right to run an experiment in nuclear exchange on this planet, we have no right to run an experiment in warming it either.”

The point he was making has not yet been grasped by climate skeptics. Ethically, we must operate on the assumption that climate change is indeed a human-made threat. Whether this assumption is right is largely irrelevant because even if on the off chance the plethora of scientific calculations forecasting a climate crisis turn out to be fallacious, we will be better off having simply made a mistake in analysis, which can be corrected, as compared to irrevocably destroying the planet on the grounds of avoiding feckless transformation of the energy sector.

There are unrecognized (or at least largely unspoken) benefits of pushing a renewable trajectory, which, if leveraged correctly in the climate conversation, would lessen lingering reservations about energy reform. Those who currently maintain that climate change is not a worthy concern would possibly find solace in joining the cause for a different reason: democracy. That is, if Trumpism, which is to say dogmatic ultranationalism, has not already corrupted the Republican base to a point of no return, wherein undemocratic virtues now hold the greater sway. If that point has not yet come, it seems to be fast approaching; thus, the time for conservationists to leverage this strategy is running out.

Our adversaries have long known of the danger renewable energy poses to their ability to rule. Take, for example, the Middle East, where theocracies rule supreme, terrorism runs rampant, and civil and sectarian wars wreak havoc; it all goes down atop an arid ground containing black gold. In Saudi Arabia, an OPEC country, the oilfields are controlled unabashedly by the central government—a theocratic illiberal Wahhabi monarch with an endless supply of funds emanating from the crude liquid beneath his palace. Our dependence on fossil fuels surely deserves some of the blame for the lack of democracy throughout the Middle East.

The United Arab Emirates built (not without ongoing challenges) the world’s first sustainable city, Masdar City, in an attempt to diversify their economy, knowing all too well what will happen to those in power when the demand for oil dries up. The UAE has become an international leader in solar, even hosting COP28 this year—but what may seem like their benign endeavor to limit greenhouse gas pollution is more likely a disguised security maneuver. This is why “Mubadala, Abu Dhabi’s state-owned investment company, pledged financial support to the estimated $22 billion experiment in urban design.” The authoritarians in power seek to maintain control by staying ahead of the curve, using their own oil wealth to invest in the renewable energy sector, thereby modernizing their rent-seeking infrastructure for a new era of energy monopolization.

President Joe Biden missed an opportunity during Climate Week NYC earlier this year to discuss the national security benefits associated with his Green New Deal. Environmental talking points need to place more emphasis on how renewable energy will hinder Russia and its oil-fueled war on Ukraine (it would have been ideal timing with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaking at the United Nations). And if Americans think immigration is bad now, wait until the sea level rises another few feet and poor coastal refugees from the developing world flood over our borders; climate change is a national security issue, and should be discussed as such, but Democratic leaders keep missing the ball.

Even among ardent Trump supporters, one would be hard pressed—at the moment—to solicit a blatant objection to democracy. It is a value woven into the American ethos. Why not lean on this while we still can? Trump’s authoritarianism is spreading throughout America and, horrifyingly, the 2024 election could usher in a new American ethos—one in which democracy has lost its appeal.

Those guiding the climate change debate should therefore aim to get the conversation to a place where voting against renewable transformation is intrinsically felt to be a vote against democracy itself. Republicans will have a harder time selling the fossil fuel narrative when that happens. Let us hope we get there before democracy falls out of favor—otherwise we will have more pressing problems to deal with anyways.

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