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The World is Burning; Will It Burn Down Democracy as Well?

Holed up in an over-airconditioned Airbnb while Athens bakes at 106 degrees Fahrenheit focuses the mind. It made me think about a question asked a few days earlier by a friend. He noted that many pundits have suggested that democratic governments cannot overcome the political and economic obstacles, ‘the today costs’, to prevent a disaster at some uncertain time in the future, to deal with climate change. He feared that the world will gravitate to authoritarian governments that are the only ones able to ignore public opinion and take unpopular decisions. I suggested that he not sell democracy short. During World War II, the United States and Britain shifted a larger percentage of their economies to war production than their authoritarian adversaries, Germany and Japan. Granted it took decisive leaders (Roosevelt and Churchill) to exploit dramatic catastrophes (Pearl Harbor and the fall of France), to inspire the popular support needed to make the sacrifices demanded.

My friend then asked what sort of dramatic catastrophe would be required, and if our current leaders are up to the task.

If COVID-19 was any indication, democratic leaders are not up to the threat. The word shambolic barely describes the response of most governments in countries that purport to lead the Free World. The responses of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson fully merit the description ‘shambolic.’ They mobilized public support for toxic policies to seek political advantage. Ron DeSantis mobilized cultural issues to advance his political fortunes; apparently demonizing mask-wearing loses fewer votes than overcrowded hospitals with the sick dying in parking lots.

Xi Jinping on the other hand did act decisively, instituting draconian lockdowns that cut the per capita death rate in China far below that of any western democracy. Xi did not have to take the next electoral cycle into consideration. One of the few western leaders who acted decisively, mobilized his country, and kept the death rates low and the healthcare system operating was Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis.

One problem is that climate change and global warming resemble ‘death by a thousand cuts’ rather than a dramatic disaster. Hurricanes level towns in Florida and forest fires ravage the American west coast, destroying entire communities. Insurance companies flee those states but yet people continue to rebuild in the same spots. Retirees continue to flock to Phoenix, Arizona as temperatures hover above 110 degrees and water sources dry up. Governments with an eye on the next electoral cycle shy away from the draconian measures needed to do something about it, thus endangering agriculture, power generation, and drinking water for cities. California and Nevada cannot even persuade farmers to report how much water they are pumping out of non-renewable aquifers, let alone cut back. Governments are still investing in coal-fired power plants because they are cheaper. Some environmentalist groups (supposedly the shock troops of the climate change movement) even protest the establishment of wind farms because it ruins the view. So far, we talk about it, but is anyone willing to sacrifice short term profits and comforts for a payoff in 50 years, even if that payoff is a livable planet for our grandchildren?

What sort of catastrophe would be needed to shock us out of our complacency? It appears that the loss of Arctic sea ice has already disrupted atmospheric circulation patterns, radically changing weather further south. Scientists have warned that the influx of freshwater from melting ice would disrupt the Gulf stream, changing climate patterns across Europe. This seems to be happening already. London was abnormally cold last week while the Mediterranean had hellishly abnormal heat. Greek forest fires have caused the evacuation of thousands of tourists and residents from Rhodes, one of Greece’s largest islands. Greece appears to be in the midst of the longest heat wave in its history, or at least since the Titans were tearing out volcanos and tossing them at each other.

The warming caused by reduced sea ice has accelerated permafrost thawing on land, potentially doubling the carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere and exposing organic material that fuel massive ground fires. One such fire has raged unabated in Russia for two years. These lesser catastrophes don’t seem to have persuaded leaders to act now.

My personal nightmare is the sudden disintegration of the Greenland ice cap in a shorter time than predicted. Climate scientists tell us that several consecutive years of warming temperatures in the Arctic Ocean ice have exposed large areas of open water. Ice reflects sunlight and cools the Earth; dark open water absorbs heat, melts more ice, and exposes even more dark open water to make it even hotter. The Greenland ice cap, which contains enough frozen water to raise world sea levels by seven meters (23 feet), has been melting from both above and below.

Climate scientists admit that their predictions of a slow multidecade melt are based on outdated assumptions and limited measurements. What if Mother Nature blindsides them and the Greenland ice cap melts a lot faster and slides into the sea in, say, three years? Twenty three feet does not sound like much until you look at coastal maps. At high tide, New York’s Central Park, Newark, Richmond, Baton Rouge, and Houston become waterfront property and Jersey City an island. Miami, New Orleans, Norfolk and half of Bangladesh – a country of 175 million – just disappear into the depths. It would happen so fast that millions could die, and tens of millions more would become refugees. That could be the catastrophic shock, but it does not answer the question, will democratic leaders rise to the occasion?

Democracy should not rest on the slender thread of hope. Democratic leaders must take political risks now, not wait for a disaster that will inevitably happen, even if we don’t know when.

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