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No Decarbonization Without Democratization

Given the geopolitical and climate-driven urgency of phasing out fossil fuels and shifting to a carbon-neutral economy, it is tempting to hand more decision-making power to credentialed experts. Yet whatever advantages a technocratic approach might have would almost certainly be offset by popular resistance and loss of public trust.

NEW HAVEN – The planet is burning. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s warnings about the consequences of rising temperatures are becoming increasingly dire. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has set off a race in Europe and elsewhere to achieve energy independence through rapid transformations of the economy.

With decarbonization becoming such an urgent priority, it is tempting to consider political shortcuts. Why not try enlightened despotism or “epistocracy” (rule by experts), picking the best climate scientists and engineers and empowering them to make the decisions for us? Why not embrace the Chinese method of forcing through sweeping changes and swatting away any misguided resistance from below?

In fact, there can be no decarbonization without democratization. As urgent as solutions to climate change have become, so, too, has the need to address the growing disenchantment with democracy. Without rehearsing all the various indicators of democratic disillusionment – from unfavorable public sentiment to the rise of voter abstention and declining trust in elected politicians and public institutions – it is clear that many people now regard democracy as more of a problem than a solution.