Field of Science

Will democracy survive climate change? - A lesson from the past

Allegory of volcanism as bringer of fortune (fertile soils) and destruction, by artist Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard (1780-1850) after a draft by French naturalist Joseph Nicolas Nicollet (1786-1843).

In June 1783 a volcano in Iceland erupted. Volcanoes are nothing unusual in Iceland, but this eruption, later referred as Laki,  was different. For eight months volcanic ash and gases poisoned the atmosphere over Europe changing the climate for years to come. In Europe the exceptionally hot summer of 1783 was followed by long and harsh winters until 1788. Crop harvests were poor and bread, essential for the large and poor population on the continent, experienced a massive price increase.

Map showing the lava flows of Lakagigar, from Magnus Stephensen "Kort Beskrivelse: Vester-Skaptefields-Syssel paa Island" (1785). The lava from the fissures ended up covering an estimated 2,500 km² (965 sq mi) of land.
At the time France was characterized by a great inequality between the poor peasants and the upper class. The rich aristocracy and the corrupted clergy lived in an own world, distant from daily problems. The lower and middle class had no political power despite its important role in economy and the king was to weak to control the aristocracy. Poor harvests and war expenditures resulted in an economic crisis and famine spread. In human history hunger was always a powerful agent of change. Italian officials noted in 1648 during a widespread famine that “it was always better to die by the sword than to die of hunger.” Women revolted on the streets demanding bread. July 14, 1789 5,000 citizens of Paris stormed the Bastille. Years of chaos followed. French lawyer Maximilien Robespierre instituted an authoritarian regime, culminating in 1793 with the execution of king Ludwig XVI. followed by 16.000 other people only in Paris. In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte promised to bring order in those chaotic times and in the end declared himself emperor - celebrated by the same people that just some years earlier battled an absolute monarch. Even if the French Revolution is often seen as starting point for the modern Europe, democracy was predated by tyranny.

Georg Heinrich Sieveking’s “Execution of Louis XVI” in 1793.
Today we observe similar tumultuous times and a changing climate. However this time the changing climate is not the result of a short-lived volcanic aftermath. The warming caused by the anthropogenic carbon-dioxide emissions  into earth´s atmosphere will continue for the next centuries. Some research has suggested that a warmer climate will fuel future conflicts. Droughts can cause water and food shortages in less industrialized nations. In 2010 drought in Russia and too wet weather in Europa caused a 20% loss of crops harvest, prices in response were raised on the international market by 40 to 70%, also due speculations. China, also suffering from a poor harvest, stocked crop, causing ulterior shortages.
The increased costs, widespread unemployment and misery lead to riots and demonstrations in many North African countries. The chaos lead in part to installments of  governments controlled by the military and in Syria (hit also by a drought from 2006 to 2010) the civil war is still going on. The civil wars in Africa and Near East caused mass migrations of refugees to the first world countries, Europe was not ready for the onrush, causing a political chaos. In response many right-winged parties, promising simple solutions like walls or travel bans, gained support in many European countries (U.K., France, Germany, Austria, Italy). Right-wing politics promised also simple solutions in the United States. The poor and middle class fears migration as this implies to share already limited resources. The rich class supports such fears as it distracts from the real causes (less than 3% of the population controls more than 50% of the global wealth).
Travel bans and suppressing research about climate change doesn´t solve problems but simply hides the truth. Already authoritarian systems like Russia or China seem also best fitted to deal with future climate change. Such systems can suppress disadvantageous news about climate change effects but also react faster to impending disasters. China, dealing with severe environmental problems due its rapid industrialization, planted millions of trees in governmental controlled projects or simply limited traffic in cities. Such projects would need more effort, time and especially support by citizens in democratic systems.
In times of supposed chaos, overwhelmed by the problems (real or faked), we demand for simple solutions, as authoritarian systems can quickly promise (if they really will hold the promise is another problem), but simple is not necessary the right way.

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