Flawed Democracy and Climate Change

One of the main reasons given by the United States for refusing to sign the Kyoto agreement is that the restrictions placed on developing countries are not as strict as those applied to richer nations. The US fears that under Kyoto countries like China, which is fast becoming an economic powerhouse, would be able to grow their economies quickly even as US growth was handcuffed by environmental regulations.

And so far, China does have a pretty abysmal environmental record. Projects like the controversial Three Gorges Dam, horrifically polluted rivers, smoggy cities, walls of highrise towers, and reckless highway sprawl are often what come to mind when one thinks of the recent economic progress in China.

The Chinese, however, are not stupid. Their government has begun to wake up to environmental concerns and has been taking action to rectify some problems. During the past ten years, a surprisingly strong environmental movement has formed in China, and some feel that if a project like the Three Gorges Dam was proposed today (as opposed to in 1993 when it was begun) it would probably never go ahead.

The changes are not primarily being driven by activism, however: they are being driven by plain old economic pragmatism. The Chinese can see that if their immense population is to continue to grow and adapt a more Western consumerist lifestyle, current patterns of environmental destruction will eventually cause disaster and limit that growth.

“I think they’re driven by the economic cost of doing things the wrong way. And they know they could get a significant industrial opportunity if they do it right.”

In many cases the Chinese are only beginning to create industries that will compete on a global scale. For example, as they begin their attempt to build and market automobiles to the world, they are essentially beginning an automotive industry from scratch, and can choose which existing models they wish to emulate. Given a choice between emulating the failing gas-guzzler car culture of GM and Ford, or the booming high-efficiency hybrid car culture of Toyota and Honda, which path do you think they will take?

China also holds one major surprising advantage over the Western world when it comes to solving environmental problems, and that is authoritarian government.

Here, we tend to think of an authoritarian government as unequivocally bad, but in this particular situation, it may prove beneficial. In Canada and the US, environmentalists must constantly battle with the political rights of various industry lobbyists. Environmental concerns must always be balanced with other concerns. If changes are made too abruptly, voters may become angry and the governing party may lose the next election. In short, making changes to our lifestyles and our industrial laws is a slow, laborious process — changes usually happen generationally, and governments rarely have the ability to think beyond their current four year term.

The Chinese government, however, can mandate sweeping changes from the top down, overnight, with little opposition (and they have done so in the past, unfortunately, with terrible results.) But this time, if the government deemed that environmental responsibility was the better path, the businesses and citizens of China would have no choice but adapt as quickly as they could.

If there was collateral damage — such as jobs lost when businesses fold because they could not meet environmental standards — the Chinese government would not necessarily hold themselves under any obligation to deal with the fallout. Hence, the losses of a few might eventually lead to a gain for many, in a way that would be politically untenable in a liberal democracy.

To clarify: I would never suggest that an authoritarian regime is a better option than democracy. I have faith that our system will wake up (eventually) and find responsible ways to balance necessary environmental changes with any temporary economic fallout. However, it is interesting to think about how ironic it would be (from our perspective) if the Chinese government continued down this new path, and if one of the “developing” nations of the world ended up leading the “developed” Western world toward environmental sustainability.

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