U.S. Democracy and Global Warming


                 “…knowing the nature and behavior of fire, water, air, stars, the heavens

                and all the other bodies that surround us…we can employ these entities for

                all purposes for which they are suited, and so make ourselves masters and

                possessors of nature.”

                                                                                         René Descartes

                                                                                         Discourse on Method



             Human judges can show mercy. But against the laws of nature, there is

               no appeal    .

                                                                                        Arthur C. Clarke                                                         



Commenting on the feasibility of designs in the natural world, an engineer once said, “To find truth, push conditions to the extremes.” This observation is much more useful in the world of technology than in society, extremism in the latter often results from too human impatience or worse. But imminent extreme global warming will highly challenge all societies; testing their resiliencies, the fabrics of their social cohesion. The following essay will discuss the objective challenges of global warming and then the meanings of these challenges for United States democracy.

Cartesian Objectivity

The numbers measuring the condition of the earth’s climate are not good:

·       Professor Richard Betts is a head researcher at Britain’s Met Office, which deals with climate research. In a Carbon Brief article, he notes the average annual Sources and Sinks of the world’s CO2 emissions.


                                          Gigatons CO2/Yr            Gigatons CO2/Yr

                                 (yearly average 2005-2014)        (year 2018)


     Fossil Fuels and Industry           33.0                          37.1 *

     Land Use Changes                       3.4         

      -Land Absorption                     -10.9               

-Ocean Absorption                   -  9.5


      Yearly Atmospheric Change   +16.0 = Increased Global Warming


       * ref. World Resources Institute, 12/5/18, Global Carbon Project

          2018 year CO2 additions are 2X the earth’s natural absorption capacity.    

          The table data sources are closely comparable.


·       In 1990, the U.N.’s IPCC reported, “…climate change would arrive at a stately pace, that the methane-laden Arctic permafrost was not in danger of thawing, and that the Antarctic ice sheets were stable….As we now know, all those predictions turned out to be completely wrong….The climate change panel (and the science) seems finally to have caught up with the gravity of the climate crisis. Last year, the organization detailed the extraordinary difficulty of limiting warming to…(1.5º C, our note: its 1.2º C now) over the next 80 years and the grim consequences even if that goal is met. More likely, a separate United Nations report concluded, we are headed for warming of at least (3.0º C).” 1 (2.0º C is considered the maximum average warming that will preserve livable condition in the world.)


·       “By 2014, a number of scientists had concluded that an irreversible collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet had already begun, and computer modeling in 2016 indicted that its disintegration in concert with other melting could raise sea levels up to six feet by 2100, about twice the increase described as a possible worst-case scenario just three years earlier. At that pace, some of the world’s great coastal cities, including New York, London and Hong Kong, would become inundated.” 2

A 10/23/19 NYT article further details another significant problem, cascading effects. “One reason the harms of climate change are hard to fathom is that they will not occur isolation, but will reinforce each other in damaging ways. 3 In some cases, they may produce a sequence of serious, and perhaps irreversible, damage. For example, a sudden rapid loss of Greenland or West Antarctic land ice could lead to much higher sea levels and storm surges, which would contaminate water supplies, destroy coastal cities, force out their residents, and cause turmoil and conflict.”

The obvious logical conclusion is to consider the consequences of global warming and act in order to significantly reduce carbon emissions. But, a speaker at a recent climate change conference noted, “If you scare people, they will just turn off.”


Social Systems

Solving the problem of global warming has to involve other dimensions, many of them social. At the core, the problem of climate change is political because fossil fuels supplied about 80% of U.S. energy consumption in 2017, and absent new developments in the technology of energy storage, the transition from fossil fuel sources to renewable energy sources will not be easy.

Contemporary economics is Cartesian and therefore highly mathematical. A mathematical treatment of an economic system must assume statistically stable means and/or variances (dispersions) in the data, thus justifying equations. But the variances of much economic data are infinite or very large, thus the use of very rigorous mathematics is more philosophy than actual empirical description. Here is an example of a statistical filter used to estimate the variables of an economic model:


The Kalman filter gives an algorithm to determine the estimates Xˆ t|t−1 ≡ E[Xt |Zt−1] and Xˆ t|t ≡ E[Xt |Zt ] the corresponding covariance matrices Σt|t−1 and Σt|t . It comprises of the following equations: Xˆ t+1|t = [Ft − KtH′ t ]Xˆ t|t−1 + KtZt (3) Xˆ 0|−1 = X¯ 0 (4) 1The discussion in this section is based on Anderson and Moore (1979) and Meinhold and Singpurwalla(1983) 2 Kt = FtΣt|t−1Ht [H′ tΣt|t−1Ht + Rt ] −1 (5) Σt+1|t = Ft [Σt|t−1 −Σt|t−1Ht(H′ tΣt|t−1Ht +Rt) −1H′ tΣt|t−1 ]F ′ t +GtQtG ′ t (6) Σ0|−1 = Σ0 (7) Xˆ t|t = Xˆ t|t−1 + Σt|t−1Ht(H′ tΣt|t−1Ht + Rt) −1 (Zt − H′ tXt|t−1 ) (8) Σt|t = Σt|t−1 − Σt|t−1Ht(H′ tΣt|t−1Ht + Rt) −1H′ tΣt|t−1…etc.


But in the conclusion of his new book, “Capital et Idéologie,” (you can look up a translation of this title) the noted French economist, Thomas Piketty (2019), writes:


“Above all, (social) questions are complex in a manner that does not at all justify their abandonment to a small caste of experts. On the contrary, their unique complexity enables us to hope for progress by a vast collective deliberation, founded on the reasons, the pathways and the experiences of all things by all.

“This book has basically one object; to contribute to the citizens’ reclamation of economic and historical knowledge. It does not matter that the reader disagrees with certain of my conclusions, because it matters for me to open the debate, never to cut it short. If this work has been able to awaken interest in new issues and new knowledge, my goal will have been fully achieved.” 4


After Nature


In “After Nature (2015),” Columbia Law Professor, Jedediah Purdy, wrote a book that clarifies the roles of reason and the law, which is an artificial human creation to embody values. In the best Enlightenment tradition, it navigates with an eye to the future - the complex thicket of American terrain, history, personalities, interests and government environmental policy.


When the first colonists arrived from England, they landed on a continent teeming with beaver, buffalo and other natural resources. Therein lay the promise of the rise of America to world prominence in the 19th century. From such an environment grew the national virtues of a substantial equality among citizens 5, practicality and optimism. Also developing were the evolving views of the Nature that framed the American experience.

But the first settlers, many whom were also religious dissidents, had first to survive their confrontation with the harsh winters, the forests primeval and the native Americans, not all whom were friendly. Thus, around 1630, Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford wrote, the new world was, “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men.” 6   Expressing an attitude of a people besieged by nature and by sin, he wrote about the dangers of relapsing into paganism and indiscipline. “They also set up a May-pole, (consorting with the locals), drinking and dancing about it for many days together…dancing and frisking together…” 7

However, aided by government land purchases and policies, a movement West beckoned. Purdy writes, “In the future, North American nature would instead be figured as some kind of democratic terrain. The way Americans inhabited, shape, and imagined the land would be in line with a version of democratic society.” 8

 Modern American attitudes towards Nature are the result of historical development, and acceptable remedies to global warming will have to be built out of these materials. “…imagination,” Purdy writes, “…is intensely practical. What we become conscious of, how we see it, and what we believe it means – and everything we leave out – are keys to navigating the world…Imagination also enables us to do things together politically: a new way of seeing the world can be a way of valuing it - a map of things worth saving, or a future worth creating.” 9 He goes on to list four different environmental visions that have done the most to form the American terrain.


·       A Providential Vision, “…in which the natural world has a purpose to serve human needs richly, but only if people do their part by filling it up with labor and development.” This goal is economic.

·       A Romantic Vision,  …in which a key part of the world’s value  is aesthetic and spiritual, found in the inspiration of mountain peaks, sheer canyon walls, and deep forests.”

The goal of the Sierra Club is to hold a pristine nature apart for the public.


·       An Utilitarian Vision, “…in which nature is a storehouse of resources requiring expert management, especially by scientists and public officials.”

The goal of the Bureau of Land Management is to balance different uses and interests.


·       An Ecological Vision, “…in which both sustenance and poison may travel through, air, water, and soil…(through) complex and interpenetrating systems.” 10

      The goal of ecological movements is a healthy environment.

For most people, these environmental visions are attitudes. How can a coherent climate policy emerge from a thicket of attitudes, interests, personalities and regulations? Global warming, as weather hardships multiply, will present a major challenge to our democratic system which assumes that people are level-headed, trusting, and above all respectful of others. The economy (and the democratic system), “…(are) a way for people to live together in free collaboration, rather than bound by arrogant command on one side and servile obedience on the other. It should foster a certain kind of person: intelligent, curious, ready to take the initiative, neither belligerent nor fearful but steady and competent. Such people could be citizens of a republic, responsible for both personal and public affairs.” 11 These are the “traditional American democratic virtues, the virtues of the Greatest Generation that won W.W. II.

There are difficulties developing policies to combat global warming. It is difficult to accept the consequences of excess CO2 in the atmosphere, because CO2 is part of a “natural” and progressive process and, being part of that process, it will become extreme only when it is much too late. Contrast this with the “unnatural” radiation emitted by a nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. No one was killed or likely harmed, but that accident was considered highly unnatural and harmful because the public associates radiation with the atom bomb. Three Mile Island undermined the legitimacy of nuclear power in the United States.

We mention this because a minor nuclear accident was capable of greatly mobilizing the public. Global warming is a much worse threat. Climate scientists now say that we live in a different era, the Anthropocene, where by our actions or inactions, we (that is humanity) will determine the world that many, and surely future generations, will live in. What makes this book exceptional is that in the thicket of social complexity, it clearly calls for the choices (and the criticisms required to make the best choice) that we must make, not a mere adjustment of interest to interest in a transactions market. Such social choices require a good leader.

 Democracies require people with a democratic temperament, democratic institutions and - at times - good leadership. What makes people act is not the observation that a climate variable has increased from 280 to 412. Purdy practically notes, “…we do not usually act either on pure and reasoned principle or on sheer self-interest; rather, we act according to a sense of fit, of rough propriety, that weaves together how we see a situation and how we are motivated to act in it.” 12 The call has gone out for leadership that can, “bring us together.” We need a leadership that can convince people it is fit that global warming be a major priority, one that is actually more important than other social goals, which require a substantially stable social environment and a growing economy for their fulfillments.

The former head of the U.N., Ban Ki-moon, writes the Paris Climate Agreement, that the U.S. is withdrawing from, is more like a collective insurance policy that we invest in, “…to protect our futures…protect our food, water and energy sources, our transportation, homes and cities…” 13 Adapting our society and economy will require future sacrifices, that include restraint, so the world will be bearable for many of those now living, and surely for future generations. Are democracies capable of these?


The new “U.N. Emissions Gap Report of 2019” notes that global greenhouse gas emissions have grown by 1.5% per year over the last decade. To avoid the worst consequences of global warming, greenhouse gas emissions have to start decreasing sharply at a rate of -7.5% per year starting in 2020.

“Climate protection and adaption investments will become a precondition for peace and stability, and will require unprecedented efforts to transform societies, economies, infrastructures and governance institutions.

 “By necessity, this will see profound changes in how energy, food and other material-intensive services are demanded and provided by governments, businesses and markets. These systems of provision are entwined with the preferences, actions and demands of people as consumers, citizens and communities. Deep-rooted shifts in values, norms, consumer culture and world views are inescapably part of the great sustainability transformation.

“Legitimacy* for decarbonization therefore requires massive social mobilization and investments in social cohesion to avoid exclusion and resistance to change.” 14



* This is why we quote Professor Purdy’s book extensively. The key question everyone asks in politics is, “Why should I obey?” Legitimacy is therefore a crucial element of politics; and crucial to creating legitimate and effective change is taking into serious consideration a people’s unique history, in other words to address them. An effective climate policy must address both the hearts and minds of Americans.



We conclude this essay with a story about Athenian resistance to the Persians. Had the naval Battle of Salamis gone the other way, we might be communicating in Farsi.

After the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, the Athenians knew that the Persians would be back to avenge their defeat. The Athenians discovered a new vein of silver in the mines of Larion, that could have been distributed to the people or be used to build a fleet. The statesman Themistocles convinced the people of Athens to build a fleet, that defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC and lay the foundation for the Athenian future.