Home > News > What Rousseau can tell us about the challenges facing Climate March
176 views 9 min 0 Comment

What Rousseau can tell us about the challenges facing Climate March

- September 23, 2014

Demonstrators attend the People’s Climate March in New York on Sept. 21. (Porter Binks/EPA)
This week’s People’s Climate March draws necessary attention to the pressing problem of climate change. The consensus among scientists that climate change is occurring and largely the result of human activities is accompanied, however, by frustration that little is being done to slow its pace, much less reverse it.
In a recent op-ed, Mark Bittman laments that international climate negotiations resemble “a professional wrestling match: There appears to be action but it’s fake, and the winner is predetermined.” Others such as Bill McKibben, who helped organize the march, have put their efforts into building a political movement to mitigate climate change.
A movement, though, requires deeper support than what Deborah Lynn Guber calls the “consensus based on words alone” exhibited by the American electorate. What seems like deep support for ‘the environment’ virtually dissolves when concern over climate change is ranked against competing priorities.
In considering the potential success of democratic action, the past few centuries of political philosophy instruct us to confront and lay bare the very conditions of a successful democracy. One of the most important and influential theorists of popular sovereignty, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, offers his “general will,” which navigates the recurring tensions between selfish and general interests that have come to plague the climate change public discourse.
According to Rousseau, any serious attempt for a sovereign people to legislate depends on satisfying several conditions. First, citizens require access to “adequate information” in policy deliberations. With the assistance of 21st century technologies this condition is arguably better met today than anytime in human history. There is a vast array of helpful information on climate change available to anyone with an Internet connection or library card. In this respect, technology offers some hope for meaningful democratic action on climate change.
Second, the people must be counted on to prefer what is right over what merely serves the interests of a few. Rousseau again provides some cause for cautious optimism: “the common good is everywhere clearly apparent, and only good sense is needed to perceive it.” This “good sense,” fortunately for Rousseau, resides in everyone at some level. “Our will is always for our own good,” he writes, where “our own good” is the common good. The problem is “we do not always see what that is; the people is never corrupted, but it is often deceived, and on such occasions only does it seem to will what is bad.”
In this respect, it is clear that although the stakes of climate change and global warming are serious, they are not resonating with the American public. Even among environmental issues climate change fares poorly. Environmental issues are most salient as health issues so that polluted drinking water elicits more worries than polluted waterways. Concern is greatest for problems like ozone depletion that expose individuals involuntarily to undetected risks.
Third, a sovereign people must be free, so far as possible, from the interventions of interested parties more determined to serve their selfish interests than the common good. Corruption of public opinion “never happens,” Rousseau worried, “unless the people is seduced by private interests, which the credit or eloquence of some clever persons substitutes for those of the State: in which case the general will will be one thing, and the result of the public deliberation another.” Insofar as particular interests can be skillfully presented as “adequate information,” democratic citizens will struggle to locate a general will.
On this front, the American people face very serious obstacles. A recent study estimates corporations spent $558 million in “dark money” from 2003-2010 to raise doubts about the scientific veracity of climate change. Disagreement over basic aspects of climate science appears entrenched. As a result, climate change is treated as one selfish interest among many rather than a general one.
Fourth, citizens must be empowered to distinguish the machinations of self-interested parties from public-spirited and truthful contributions to the public discourse. This requires cultivating judgment through education, since, as Denise Schaeffer has recently emphasized, for Rousseau, common citizens must inevitably become the “defenders and fathers of the country of which they will have been so long the children.” The declining share of public resources allocated to higher education in many states suggests a declining interest in cultivating those skills necessary for empowering democratic citizens. Educating the public about climate science without transforming the underlying dynamic is insufficient since many factors, including partisan polarization, affects how opinions are formed.
Finally, from a Rousseauean perspective, citizens cannot develop reliably good judgment amidst radical wealth inequality. Desperately poor citizens commonly lack the resources to dedicate their full attention to their education; excessively wealthy citizens are repeatedly tempted to exploit their advantages for greater gain at the expense of the poor.“It is therefore one of the most important functions of government,” Rousseau reasoned, “to prevent extreme inequality of fortunes; not by taking away wealth from its possessors, but by depriving all men of means to accumulate it; not by building hospitals for the poor, but by securing the citizens from becoming poor.”
On this dimension the United States fares poorly, with some scholars asking whether such disparities are consistent with democracy itself. Radical wealth inequality threatens the other pillars of popular sovereignty. With regard to climate change and education, for example, well-funded parties have been mobilizing to alter science education by introducing doubts into the public school curriculum.
So while we fundamentally agree on the necessity of serious action and share the demonstrators’ desire to witness democratic change, Rousseau teaches that this must be accompanied by more fundamental reforms. A democratic movement aimed at meaningful climate policy must tend to its society’s deeper democratic shortcomings.
Recent evidence suggests consequential change in public opinion is possible, for example, in the rapid evolution of views on same-sex marriage. Challenges to established economic interests meet greater resistance, however, and action on climate change threatens disruption to those with the most power to bend public opinion toward their own wills. For Rousseau, it is the sad fate of failing republics that justice is commonly “bent to the interest of the most powerful.” As such, any democratic solution to the problems introduced by climate change requires a reinvigorated commitment to the egalitarian foundations of democracy itself.
David Lay Williams is Associate Professor of Political Science at DePaul University.  Brad Mapes-Martins is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.