Suspending democracy: who says?

I have never called for democracy to be suspended. So why is this meme prevalent on the Internet? Why is it that whenever I write anything about climate change some commenters feel obliged to wheel it out as if it invalidates everything I say?

Here is the explanation. For many years I have been giving public talks about the dangers of climate change. Invariably, during the question and answer session, someone would express frustration at the political process and ask whether the only answer is to suspend democracy. I have always responded by saying that I do not see that as any kind of solution, both because the principle of democracy is fundamental and because I cannot see how such a suspension of democracy could occur. What would it mean? How could it happen? A military take-over? A government handing power to a panel of experts? It does not make sense.

In a speech I gave in Brisbane in 2007 I attempted to pre-empt that kind of exasperated question by acknowledging the concern. I wrote:

Very few people, even among environmentalists, have truly faced up to what the science is telling us. This is because the implications of 3°C, let alone 4°C or 5°C, are so horrible that we look to any possible scenario to head it off, including the canvassing of “emergency” responses such as the suspension of democratic processes.

An extract from the speech was published in the Sunday Mail newspaper. A few days later (I think) the Australian, in its nasty little Cut & Paste section, carried the quote with a heading indicating I expressed anti-democratic sentiments. The newspaper published a letter from me a day or two later pointing out that it was a distortion and that I have never advocated the suspension of democracy.

But of course the slander had the desired effect and went into the folklore of climate denial bloggers and those, like Andrew Bolt, who provide the fodder for their Internet fervour.

In reality, on repeated occasions I have written that the answer to the political failure to respond adequately to the scientific warnings is to reinvigorate democracy. I have also written in defence of civil disobedience which, as history shows, in some circumstances can be consistent with a fairer and more democratic society.

In my book Requiem for a Species I wrote: “In short, a revived democracy is the only means of fighting the effects of climate change in a humane way.” And: “democracy for the citizenry is the only way to temper the effects of climate disruption and ensure that the wealthy and powerful cannot protect their own interests at the expense of the rest.”

In my 2007 book, Scorcher, which I was in Brisbane to speak about, I went into painful detail about the failings of the democratic process in Australia, but nowhere did I suggest a suspension of democracy. Many times in articles and opinion pieces I have called for a stronger democracy in which the power of the fossil fuel lobby to influence policy can be countered.

So that is the explanation. I don’t expect setting it out will make any difference to the small but active band of climate deniers out there; it’s a lie too good to discard. So I have written this just for the record.

The absurdity of the distortion has now gone full circle. Earlier this year I received an email from Graham Lloyd, the Australian’s environment reporter, who frequently writes articles undermining climate science and bagging renewable energy. Among other questions he asked me: “I note you have previously advocated a suspension of democracy to force action. Do you still believe so?” It’s almost comical.


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