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Fossil fuels, global warming and democracy: a report from a scene of the collision

10 Sep 2014

What happens to democracy when the fossil fuel industry collides with global warming?


Democracy is caught in a collision between two forces: the need to respond to global warming by cutting carbon emissions, and the demands of the fossil fuel industry to increase carbon use and production. This is a slow motion collision that will take decades to conclude, though its ending seems inevitable: coal, and then oil and natural gas, will be replaced by more sustainable energy sources, but only after great damage to the environment.

In this paper I explore the question, What happens to democracy when the fossil fuel industry collides with global warming?

This collision is already making its marks on democratic practices. The fossil fuel industry is using every tool it can to preserve its wealth and power by pressuring governments, political parties, universities, regulators, courts, and voters. It is a process of tough, aggressive, and sophisticated politics that ultimately depends on denying the evidence that global warming poses a danger that needs to be urgently confronted.

Without a theoretical framework to focus this inquiry, it could easily produce little more than a list of anecdotes about politics and influence. The value of good theory is that it reveals the patterns in the evidence, showing how the disparate pieces are connected to one another, and to larger historical, social, and economic factors. In this paper, I drew theory from (among others) Valerie Bunce, Timothy Mitchell, and most importantly Terry Lynn Karl.

I use the work of these scholars to focus on the Canadian province of Alberta. Alberta provides an example of what can happen to democracy in places where fossil fuel production predominates. From time-to-time I link the paper to Australia, which depends even more than Canada on mineral extraction, and which is on the burning edge of global warming.

This paper should be read as a warning to people everywhere who are concerned about fossil fuel dependence, global warming, and democracy. Those who value democracy must ask, Can democracy as we know it survive global warming?

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