Why climate change and the decline of democracy are happening at the same time

A bloody sunset

A lot is going wrong at the same time right now: the U.S. is descending into kleptocracy at best (fascism at worst), the U.K. is self-destructing, and the climate change is accelerating.

Over the last few years, I’ve often wondered, “Why are so many bad things happening at the same time? Is it just coincidence?” So I read a lot of books, research, and articles from historians, political experts, and scientists to try to understand what was happening.

The answer is no, it is not a coincidence. It’s the result of petrobillionaires protecting their wealth and power for remainder of their expected lifetimes at the cost of the livability of the entire world.

What’s a petrobillionaire? A billionaire whose wealth derives in large part from the burning of oil, gas, and/or coal. This definition would include the surviving Koch brother, Mukesh Ambani, many Russian oligarchs, etc. Billionaires of any kind are, how can I say this politely, a “policy failure” at best. As individuals, they almost universally desire to hoard more wealth and power, without limit or practical motivation. Some of them want to be thought well of after they die and turn to “good works,” but they continue to distort and control the world through selective “philanthropic” giving.

But petrobillionaires are particularly bad, even for billionaires. Their most convenient route to increased wealth and power necessarily requires the continued acceleration of climate change. A shocking number of them literally do not care about anything that happens when they are dead, including what people think of them or what happens to their children. (Interestingly, long-lived corporations that built their fortunes in oil seem to be making moves towards changing their source of income and surviving longer into the future; corporations also want to survive but don’t have a predetermined limit on their lifetimes.)

Climate change is a global problem whose consequences will fall mainly on the poorest 6 or 7 billion people on the planet and the billions yet to be born. Fixing it requires concerted action across multiple governments, driven by demand from ordinary people who care about the environment and want a world they and their children can live in (unlike the petrobillionaires).

Petrobillionaires view concerted action to slow or reverse climate change as an existential threat to the only thing they care about: their personal wealth and power. What to do to protect themselves? Discourage international cooperation, weaken individual governments, and corrupt any government that is even mildly responsive to the will of the people. The oil and gas industry already greatly influenced many governments around the world before they started taking baby steps towards stopping climate change, but now petrobillionaires have a strong incentive to increase their interference.

One government already totally captured by petrobillionaires is that of Russia. For a surprisingly small expenditure of public tax dollars, Russia is corrupting and destroying the most powerful democratic governments in Europe and the U.S. via clever use of social media, bribes, flattery, kompromat, etc. For a mere $12.5 million a month, the Internet Research Agency spread disinformation that influenced the vote in the 2016 U.S. election. The same organization had plenty of resources to simultaneously sway the vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum, the results of which have sent the U.K. into an orgy of self-destruction. As a result, the U.S. has stopped even its minor efforts towards combatting climate change and the entire EU project is weakened. Russia is funding many other projects: a proxy war in Ukraine, the far-right party of Marine Le Pen in France (a mere $12.2 million loan), and a far-right MP in Germany, to name just a few of the ones we know about.

In the U.S., Russia’s efforts to weaken our government opened the door for our existing white supremacist movement to re-animate and intensify our peculiarly American form of racist fascism, something I have been extremely worried about. However, after Steve Bannon failed to consolidate his power and was kicked out of the White House, it seems clear that Russia would prefer an ordinary racist kleptocracy and white supremacists will have to settle for whatever cruelty Stephen Miller and Donald Trump can implement without going full fascist. This gives us more time to potentially reverse the decline of our democracy and makes it less likely we will self-destruct with the fury and violence of Nazi Germany (which could destroy nearly the entire world long before climate change has an opportunity to do so).

My current opinion as of September 2019 is that in the U.S. we have about a 5% chance of returning to or improving on our flawed democracy circa 2010. Based on my research, Elizabeth Warren is the presidential candidate most likely to achieve this goal post-Trump, which is why I’m currently donating to and volunteering for her campaign. Working with other Warren volunteers is a delight; they are almost uniformly wonderful, caring, enjoyable people. Even if our work is doomed, I am glad to be doomed with them.

So that’s how I understand the simultaneous decline of representative democracy and the acceleration of climate change: petrobillionaires who literally don’t care if the world burns as long as they can increase their wealth and power during their lifetimes, taking over, disabling, or corrupting every government that could plausibly fight climate change. I hope enough civilization is left to write the history of this time.

Featured image CC BY-NC-ND mrapplegate https://flic.kr/p/4C8FJQ