From the editor: Functioning democracy looks like Greta Thunberg


New York Times Columnist Christopher Caldwell’s condescending op-ed on Greta Thunberg last Friday was merely the latest in a series of attacks on the teenage activist that have peaked over the last week, and which have been consistently ugly.

Caldwell relies more on insinuation than logic to support his thesis, and there are several things very wrong with his analysis. Perhaps the senior writer considers deliberations by elected officials and maybe even veteran journalists – both groups where older men like himself are over-represented – to be the only valid form of political activity. However, in the United States, our democratic form of government is literally founded on principles including the ability of individuals to “petition their Government for a redress of grievances”.

Suggesting that protest movements that force rapid change are at odds with the democratic process is not a new tactic, but one that is no less phony every time it is rolled out in vain attempts to stop social change. Furthermore, his claims that Thunberg and the climate movement are “politicizing” the language of the climate crisis pretends as though our collective failure to control man-made emissions is not inherently political.

However, the crowning irony is Caldwell’s crude attempt to smear Thunberg with the charge of her activism being “at odds with democracy”, given that a lack of functional democracy is slowing down the very action on climate issues that she is calling for, and specifically the deployment of renewable energy.


What the polls say

A few facts: Solar is the most popular energy source. Like Europeans, the American people support policies to decarbonize rapidly, with a large majority initially expressing support for the decarbonization goal of the Green New Deal. This support crosses party lines; while more Democrats and Liberals tend to support more ambitious policies, Americans across the political spectrum want more renewables.

This is not to say that Americans always support specific policies; in fact the popularity of pricing carbon among economists has shown itself to be inversely proportional to its support among actual voters. But policies like renewable energy mandates remain highly popular, and 2/3 of voters nationwide even support requiring new homes to include rooftop solar, as California has done.

In a democracy, the opinions and choices of the majority are supposed to be what drives policy, and the people clearly want action on climate, decarbonization of the electricity sector, and more than anything more solar. But in the United States as elsewhere, we have another force that is directly at odds with the masses: consolidated wealth and power, particularly in the form of entrenched energy industries.


Monopoly power

Much has been written about the power of the fossil fuel industries to keep us dependent upon their products. Meanwhile, the power of the utility industry to subvert democracy processes for their own interests has often fallen below the radar.

We at pv magazine see daily the work that utilities engage in to undermine democratic processes: Entergy paying actors in New Orleans to boo solar and fake support for a gas plant, APS’s use of heavy contributions including potential “dark money” to control Arizona Corporation Commission races, coal baron Bob Murray’s directive to Energy Secretary Rick Perry to bail out coal plants, and massive lobbying by FirstEnergy and potentially AEP to secure a coal and nuclear bailout are just a few examples. (For the best documentation of this systemic corruption, we recommend the work of Energy and Policy Institute).

In all of these cases and more, the goal has been to slow the energy transition by either slowing the advance of renewable energy and/or propping up failing, uneconomic forms of generation like coal.

These cases of outright corruption do not even cover the unfortunate phenomenon wherein many regulators find themselves unable to think outside the frame dictated by utilities, described as “regulatory capture”. But this more mundane control is perhaps the most problematic, and in state after state utilities have used their sway to sabotage the economics of self-generation and rooftop solar using disingenuous and disproven but widely propagated arguments.

And perhaps the most perverse aspect of the way that utilities are continuing to wage war on the future is that they are using our money to do it. That utilities derive their revenues from their customers means that we – utility customers – are paying for these monopolies to lobby against our desire for self-generation, including paying dues to the anti-solar Edison Electric Institute.


Waiting for real democracy

In the United States, the will of the people on a variety of issues is subverted through the power of large, vested interests, who control politicians in both parties. This includes the Democratic Party, which claims to want meaningful action on climate crisis but whose leadership allowed pro-coal Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), who literally fired a gun at a climate bill in a campaign ad, to become their top official on the critical Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

This does not mean that all is hopeless. Aside from setbacks such as in Ohio, policies to mandate decarbonization in the electricity sector have advanced at the state level. More essentially, we are beginning to see the stirrings of a more functional form of democracy through trends like micro-finance of elections, and with the emergence of politicians who are not beholden to the fossil fuel industries.

By and large the people have not yet been heard. But as the impacts of climate crisis become more obvious and immediate, the masses of Americans and Europeans will increasingly demand more from their leaders. When the people finally are heard, they will sound a lot like Greta Thunberg.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.

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