Sunday, July 25, 2010

Democracy Undone: The US Senate Scuttles Climate Change Legislation

Say good-bye to cap and trade. Once again a group of rich middle-aged white guys effectively veto climate change legislation already adopted by the House of Representatives that would have put a price on carbon emissions. Once again, the deny-and-delay faction chalks up another victory at the expense of everyone else on the planet.

What irks me - above and beyond that Canada is now off the hook to adopt any meaningful legislation to reduce its own CO2 emissions - is the way that it was done.

On one hand, there is the American President, elected by a majority of the popular vote and a majority of the electoral college and the democratically apportioned House of Representatives that support the principle of cap and trade and, on the other hand, there is the malapportioned Senate (each state elects two senators, which means that a voter in Wyoming has seventy times the voting power than a voter in California) that prevents the proposed legislation from coming into force. Taking into consideration that it requires a supra majority of 60 percent to adopt a bill in the Senate, it takes as little as the votes from the states representing 12 percent of the population to block any legislation from passing.

This state of affairs flies in the face of the principle of one person, one vote upheld by the US Supreme Court in Reynolds vs. Sims. Indeed, the Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down state legislation that deviated from the core democratic value of electoral equality. Yet, the inherently undemocratic composition of US Senate remains.

So what gives?

How is it that given we are most likely at a critical juncture of human history that the most influential nation in the world can experience a systemic failure of its democratic institutions and, as a result, jeopardize the long-term well being of the rest of the planet's inhabitants?

Simply put, the probability of catastrophic climate change increases as a consequence of the refusal of the North American English settler states, the US and Canada, to make a break with their colonial past and to fully embrace democracy.

At the heart of the problem is the bicameral Congress in the US and Parliament in Canada. They are both modeled on the British Parliament, which is comprised of the House of Lords and the House of Commons and has a long history of resisting democratic principles: an antiquated voting system, dubious electoral districts, and an unelected upper house that has wielded inordinate political power over the elected lower house. It is this latter feature that the former British colonies retained that allows the US and Canada to circumvent the democratic will of the people.

Although there are significant differences between the American and Canadian Senates, both institutions place significant limits on the democratic aspirations of their respective populations. Most notably, since any proposed legislation in either country must gain approval in the Senate, each body effectively grants a veto to its nation's upper class. In North America a monied aristocracy finds its political leverage in a democratically compromised upper house much in the same way the British hereditary aristocracy exerted its control over the lower classes.

The most important limit concerns the rules from which the economic game is played. Any legislation that proposes a qualitative change to the way money is made is unlikely to pass in the Senate since the monied class has a vested interest in maintaing a status quo that has proven to be very beneficial to its economic well being.

Let's make no mistake. Effective climate change legislation disrupts the status quo and will change the distribution of wealth, and this is the real reason why such legislation will never make it through either upper house.

All the talk about the negative effect on the economy is just a smokescreen for protecting established fortunes and societal status of an existing elite. Indeed, a retooling towards a low carbon economy makes sense both in the short term (millions of jobs and increased expenditures) and the long term (it's cheaper to incur the preventative measures than the economic costs of catastrophic climate change). However, since no one can predict who will come out on top if such game changing legislation were ever enacted - there are always winners and losers as a result of fundamental change - the status quo remains.

I've always wondered who was the bozo that in the distant past cut down the last standing tree on Easter Island. After seeing how the Senates in both Canada and the US have killed climate change legislation, he was probably the Easter Island equivalent of a senator, using an ax furnished by the members of the ruling class.

(To learn more about how the Canadian Senate is in the process of scuttling climate change legislation, see my blog post: The Curious Case of Bill C-311)

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