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It’s the World’s Biggest Election Year. Is Democracy Good for Climate Change?

6 minute read

This year is the biggest election year on record. Voters in more than 60 countries—including four of the five most populated—will go to the polls in 2024. 

And in all of them, climate change is unavoidably on the ballot. Last year was the hottest year on record; this year is expected to be even hotter. The actions that countries take in the coming years will determine the trajectory of future emissions. Yet, despite this reality, climate change remains largely on the electoral campaign backburner. 

These two facts side by side—the urgent need to address climate change and the widespread apathy toward the issue in a critical election year—point to an important reality: efforts to tackle climate change face a democracy challenge. 

The critical timing of this election year, when nations must rapidly accelerate climate action to keep any hope of meeting the Paris Agreement’s goals alive, offers a lens into the knotty challenges of building democratic support for climate policy. Democracies move on public sentiment, and the best time to galvanize public support is around elections. This year, climate change remains a relatively low priority for the average voter in most places across the globe, seemingly less pressing than immediate economic concerns. 

For many politicians, the easy solution is to kick the can down the road until after their next election. But doing so also poses a threat to democracy. The challenges created by climate change—unchecked migration, economic stagnation, and the loss of homeland, to name a few—are precisely the kind of developments that have historically fomented authoritarian sentiments.

So, as this landmark election year proceeds, it’s worth considering climate’s place in it—both how the candidates will shape climate policy, and how that will shape the future of democracy.

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The biggest headline-grabbing election here in the U.S. is of course the likely contest for the White House between President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump, and it’s a useful one to understand the challenge of addressing climate change in a democracy. Biden’s previous campaign galvanized young voters concerned about climate change, and he has enacted the biggest climate investment legislation in the country’s history. But the climate issue has faded from the headlines in 2024. That’s in part because other concerns—including, most significantly, the candidates’ fitness for office—have taken precedence, but it’s also because the candidates have taken to talking around climate change rather than talk about it directly. Biden’s rhetoric portrays his climate agenda as an economic agenda. “When I think of climate change, I think of jobs,” he likes to say. Trump also talks about climate as an economic matter, by trashing Biden’s agenda as a job-killing boogeyman. Last year, for example, he traveled to a Michigan auto parts manufacturer set to lose business thanks to the transition to electric vehicles. “You’re going to lose your beautiful way of life,” Trump told a crowd in Michigan in September. “For auto workers, Biden's forced transition is a transition to hell.”

India, which will hold general elections this spring, offers another interesting example. The country is squarely in the center of the climate challenge. Parts of India are particularly vulnerable to the effects of rising global temperatures, think of heat waves and flooding, and its rapidly developing economy means that it emits a growing share of global greenhouse gas emissions. But, while the major political parties there have issued platforms acknowledging the need to act on climate change, the issue isn’t expected to feature prominently in the campaigns. Analysts expect the election to center on the controversial tenure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as well as coalition-building and traditional bread-and-butter issues.

Last year, I asked members of the Indian parliament across the political spectrum about how their constituents viewed climate change and got a near-universal answer: it’s not top of mind. Rahul Kaswan, a member of parliament from the Indian state of Rajasthan, told me last year that even as temperatures topped 120°F last year in the state he represents, the issue of “climate change” isn’t his voters’ top concern. “Yes, climate change is impacting people in my constituency,” he said at an event I moderated at the University of Chicago. But “we have a growing state right now, and we need power 24/7. That's the most important thing right now.”

Both elections speak to the core of climate change’s democracy challenge. Climate change, as urgent as the scientific reality may be, feels less urgent to voters than their economic challenges. And elected officials respond to that to win elections. 

In Europe, where voters will elect members to the European Parliament in June, climate change is running up against a different sort of democracy problem. For decades, the E.U. has taken a leading role combating climate change, in large part because the public supported it. The bloc implemented a carbon pricing mechanism in 2005, for example, and more recently created a Green Deal program designed to bring down Europe’s emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. But fear has grown that some citizens feel recent measures have gone too far. Last year, German industry created an uproar over the bloc’s aggressive electric vehicle regulations, and Dutch farmers launched a revolt over policies that target high-emitting fertilizer. The high cost of energy, primarily due to ripples from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have created political tensions across the continent. Many in Brussels fear that those concerns have contributed to the recent spike in right-wing populism that has long been simmering on the continent. In the Netherlands, most obviously, voters last fall dumped the longtime prime minister in favor of a far-right candidate. 

Europeans remain overwhelmingly supportive of taking action on climate—nearly 90% of E.U. citizens say the bloc should be climate neutral by 2050—but actually getting there without angering voters remains a delicate task. 

Climate change’s democracy challenge has come up time and again in my reporting over the years. No one has the silver bullet to fix it, but there is a common thread among those who think about it: something needs to be change so that the policy timeline in democracies can match the urgency of the climate crisis.

TIME receives support for climate coverage from the Outrider Foundation. TIME is solely responsible for all content.

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Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com