Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
11 February 2021

Can liberal democracy outlive climate change?

The ninth episode of our podcast Democracy in Question? features Professor Michael Ignatieff.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue on everyone’s minds was climate change. Scientists have been raising the alarm for the good part of three decades, but politicians the world over have been slow to react, even as more citizens have been calling for radical action. In the ninth episode of our podcast Democracy in Question?, we are joined by Michael Ignatieff to explore whether liberal democracies are up for the fight against climate change, and whether that fight could affect the political system itself.

The idea of the Anthropocene, Professor Ignatieff argues, is a challenge to liberalism’s account of history. Drawing on arguments from his recent essay Liberalism in the Anthropocene, Professor Ignatieff suggests liberalism’s narrative of progress, which is tied to the mastery of nature, is indeed unsettled by the “perverse and destructive” relationship between humans and nature in the Anthropocene. Are liberal democratic “tools” such as markets, regulation and confidence in science sufficient to reverse the damage?

The answer that Professor Ignatieff provides is clear: not only are they sufficient, but liberalism provides the only set of values and institutions able to respond to this challenge. Market incentives such as carbon tax and pricing, he claims, are essential to get carbon out of the atmosphere and have contributed to driving the shift from fossil fuel dependence to renewables since the 1970s.

To illustrate this, he points to social welfare capitalist countries such as Scandinavian countries that have been able to make a dent in their carbon emissions. Comparatively, the record of authoritarian governments such as China, he continues, has been “ghastly”.  He thus takes issue with “radical environmentalism” which, he argues, does not sufficiently recognize the effect incremental small behavioural changes can have on decreasing carbon emissions.

Download the podcast's transcript HERE

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WATCH an interview of Michael Ignatieff by Shalini Randeria on liberalism, ordinary virtues and the language of human rights..


Shalini Randeria is the Director of the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, Rector of the Institute of Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna and Excellence Chair, University of Bremen (Research Group: Soft Authoritarianism).

Michael Ignatieff is a university professor, writer and former politician. He is currently the Rector and President of Central European University in Budapest. Between 2006 and 2011, he served as an MP in the Parliament of Canada and then as Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and Leader of the Official Opposition. 



This podcast series is co-produced by the Graduate Institute’s Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy and the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) Vienna, in cooperation with the Excellence Chair, University of Bremen (Research Group: Soft Authoritarianism).

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