As the coronavirus sweeps across the world, we have good reason to ask why we were so unprepared. Why warnings were unheeded, scientists ignored, and the Centers for Disease Control underfunded. We should be asking the same kinds of questions about the climate crisis now evident everywhere. In both cases the causes are political, the result of a forty-year war waged against government. The result is that we had no plan to deal with COVID-19 and we have no plan to deal with climate emergency. The very idea of collective foresight and preventive action

Whenever and however the 45th president leaves office, the long work of repairing the damage and strengthening democratic institutions must begin in earnest. The timing, however, could hardly be worse. It will occur as global warming increasingly threatens food and water supplies, coastal cities, public health and safety, national security, economies, political stability, and international order. A destabilizing climate, however, is only the most urgent challenge ahead but there are others. We face not just a single crisis, but a convergence of crises and not just an emergency but “a long emergency” that will persist through this century and beyond.

The politics are more difficult because President Trump is leaving behind weakened and demoralized federal agencies, an unprecedented record of corruption, extreme polarization, a fractured and exhausted public, a tangle of Constitutional issues, the nation’s reputation for leadership in tatters, a legacy of dereliction on important issues, the presidency in disrepute, and growing doubts about democracy.

As the situation becomes clearer, demands for action, broadly, could take either of two forms: one authoritarian and fascist, the other for a stronger and improved democracy. The first promises quick and simple solutions to complex problems and appeals to latent fears and tribal instincts, mostly by scapegoating vulnerable minorities. On the other hand, building a stronger, more resilient and competent democracy is the better option because it would address the root causes of what ails us. Most of our problems began with the subversion of democracy by some combination of appeals to fear, or deceit, secrecy, corruption, voter suppression, gerrymandering, and invertebrate leadership.

In the civic and ecological emergency ahead, the democracy we need, however, is not a slightly improved version of the status quo, but one that is more inclusive, fairer, stronger, more competent, transparent, and in which officials are accountable. Had that democracy existed decades ago, we might not be in such a mess.

To meet the challenges ahead, however, we will have to rebuild a robust and competent federal capacity and outgrow the myth that government is everywhere and always the problem. In our democracy, government competence depends on an accurately informed, scientifically literate, and engaged citizenry that understands its history.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution laid the foundation for a limited democracy. That system has been reinvented twice since, once to end slavery and again in the 1930s to avoid economic collapse. Neither was entirely successful. Jim Crow laws undid most of the gains of emancipation and the hijacking of the 14thAmendment by corporate lawyers did the rest. In the second instance, the patchwork reforms of the New Deal, worked well enough for a time, but inequality is now about what it was in 1929 and the system is otherwise failing in potentially catastrophic ways.

The differences from the reconstruction era and the New Deal to the present are striking. We are at the threshold of irreversible and irrevocable climate changes that will jeopardize civilization. No one in previous generations could say that with the authenticity and urgency with which we assuredly can. No change in consumer behavior or market response alone will be effective unless they occur as a part of changes in the larger structures of governance, politics, economics, and values. This is a systemic crisis and must be met with systems-level changes not haphazard, piecemeal reforms. We face a convergence of crises not a single crisis, and not an emergency but “a long emergency” that will persist through this century and beyond. And time is not our friend.

The upshot is that we must create a coordinated set of policies to counter the forty-year assault on the institutions of democracy that have prevented public actions necessary to stabilize the climate. Whether called a “Green New Deal” or something else, the goal is the same. We must quickly put Americans to work making a rapid transition from fossil fuels to an energy efficient economy powered by renewable energy, rebuilding infrastructure while:

  • reforming our democracy by protecting the right to vote in fairly drawn electoral districts, and curtailing dark money in our politics;
  • educating and empowering a public committed to defend the rules of accountability, transparency, and fair play that allow democracy to exist;
  • building the capacity of government to protect the global commons of air, oceans, biological diversity, forests, soils, and waters;
  • creating a fair economy in which “prices tell the truth” about the full ecological and social costs of what we buy; and
  • ensuring justice for all, including future generations.

The imperative for systemic change further requires us to question assumptions baked in to our political DNA. I’ll end with three:

(1) If the founders knew in 1787 what we know now about how the earth works as a physical system, how would they have written a Constitution for a complex world of leads and lags, positive and negative feedbacks, and long delays between action and consequence—all governed by ecology and thermodynamics not by simple Newtonian mechanics?

(2) What might they have done to protect the rights of “Posterity” otherwise mentioned once in the Preamble and not thereafter?

(3) If they had foreseen a future with Facebook, hackers, malicious bots, and “fake news,” how might they have balanced freedom of speech and the need for shared truths?

Reckoning with such issues will be difficult, but a great deal easier than living with the consequences of a dysfunctional democracy on a dying earth.