In the nearly 250 years since the United States' Founders wrote the Constitution, freedom and "God-given rights" in America have been subjected to profound stresses. But the world's oldest living democracy has survived. When stress reveals weaknesses and flaws, our tradition in the U.S. has been to learn from and fix them.The Republic has prevailed despite civil war, the Great Depression, two major oil crises, two world wars, a couple of pandemics, and periods of intense division and dissent. More than one million Americans have died in democracy's defense.

The question today is whether it will survive a presidential election this November.

America's Founders anticipated that tyranny would eventually challenge democracy. Thomas Jefferson warned: "Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny." James Madison described it: "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands…may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."

However, the Founders couldn't foresee that democracy's survival in the United States and elsewhere would require nations to prevail over a crisis that threatens not only freedom and government by the governed but also the biosphere–the ecological systems and conditions on which much of the planet's life depends. Nor could they anticipate the reverse: that our ability to prevent global warming would depend in large part on the health of democracy. Simply put, the planet is warming, and the weather is becoming increasingly violent because of greed. Rich and powerful industries—particularly the fossil energy sector—stubbornly (and some say criminally) refuse to put people and the planet above their profits.

The ability to stop climate-altering pollution depends on whether the people—not rich and powerful special interests—are ultimately in control. Left unmitigated, the social, economic, and environmental effects of climate change create ideal chaotic conditions for authoritarians to move in and take control.

As we know, the threat to democracy this year goes well beyond the United States. Over 60 countries and 4 billion people will participate in elections during a wave of ascendant authoritarianism and declining global freedom. As one journalist said, "We will know whether democracy lives or dies by the end of 2024."

Because climate change is global, so must be the solutions. But we must wonder whether governments' failure to confront climate change adequately is in part due to the powerful's willingness to allow conditions to deteriorate until citizens accept strongman rule.

The better alternative is governments and leaders who invoke our best impulses, aspirations, and energies. We must mature our vision of democracy and its laws to include the rights of the poor as well as the rich, the rights of posterity as well as the living, the rights of nature as well as people, and the fair distribution of costs, risks, and benefits within and between generations.

Considering the urgency of action, we must confront climate change with our current political economy, even as we accomplish system change. Our north star should be to escape the illusion that humanity can and must dominate nature, that technology can compensate for bad behavior, and that we can solve problems with the same values and paradigms that created them.

In this century, we must achieve, and in centuries to come, we must sustain a benign symbiotic relationship with the natural world, even as we venture into space and into capabilities we have not yet conceived. For nearly 250 years, America has considered itself a "shining city on a hill" and an inspiration for the rest of the world to adopt and defend governments of, by, and for their people. At the moment, its lights have dimmed. The November election in the U.S. will determine whether America powers them up again.

But the global goal is not one well-lit nation on a hill in a world of darkness. It's a world where the lights of freedom and democracy illuminate the darkness everywhere.