International IDEA welcomes the proposals put forward in “Our Common Agenda” on the need to deliver on the three goals of the Paris Agreement; to scale up the contribution of non-state actors to climate action; and to take account of the interests of future generations in national and global decision-making. Democratic governance plays a fundamental role for the attainment of this agenda.
Climate change poses a great challenge for democracy, and its endurance—probably the greatest challenge it has ever seen. If greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced and global warming kept within the targets set in the Paris Agreement, the impact on populations, infrastructure and nature will be dire, while governing systems and democratic frameworks will be brought under severe stress. Global warming is expected to cause natural disasters, such as heatwaves, droughts and sea level rise, which could potentially lead to significant social conflict and institutional collapse.
As shown by last year Germany’s highest court ruling that the country’s climate change policies were insufficient to protect future generations, climate litigation is the new frontier in the fight over climate change. By 2020, the number of legal cases doubled in three years, to more than 1,500 cases in 38 countries. It is no coincidence that nearly all of these cases are taking place in democracies. This tells us a lot, not just about the powerful assets that democracy can deploy in the struggle against climate change, but also the long-term robustness of the case for democracy as a political system.
Democracies are under pressure from populism, disinformation, inequality and voter frustration, according to International IDEA’s 2021 Global State of Democracy 2021 Report. They are also afflicted by a crisis of self-confidence. However, a misleading narrative portrays liberal democracies as lumbering and too divided to cope with big challenges and extols the presumed ability of authoritarian systems to act decisively. Indeed, democracies do suffer from vices when it comes to slow-burning crises like global warming, but they are still more effective in dealing with climate change challenges.
It is true that voters and politicians have short attention spans. Balances of power mean reforms can be held hostage to vested interests or oil lobbyists. Science can play second fiddle to voters if it entails higher taxes—protests in many countries, sparked by fuel price rises, are a case in point. And yet, despite all this, the facts are clear: 9 out of the 10 top performers in the 2021 Climate Change Performance Index are democracies.
Democracies allow for the free flow of information that enables policy makers to debate and find solutions, and for civil society to mobilize. Democracies are more effective against climate change for the same reasons that they do not experience famines, as Nobel Laureate Indian economist Amartya Sen suggested long ago—because in allowing freedom of expression, a vibrant civil society, regular elections and the workings of checks and balances, they increase the likelihood that crises will be met and destructive policies corrected.
Democracy is not simply elections—it is the often chaotic workings of myriad institutions and groups as well as a culture of open debate, where climate reform is nudged along by courts, free media, parliaments, and public protests. Democracy’s most powerful weapon against the challenges of this century is its ability to self-correct. And then there is the capacity of democratic systems to forge the social consensus required for long-term transformations to be sustainable.
While it is clear that the attributes of democracy are potentially superior to deal with climate change, it is much less clear that they will be actually deployed with the celerity required. Democratic governments, parliaments, political leaders, and non-state actors must dramatically increase the pace of their actions if our species is to avoid disaster.
Decarbonisation is not something governments do by fiat, though act they must—it is a transition that involves societies as a whole. Consumer habits will need to change, from reducing air travel to adjusting diets. Trillions of dollars will have to be invested in transforming the sources of energy that fuel economies. New social contracts will have to be devised so that the burden of these fiscal bills can be equitably shared. There is no guarantee that democracies will succeed in building the consensus needed to save our species, but their odds are better than those of any other political arrangement.
It is vital to connect the discussion of climate change with debates on the quality of democratic governance. We must distill, disseminate, and design the institutions and practices that are more likely to allow democracies to build consensus, distribute burdens and make decisions effectively to meet the climate crisis.
In the climate crisis era democratic governance agendas should experiment with new forms of political deliberation, like citizens’ assemblies, enlarge the representation of young people by lowering the voting age and adopt some of the bargaining practices between industries, workers and governments that have been so instrumental in building consensus in Northern Europe.
Studies show that democracies are improving their performance on long-term policies—for instance, on climate action and on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Institutional changes, such as the adoption of climate legislation and advisory bodies, and activities within democracies, such as the youth-driven climate movement and processes of climate litigation, have made them even less vulnerable to short-termism.
In conclusion, functioning democracy is essential to effectively deal with the climate crisis. But democracies will have to deliver adequately. Efforts to develop and support democracy around the world need to be sustained; but it is also necessary to undertake certain measures, activities and reforms to make democracy more able to tackle the climate crisis. There is a need to overcome short-termism, ensure citizen participation, act on climate injustice, develop knowledge-based decision-making and strengthen state capacities.
We must embrace this agenda for the sake of the planet. After all, a majority of the top emitters of greenhouse gases are democratic countries. But just as importantly, we must embrace it for the sake of democracy’s future. The climate crisis is the sternest crucible democracy will ever face.
If democracies do not rapidly deploy their considerable assets in this struggle, the pressure to deal with the problem in authoritarian ways will prove irresistible. Our planet will lose out—and so will our human condition.
I thank you.
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