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Global Virtual Conference on Catalysing Parliamentary Action to Fight Climate Change

Speech delivered: May 12, 2021 • By Kevin Casas-Zamora
Event: Global Virtual Conference ‘Catalysing Parliamentary Action to Fight Climate Change’Location: Online event


Global Virtual Conference - Kevin Casas-Zamora speaking
Kevin Casas-Zamora, Secretary-General at International IDEA during his opening speech in the
Global Virtual Conference on Catalysing Parliamentary Action to Fight Climate Change. Image Credit: International IDEA




Distinguished attendees,


Thank you, Elena, Secretary-General Chungong, Ms. Marschall, Mr Jorro-Martinez, Honourable Members of Parliament, colleagues, friends.

Thank you so much for joining us here today. At International IDEA, we are proud to be co-hosting this event, developed in consultation with the INTER PARES Climate Change Reference Group, comprised of 6 EU Member State Parliaments and the Inter-Parliamentary Union. My gratitude goes to our wonderful Interpares team for organizing this global conference on this most urgent of topics. Few issues are more critical for democracy than addressing climate change.

I would also like to send a heartfelt salute and a wish for a swift recovery to our planned keynote speaker Mohamed Nasheed, the Speaker of the People’s Majlis of Maldives. Unfortunately, Mr Nasheed won’t be able to join us today as he is recovering from injuries following a presumed terrorist attack last week. We were both shocked and saddened by this news and hope that Mr Nasheed will be on the mend very soon.

Although we will show a pre-recorded message of the Speaker, I would have loved for him to be present at this conference as he always connected building democracy in the Maldives with the global fight against climate change.

As we know well by now, the climate crisis is an existential threat for humanity and, arguably, the defining issue of our time.

What is less understood, however, is that climate change is also vital for democracy. Why is that?

On one hand, climate change is having visible consequences for governance through its impact on food security, migration flows, water scarcity and the sheer financial impact of extreme weather events. To all this we can add the deepened inequalities, increased violence and recurring pandemics that result from it.

One the other hand, the success of democracies in drastically reducing their carbon footprint will define future global stability. For starters, democracies comprise over half of emissions of greenhouse gases globally, with 15 democracies amongst the top 20 CO2 emitters.

Just as importantly, the ability of democracy to deal with climate change will become a test case for its capacity to successfully confront existential issues for humankind. It will become in other words a fundamental test of the value of democracy as a political system. Put simply, what use is a political system that is unable to protect the survival of human beings? 

The proponents of authoritarianism –very clearly China—see the climate crisis as an opportunity to prove the virtues of centralized and vertical decision-making in dealing with crises. This lies at the centre of the “battle of narratives” that will affect the future of democracy all over the world. In that sense, climate change is an existential issue for the planet, but in a narrower sense is also an existential issue for democracy.

The good news is that, in many ways, democracy can be one of our best antidotes against climate disruption. Some of the most promising examples of climate progress have emerged from processes unique to free and democratic societies: climate laws strengthened further by parliamentarians; ambitious emission targets required by independent courts; and, of course, the civic movements and organisations so courageously led by our youth, all prompted and enabled by the free flow of information and freedom of expression.

We may be seduced by Xi Jinping’s confident pledge to make China carbon neutral by 2060, but the truth is that democracies, on average, do better in dealing with climate change and honouring international agreements on the environment. The Climate Change Performance Index 2020, which measures climate protection performance by 57 countries and the European Union, accounting for over 90% of global greenhouse gas emissions, has 9 democracies amongst the top 10 places. China is 27th. Democratic systems can mobilize significant assets against climate change. It is not exactly a coincidence that Greta Thunberg’s movement started in a country like Sweden!

Not all is positive, of course. The assets that democracy brings to this struggle are matched by painfully evident weaknesses, including the short-term bias that often afflicts democratic decision-making, the danger of policy inconsistency, and the way in which interests adverse to fighting climate change can easily penetrate policy-making processes, often through the outsized role of money in politics.

We thus have an enormously important agenda in our hands. In some fundamental respects democratic institutions are functional to the task of protecting the environment and we must leverage their power. And in those cases, in which those institutions are not functional to the need to address climate change, we have an obligation to try and reform them to bring them up to the task.

So, one could say that the climate crisis is both the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity that democracy has ever faced. If we fail to stop climate disruption, democracies will struggle. But if we harness the power of democracy, we can take the transformative leap required to transition to a sustainable and just world while also renewing and revitalizing democracy.

In this effort, as in everything with democracy, parliaments are crucial.

Not only are democratic parliaments the essential link between citizens and the state, but they are also the place where discussions and debates on society’s key issues lead to open and transparent decision-making.

But we must help parliaments up their game. When it comes to the climate crisis parliaments can be at the forefront for democratic innovation by allowing enhanced levels of representation for the young but also by taking into account proposals from citizen’s assemblies.

If we are serious about addressing climate change, legislators need to be longsighted and opt for long-term gains instead of short-term wins. In other words, they need to dare to invest in legislations and measures that might not see a payoff until several electoral cycles later. Let us be frank – this rarely happens spontaneously. We must make it happen by introducing the right incentives that enable political actors in a democracy successfully to tackle long term and multi-generational challenges.

This is why this conference is so important because it will explore, in a systematic fashion, the roles that parliaments play in democratic-decision-making related to climate change, and how parliaments can enhance their work and effectiveness in that area, from legislation to government oversight, to climate change budgeting, to engaging and listening to citizens and perhaps to innovative models for better and more inclusive long-term decision-making.

For us, this conference is just a start for what I hope will be an ambitious agenda for our institute and for parliaments around the world, working through Interpares.

For International IDEA climate change is a fundamental priority. As Secretary-General, and with the full support and encouragement of our 33 member states, I am committed to putting climate change and democracy at the centre of our work. This is a cross-cutting issue that will be integrated into all the areas of our work, from elections to constitutions, to parliaments and in the analysis of the performance of democratic systems, through our Global State of Democracy Report and Indices.

International IDEA, working with others, is in also an excellent position to tease out practical lessons and generate policy recommendations about the impact of institutional incentives on the ability of political systems to adopt policies to mitigate climate change. This is an agenda that we are embracing with enthusiasm.

I want to end by adding a special word about the European Union, which provides all the funding as well as continuing moral and strategic support to Interpares. The European Union is an important force for good in the world, both as a bulwark of democracy at a time when democracy is under threat in many parts of the world and in leading the global efforts to confront the climate crisis. With the European Green Deal, adopted in 2019 with considerable impetus from the European Parliament and other parliaments around the EU, Europe has stepped up to the plate on climate change. We are delighted to partner with the European Union and work with its institutions on the twin endeavours of protecting democracy and addressing the climate emergency.

Because, as I mentioned in the beginning, for us these issues are closely intertwined. The values that democracy embodies –which are at the core of our common human heritage—must be preserved alongside life on the planet. We need to walk and tweet at the same time. We must save the planet, and we must save democracy. We owe no less to future generations.

Thank you, and I wish you an enlightening and inspiring conference.



About the authors

Kevin Casas-Zamora
Kevin Casas-Zamora
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