Democracy and Climate Change Mitigation: Complex Realities

Monday, August 20, 2018
Nina Pusic

Senior Manager, Educational Programs (former)

Uneasy tensions rest at the crossroads between democratic theory and contemporary climate change mitigation policy. The connection between human activity and the pending climate consequences caused by lack of emissions mitigation is clear. For decades, we’ve known that climate change is both anthropogenic and will cause considerable harm to the global public good, including increased intensity of natural disasters, food insecurity, drought, and sea-level rise. The international community came together to address the climate challenge at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, where the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was opened for signature. And since 1995, parties to the UNFCCC have met at yearly Conferences of the Parties (COPs) to develop strategies for climate action. Yet, the annual COPs have been met with delayed action, reluctant participation of key actors, hesitant promises, and sluggish ratification of international treaties. Twenty-three years after Rio, the Paris Agreement signaled hope in international efforts to produce solutions to pending climate chaos. Yet, three years after the signing of the Paris Agreement, we are left with the planned withdrawal of the United States. And while the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of countries still party to the agreement are not yet due, some have expressed concerns about what the transparency process will look like.

Flawed Democracies

With 146 members of the UNFCC regarded as representative democracies according to Freedom House data, one may beg the question why the international community has been so slow to act on mitigating emissions. In widespread political theory, representative democracies value holistic interests of society. From Rousseau to Churchill, many have argued that democracy does in fact bring good governance of nations, as responsive and consensual representation informs policy and grounds law enforcement. So, if climate mitigation is a public good with overarching long-term benefits, why, then, have democratic states been so incapable of acting? One may point to short-term election cycles being a central flaw, as the benefits of climate mitigation are only seen decades in advance, thus largely irrelevant to winning reelection. Others highlight the tension between corporate industrial stakeholders and climate mitigation, as backlash from industry serves as a roadblock to enacting ambitious policy goals. Additionally, environmental policy is often seen as a “secondary” policy in nation-state building, following basic developments such as critical infrastructure and basic healthcare or welfare needs. 

Paris COP21The answer to democratic inaction on climate change, however, lies deeper than baseline political theory. Successfully implementing ambitious climate mitigation policy lies in both the type of democratic institution, the nations’ history of development, and existing institutional infrastructure. Prioritizing and implementing procedures to decarbonize a given society requires multi-party consensus, functional judicial institutions, formidable rule of law, and a high degree of economic stability. However, only a small fraction of representative democratic states worldwide have this high degree of economic stability conducive to climate change mitigation. 

Scandinavian Climate Leadership

One of them is Denmark, which rated highest in the 2016 Climate Change Index for climate protection policy. With the Danish Law on Climate (2014), ratified even before the Paris Agreement, the Danish government made a binding commitment to an ambitious goal of 85-90% emissions reduction by 2050. Aiming for a future independent of fossil fuels, the law also established an independent, research-based climate council, responsible for annual progress report submissions to Parliament. With these submissions, Danish progress toward a low-emissions future is both transparent and accessible. Through these ambitious emissions mitigation initiatives predating the Paris Agreement, Denmark cemented its trailblazing climate leadership and its path toward a low-emissions democracy, as one of the first countries to decouple economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, Sweden rivals Denmark in its mitigations initiatives. Yet, few other nations come close to such levels of mitigation seen by these Scandinavians.

Democracy, Development, & Emissions Mitigation

High levels of economic development and lack of widespread political corruption are two important factors in this Scandinavian success story, though they are tough to replicate. Political corruption can be linked to high levels of carbon dioxide emissions, as corruption disrupts the coercive power of the state, often impeding climate mitigation compliance. Reducing both trust in and capacity of government institutions, corruption can foster the political instability that disrupts long-term systemic initiatives needed to mitigate climate change. A country’s history of democratization and economic development serve as key factors in a nation’s susceptibility to this political malady, and literature on the topic highlights that corruption levels tend to fall as a democracy matures.

This brings us to troubled implications for development, democracy, and climate mitigation. The majority of the democratic member states of the UNFCCC are relatively young, having emerged in the second half of the 20th century following global decolonization and the collapse of communism (although the majority of these young nations have negligible emissions compared to China, Europe, India, and the United States). From the Balkans to West Africa, countless fledgling democracies have considerable challenges to institution-building and economic prosperity, which serve as tools improving resiliency to corruption, and ultimately, a nation’s capacity for long-term emissions reductions. Even if individual political leaders in these young states make the leap to pursuing ambitious emissions reductions, it does not mean that the legislative institutions or political will remain consistent enough to enact these policies. This painful reality was most obviously seen in the case of the Maldives, where transitions in power led to a drastic change in its approach to climate change.

From this, we see that there is a complex nexus between democracy, development, institutional capacity, and climate change mitigation that is under-researched yet critical to our understanding of state building in the 21st century. If global democracies are to mitigate climate effectively, the importance of fostering economic prosperity and building judicial and administration systems resilient to corruption is unparalleled. In the end, we are left with a question: how can we build climate resiliency into narratives of statehood for young democracies, despite political, judicial, and economic factors that may derail climate mitigation frameworks?