Reflections from Bali: Democratising climate action to ensure fair and equitable solutions
One thing we know about the multidimensional crises happening today is that the crisis of democracy and the environmental and climate crises are linked. It will be very hard to fix one without fixing the other. In many contexts, much of what stands between decarbonisation of the energy mix and sustainable and equitable management of land and natural resources are policy capture and corruption.
This gives us a set of feedback loops. If people don’t expect fair and equitable solutions, integrity from their democracies, politics, and government will be deserted by principled citizens, and ever more prone to cynicism, capture, and corruption, which would in turn lead to further decline of democracy. At the same time, it is hard to imagine that democracy will flourish in a world suffering from climate shocks described in the latest reports of the International Panel of Climate Change for future scenarios above 2°C, with the global food supply under strain, massive losses of infrastructure, mass migrations, etc. To put it bluntly: without a liveable planet, democracy will die.
The climate transition requires a real democratic transition. There is a clear link between enhancing the quality and strength of our democracies and addressing environmental crises fairly and equitably. It is simply impossible to accomplish the latter without the former. We need democratic innovation renewal, not just for the sake of equitable responses to climate change, but just as much for the sake of democracy itself. We either will get both or neither.
Social scientists have observed a synergy in the relationship between the key pillars of democracy and environmental protection. The key features of democracies that are compatible with high environmental outcomes are (1) a high value placed on human life, (2) institutional responsiveness to concerns expressed by society, (3) government accountability and diffusion of power, and (4) the ability of voters to influence policies.
There is strong evidence indicating that democratic systems perform relatively better compared to non-democracies or autocracies on environmental performance. This is attributed to the key pillars of democracy that connect environmental and democratic values, including public participation, environmental justice, transparency, and accountability. Empirical studies conducted by Carayannis et. al. (2021) find that countries with higher degrees of political freedom feature stronger environmental performances.
Also, and this is critical, high levels of corruption lead to similar poor environmental performance across any forms of government. But here we see potential for a virtuous cycle because democracy improvements can lead to lower corruption, and in turn also to strengthening environmental and economic performances, particularly in developing countries with a large extractive sector.
On the other hand, the scale of action and changes needed, and the recent examples of social pushback and distributional conflicts, such as the yellow vest movement in France revolting against a carbon tax on petrol, show the risk of making deep policy changes without strengthening citizens participation in decision-making. A growing number of deliberative processes, such as the citizens-led UK Climate Assembly, have emerged to address the people’s lack of trust and deficits of legitimacy within government and institutions and to guide climate policies towards options that are socially acceptable. The sixth IPCC report mentions climate assemblies as a “potential tool for effective and democratic climate governance”. But there are many other less cost-intensive mechanisms for innovative participation in environmental decision-making which can be replicated across different contexts.
Such bottom-up mechanisms can increase citizens' trust in public decision-making, as well as its legitimacy, fairness, transparency, inclusiveness, and responsiveness and provide decision-makers with information about people's preferences and indications of how to reconcile a multitude of conflicting interests. They can also lead to greater support for public action through mass education and awareness raising, if they are implemented alongside a communication strategy where the media have a critical role to play. .
The latest generation of climate acts, such as the Scottish Climate Act or the Spanish Climate Act, mandate the convening of citizens’ assemblies on climate change. More recently, the authorities of the Brussels Capital Region in Belgium announced the creation of a permanent 100-strong Citizens’ Assembly for the Climate as a new institution that will provide guidance to the local government and also exert oversight on its delivery. In Indonesia, WFD recently began the process to co-create the country’s first climate change bill which was introduced to the national legislation program in August 2022.
Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development of 1992 laid the vision of environmental democracy. It rests on three pillars: (1) access to environmental information transparency, (2) access to environmental decision-making, including for women, people with disabilities, local communities, indigenous peoples, and the economically underprivileged, and (3) access to justice–recognising the need for environmental rule of law and human rights, particularly those of environmental defenders. These are the three fronts on which we need to see exponential progress, if we want to save the planet, to ensure a fair and equitable governance of climate change and environmental common goods, and, ultimately, if we want to preserve democracy.