Democracy Boosts Climate Performance

Politicians tend to think in election cycles, but many of the measures aimed at mitigating climate change will only be effective over the longer term. Does this mean that democracy is incompatible with efforts to protect the climate? Quite the opposite is true, argues political scientist Frederic Hanusch at the IASS. In his new book, “Democracy and Climate Change”, Hanusch examines the connection between the quality of a democracy and its commitment to protecting the climate. His conclusion: Countries with high democratic standards tend to adopt more ambitious climate policies.

“Admittedly, democracies are challenged when it comes to finding the right solutions to climate change. However, it is also clear that in most cases it is only by broadening democracy that climate change can be adequately addressed. Making our societies more climate friendly by design rather than in response to climate-induced disasters requires both a high degree of quality of democracy and the successful interplay of key dimensions such as transparency, independence or creativity,” says Hanusch. Recent experiences in the fields of mobility and energy generation, for example, show that people are more likely to change their lifestyles when they are able to play an active role in creating alternatives.

Democratic participation benefits efforts to protect the climate. In response to growing hostility towards science, people in Paris and other cities took to the streets in the March for Science to demonstrate for academic freedom on 22 April 2017. © Augustin Le Gall/HAYTHAM-REA/laif Democratic participation benefits efforts to protect the climate. In response to growing hostility towards science, people in Paris and other cities took to the streets in the March for Science to demonstrate for academic freedom on 22 April 2017. © Augustin Le Gall/HAYTHAM-REA/laif

The Canadian experience: lessons from a democratic experiment

Hanusch’s book offers an empirical analysis of the influence of quality of democracy on climate protection across forty countries and draws substantially on the example of the Canadian experience. Under the Kyoto Protocol, from which Canada withdrew in 2011, the country committed to achieving a six per cent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2012 compared to 1990 levels. With the adoption of this target, the Canadian government abandoned a previously agreed national consensus, under which CO2 emissions would have remained stable.

This led to the development of a national climate change process – a genuinely democratic experiment built around public hearings and inclusive working groups, whose recommendations were made available online to the public. In his analysis, Hanusch shows that this experiment failed largely due to the lack of democratic tools that could have supported the integration of different voices and perspectives. “Developing climate policies and pathways for their implementation through inclusive and transparent policy processes requires robust frameworks for participation and decision-making. In their absence, processes are likely to stall, leading to frustration among participants. And that, in turn, can diminish future engagement,” explains the researcher. The adoption of more effective democratic structures may well have delivered a successful outcome.

Using democratic solutions to develop climate policy

Despite this, Canada has benefited from the repeated reassessment of its climate policy since the Kyoto conference, and the topic has remained high on the public agenda. The strong prospects for progressive climate policy enjoyed by the new Canadian government are due to the work of an institution that offers a role model for other democracies: the Commissioner for the Environment and Sustainable Development. The Commissioner provides parliamentarians with objective, independent analysis and recommendations with regard to the federal government’s efforts, and enables them to assess the government’s performance. “The establishment of similar institutions would enhance the quality of many democracies and improve their climate change performance,” Hanusch emphasises.

Other countries would do well to engage in democratic experiments of this kind, the author suggests, noting that democracies should not be viewed as static entities. Rather, Hanusch argues, they must adapt to the challenges of the day.

26.07.2017