Democratization and climate change: a time for action


The science of climate change and human responsibility, the economics of addressing the problem and technical solutions, and the aspect of “climate justice” in regard to North-South (developed-developing world) relations in particular have all received substantial exposure in public debate and specialized technical, policy, and academic literatures. We also hear about the imperative to “climate-proof” society, the poor, and even the state. Confident answers to big questions about climate change problems are widely circulated, for example the claim that climate mitigation requires nothing less than a dramatic change in economic lifestyles and aspirations, or the idea that better governance is essential to meet the pressing needs of climate adaptation in poor countries. Occasionally, we are also told the “right political framework” is needed, usually meaning, on the international level, an improvement on the Kyoto Protocol and, at the national level, the right mix of regulatory policies and other legislation for moving toward a low-carbon future.

A surprising omission is the balanced inquiry into what climate change and its effects mean for democratization, and what democratization could mean for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and climate adaptation. This paper draws attention to the little explored relationships between climate change and democratization. It is framed by four key questions of immense importance:

• Do global warming and its effects make democratic transition and consolidation easier or more difficult?

• Does democratization make it easier or more difficult for countries, especially in the developing world, to engage with climate change mitigation, compared to countries with authoritarian or semi-authoritarian political regimes?

• Does democratization mean that climate change adaptation, especially when it is intended to protect the most vulnerable social groups, becomes more likely?

• Can adaptation to climate change and the means to secure people from its harmful effects help countries that want to democratize, or will it get in the way of democratic reform and boost other forms of rule instead?

The questions look simple, but arriving at conclusive answers and establishing the right reasons for them is not. In order to get closer to some answers and their grounds, it is necessary to lay out the building blocks first. To do this the opening chapter (chapter 1) gives an account of two parallel trends in recent years: climate change and democratization. The paper then explores what climate change means for politics at the level of the national state (chapter 2), before investigating what democratization means for climate change (chapter 3) and summarizing the puzzles that emerge from exploring connections between the two (chapter 4). Chapter 5 cites some policy implications for international actors, especially their efforts to spread democracy worldwide.

A brief summary of answers to the four key questions that frame this paper can be found at the start of chapter 6. This chapter then goes on to raise further issues where more joined-up thinking by international actors involved in promoting democracy, development, and climate action could be beneficial, and where a better understanding of politics inside countries is needed if negotiations between countries are to produce a viable, new international climate change regime. A coda (chapter 7) concludes by pleading for a better informed and more globally inclusive debate about the national as well as international politics of responding to climate change.

Throughout the paper there is an assumption that both democracy and environmental

sustainability are regarded by most, if not all people, as intrinsically desirable, whether considered individually and separately or together. But of course this assumption also recognizes that there is much disagreement among and also within countries over how  democratization should be brought about and over how binding policy measures concerning climate issues should come about, especially over the role that foreign actors and international institutions can play or should play. A further assumption is that the benefits of greater economic progress are much needed in many countries, especially the world’s poorest communities, and that – up until now – economic growth and development has been a driving force behind greenhouse gas emissions, although whether one type of political regime excels over others in producing growth and development still occasions much dispute.

In his recent The Politics of Climate Change, Anthony Giddens argues that it is at the

national level in the developed countries that progress on climate policy must first be made. Of course he is right. Indeed, even the Europeans, “who have gone further than any other political actor to address the problem,” have so far “capped the costs they are willing to incur more than their emissions.” And yet people in the developing world, too, know that more determined initiatives by the developed world alone will not be enough. For example, South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs has said that if dangerous climate change is to be avoided, then “substantial deviations below business-as-usual” baselines for emissions are needed in the emerging economies, too.

So if there is to be a global solution to the problems of global warming and climate change more generally, we need to understand the political capacity of the emerging

economies – including emerging new democracies and China – to act on climate change. Appropriate initiatives are likely to be at least as challenging politically for these countries as are the steps to address global warming that the OECD democracies should have taken already but which in many cases have met political resistance at home. Of course those steps by rich countries include not only substantial reductions

in their own carbon emissions, but also the funding of practical adaptation to climate change and its consequences in developing countries that are not responsible for the

accumulated man-made stock of greenhouse gases already present the atmosphere –

many of whom lack the resources to cope with its adverse environmental, social, and economic effects.