The twin crises of our time – environmental degradation and democratic backsliding – are governance failures. They are the outcome of governments’ inability to deliver on urgent, complex problems.
Our two institutions, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), have for decades worked with parliaments, political parties, civil society and citizens on environmental issues. Our programming responds to local demand, and our partners often opt to focus on the environment as the subject of our democracy support programming. However, with the recognition that international commitments and climate activism may well fail to drive climate action fast enough to keep emissions within the 1.5 degree threshold to prevent severe climate disruptions, the democracy and governance community can and must fill a critical gap – the failure of governments to engage sufficiently on climate. This will require our community to build on its current, often narrower, demand-driven approach, and support ambitious climate action across society. At the same time, the climate community needs to recognize that awareness of the existential nature of the climate threat alone will not generate political will and consensus. On March 29-31, the Westminster Foundation, in partnership with the National Democratic Institute and the World Resources Institute (WRI), organized an international conference on environmental democracy. The meeting was a critical first step in demonstrating the importance of these two fields to each other.
Making the Strategic Case for Environmental Democracy
Climate response and democracy renewal are interdependent:
- Democratic legitimacy depends on a just response to the climate crisis.
- Effective climate response depends on free flows of information; on the ability of the government to level the playing field for more equitable citizen participation; and on a strong rule of law – hallmarks of democratic systems.
Increasingly, the growing struggle between authoritarian and democratic states, made clear with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, will have significant climate dimensions. The war in Ukraine has forced the global community to assess its strategic vulnerability to oil-producing autocracies and the role of climate mitigation and adaptation in reducing that vulnerability. Thus, the transition to green energy will threaten autocratic regimes with aspirations for global or regional power, like Russia and the Gulf States, and must be managed carefully in the context of this growing confrontation. In addition, a shift to electrification will draw a new global map of raw materials dependencies, with the fragile democracies who supply these vital rare earth metals and other low-carbon commodities potentially becoming further destabilized by these new ‘resource curses.’
Identifying Critical Touchpoints
The further integration of the democracy and climate fields should occur at multiple levels:
The UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy of 2021 set out the overarching national security and international policy objectives to 2025, recognizing that strengthening democracy globally is central to addressing today’s global threats. The UK considers tackling climate change and biodiversity loss its ‘number one international priority’ and will double its international climate finance. However, the strategic integration of democracy and climate objectives in UK foreign aid has not yet been completed at the institutional level. Flagship environmental democracy programs funded by the UK government and implemented by WFD in Georgia and Indonesia will tap into the synergies between climate and democracy support to achieve greater overall effectiveness. A comprehensive study by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment of the London School of Economics will further explore the potential for cross-community cooperation by identifying the barriers to enhancing environmental governance through foreign aid. An initial policy brief was launched at the conference on environmental democracy last month with preliminary recommendations on strengthening cooperation.
In the United States, the two foreign policy priorities of the Biden administration – climate action and global democratic renewal – must be brought together better. The recently held Summit for Democracy did not mention or refer to the climate crisis, although its focal points – tackling corruption, advancing human rights, and fighting disinformation – are critical for effective climate response. Climate change should be adopted as a critical cross-cutting theme in the next Summit, as democracy advances in these areas will support the achievement of country climate commitments, which, in turn, will reinforce democratic legitimacy as governments deliver on an issue critical to all citizens. With the launch of USAID’s new climate strategy in April 2022 the Bureau has organized a climate-democracy working group to better integrate programming and outcomes to achieve the strategy’s two overarching goals: transitioning from planning to climate action and systems change.
In 2017, the Swedish government adopted a climate policy framework to address the fact that climate mitigation was consistently secondary to other sectoral priorities, preventing Sweden from achieving its national climate commitments. The Climate Policy Framework has successfully integrated climate mitigation policy across sectors and departments, including in its overseas development work where, for example, climate, environment and governance programs are deeply integrated. In many ways, this type of policy integration is what we hope other governments may aspire to.
Breaking down the current funding silos will require better “unpacking” of what environmental democracy is. For this to occur it is critical to isolate and describe the specific governance challenges stymying climate response, which are varied. In some cases, the incentive structures ingrained in democracies are the challenge – political short-termism, competing citizen perceptions and interests, as well as inequality in the ability to participate. In other cases, democratic institutions are weak and can’t exercise important oversight, engagement or accountability functions required to design and implement effective climate policies. Elite policy capture and corruption are commonplace, and climate response is increasingly threatened by malign influencers from within and externally. The oft-repeated diagnosis of a “lack of political will” on climate obscures the root cause and the associated governance solution. A better understanding of the governance challenges hindering climate action, and of the potential of the environmental democracy toolbox, ought to translate into the setting up of funding streams in support of environmental democracy.
Environmental democracy programming will require deeper integration of climate and governance activities and the identification of dual governance and climate outcomes. Several good examples of this approach were provided at the conference, such as WRI’s analysis of country legislative frameworks and regulations on climate; and their implementation processes to determine their effectiveness in achieving national commitments. The joint United Nations-Swedish Environmental Program creates opportunities and technical support for women, youth, and marginalized populations to monitor natural resource operations in their communities based on international and human rights standards, strengthening local governance and climate outcomes. A robust environmental democracy research agenda that builds evidence for how governance interventions can shape political incentives, generate civic activism, strengthen the environmental rule of law, and pinpoint where governance interventions are critical for implementing national commitments is also necessary to inform programming.
Institutional Commitments and Next Steps
Our organizations will seek funding to support joint dialogues and exchanges between civil society and government leaders in two priority countries to assess the existing political, social, and rule of law capacity to meet climate commitments. Our approach assumes that the implementation of climate policies is constrained by entrenched political, economic, and social relationships, perverse incentive structures, and deep-rooted power interdependencies. A political economy analysis is necessary to understand these political dimensions of policy and programming, in addition to examining institutional capacity, stakeholder interests, and the regulatory environment. This analysis will help partners identify programmatic priorities that will strengthen governance capacity to deliver on climate commitments, such as enhancing information flows, strengthening public advocacy, monitoring corruption, and avenues of malign influence. The result, in essence, will be a country political and governance strategy on climate for donors, policymakers, and implementers, and bespoke environmental democracy assessment and monitoring and evaluation frameworks. In parallel, it is expected that the consultations in themselves will spur or give momentum to virtuous local dynamics of access to information and accountability, as well as of participation, that will help move the needle for climate action.
Author: Lauren Van Metre, National Democratic Institute
Rafael Jimenez Aybar, Westminster Foundation for Democracy
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.