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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 1-2, December 24, December 31, 2022 (Double issue)

Democratic erosion Across Asia and the Pacific will undermine climate change solutions | Mike Runey

Saturday 24 December 2022

by Mike Runey *

This year, Pakistan experienced devastating monsoon floods that left one-third of the country submerged and nearly 1,600 dead. In Australia, the lengthening bushfire seasons and floods on an unprecedented scale and intensity shifted voter support to independent, climate-conscious candidates. Exit polls showed climate to be the second most important issue after the economy, pushing the new Labour government to be more sensitive to international climate targets. Across Southeast Asia and the Pacific nations, increasingly unpredictable meltwaters, and the stark reality of rising seas now pose a threat to coastal areas experiencing frequent typhoons and the flooding of shorelines. Fighting climate change will require improved democratic collective action both between and within the countries likely to be affected.

Both empirically and theoretically, democracies are better suited to negotiating complex issues like climate change than alternative modes of governance. While critics are right to focus on short-termism and other aspects of democracy that slow climate action, they elide that autocratic governments perform far worse than their democratic counterparts in assessments of prevention and mitigation strategies like the Climate Change Performance Index. The feedback mechanisms, public accountability, and ability to form strong social consensus that are attributes of healthy democracies allow them to develop more forceful and agile responses to severe crises than alternative forms of government.

However, the latest International IDEA Global State of Democracy (GSoD) report shows that democracy is receding across the region, even in higher-performing democracies like Taiwan, Australia, and Japan. Activists pushing for climate action are under attack in Vietnam, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and elsewhere. Since 2018, at least 15 countries in the region have approved measures that restrict Freedom of Expression online (i.e., Bangladesh Digital Security Act, Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law etc.) - measures which are tactically being used to delay and evade climate action. GSoD data shows that 12 out of the 35 countries in the region have experienced erosion in either Freedom of Expression or Media Integrity over the last five years.

The field of international cooperation has lately become more encouraging, if only slightly. At COP27 in Egypt, the G77 group of developing nations scored, in the words of Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto, what amounts to a ‘major victory’ in the field of climate negotiations by forcing EU and US accession to a global loss and damage fund. Similarly, a landmark ruling by the United Nations in May 2022 found Australia guilty of inadequate climate action for a group of eight Indigenous people following a three-year-long legal battle. The decision creates an unprecedented pathway for further legal actions and compensation claims to be made on climate inaction.

But a just solution to climate change also requires democratic accountability at the domestic level — a sobering challenge at a time when 46 per cent of the population of the Asia Pacific lives in an autocracy, and 85 per cent of those living in a democracy live in a weak or backsliding one.

Democratic institutions provide a way out of this conundrum. Countries like New Zealand and India have begun to address environmental sustainability issues by incorporating indigenous systems of knowledge and law into their existing legal system, granting non-human entities like forests and rivers rights under what is called the “rights of nature doctrine.”

This is the renegotiation of social contracts to revitalize democracies envisioned in International IDEA’s report. And democracy is far more than just courts, elections, and parliaments, and the battle against climate change will not be won by lawyers alone. The legal battles over the rights of nature will need to be part of a larger renegotiation of social contracts that allow for a more sustainable human existence. A successful and democratic approach to climate change may entail adopting an understanding of democracy that protects the rights of nonhumans and natural systems, or at the very least, their complex interdependency with existing human rights.

This may sound far-fetched, but it would not be an unprecedented shift in the history of the common understanding of democracy. Although no society that endorsed slavery, forbade women’s suffrage, or encoded a racial hierarchy would be considered democratic today, the same was not true in the not-so-distant past.

At the beginning of 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that climate change was moving faster than scientists had previously imagined. Even rapid action by the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases will do little to impact the situation in the short term, meaning that the Pakistan’s floods, Australia’s fires, and potential disasters like a submerged Mekong Delta are likely to be more commonplace. Confronting these challenges will require a renewed and revitalized democratic politics, within and between nations. It is a process that cannot start too soon.

* (Author: Mike Runey, a policy expert on democratic developments in the APAC region. Mike is a Programme Officer, Democracy Assessment Unit, at the Stockholm-based think tank the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA))

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