Alaric Lester - Principal Consultant
I recently attended a lecture by Dr Benjamin Barber, ‘If Mayor’s Ruled the World’, at the C40 Cities London office. Dr Barber’s central hypothesis is that democracy is in trouble. Our democratic systems are increasingly irrelevant to decisions around such cross-border problems as global pandemics, markets, immigration and terrorism. The 400-year-old political system of nation states is increasingly dysfunctional in the face of global challenges. We watch those who wield power do so more or less without us.
Cities, on the other hand, are the cradle of democracy: political institutions in which civilisation and culture were born. Cities are enduring institutions; nation states are abstractions. More than half the world’s population live in cities (78 per cent in the developed world). Mayors are already engaged in global governance, in networks of cities working to deal with cross-border issues.
How is this relevant to climate change? Mayors rather than nation states are driving the change, through organisations such as C40 Cities and the ICLEI. At COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, 184 nations came together to, in Dr Barber’s words, ‘…explain to one another why their sovereignty did not permit them to deal with climate change’. The Copenhagen mayor also invited 200 mayors to attend. They found ways to work together. They need to: 80 per cent of carbon emissions come from cities. Nation-state-led organisations such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are tackling climate change at a glacial pace, burdened by the conflicting priorities of their member states putting continued competitive economic advantage first.
We still live politically in a world of borders and boundaries, where states act together in a limited way. The reality that we experience day to day is a world without borders (diseases and doctors without borders; terrorism and war without borders; technology without borders). We need to find a way to globalise democracy or democratise globalisation or we will increasingly risk the failure to address transnational problems and even risk losing democracy itself in the old nation-state box.
I reflected on Dr Barber’s thoughts in light of the seizing of political ground by eurosceptic and far-right parties across Europe in May’s elections. Decentralisation and the green agenda received scant attention. This result was about frustration at the unwieldy nature of the European political system, as well as the worrying undercurrent of nationalism. As environmental practitioners, we are usually neutral on the political stage. We undertake studies, make assessments and provide recommendations. Those of us involved in policy work have some scope to influence the direction of change. But we are all citizens, and citizens can effect change, given the right leaders. Is it time for us to push for a political system that will properly support positive environmental change?