Recent floods in western Europe and extreme heat and fires in Canada, the US and southern Europe – crises which are more than ever linked to human-induced climate change – have been the latest wake-up call to step up our efforts to halt global warming. Ironically, the start of the floods coincided with the unveiling of the European Commission’s package of proposals aiming to make the EU ‘fit for 55’ (reducing net emissions by at least 55% by 2030, as compared to 1990) and delivering the necessary transformations of economy, society, and industry. However, there are doubts as to what extent this necessary transition will happen in a socially just way, and whether the Western democratic model will be sufficient to achieve this. Climate change and, more generally, the environmental crisis we are living through, are calling into question the widely accepted pact between democracy and growth that, according to the French philosopher Pierre Charbonnier, dates back to the Enlightenment. The assumption of modern political thinkers that free and equal citizens, supported by a strong and ever-growing industry, will be liberated from Mother Nature’s chains no longer seems to be valid. Not only are the limits of growth becoming more tangible but the growing inequalities this model has been producing invite for a re-thinking of our political model. What is more, the intention of China to embark on what Charbonnier calls “authoritarian ecology” makes it urgent for Europe to come up with a viable democratic alternative. This could be a new political doctrine based on ecology or, as Paul Magnette, the President of the Belgian French-speaking socialist party, calls for, an “eco-socialism that will identify both with the fight against climate change and inequalities, while providing a “new breath to socialism”. The consequences of climate change are in fact a new form of inequality (see also Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel) that is not yet well recognised in the current democratic model.  

At the same time, our system of representative democracy is currently being challenged by new international experiments such as citizens’ panels and “ombudspersons for future generations”. By encouraging a greater participation of citizens in policymaking and integrating the long-term interests of future generations into democratic institutions, these experiments aim to make our democracies more resilient, more efficient and more socially just. This renewal of democracy is also of the utmost importance for trade unions, and efforts to establish more democracy in the workplace could learn from this “deliberative wave”. How could such reforms of our democratic institutions be used to improve the current system of social dialogue and collective bargaining and enable unions to have more input into a broader range of areas of economic development? 

The ETUI is re-starting its monthly discussion series with a debate on the future of democracy in times of planetary crises – a little out of our comfort-zone but undeniably very important in light of the above. We have invited renowned academic Hélène Landemore from Yale University, who argues that climate issues are deeply connected to social justice and should be tackled at different levels and with structural citizens’ participation. This could also be an answer to another characteristic problem of professional politics, the lack of long-term thinking – something which is fundamental in the case of climate change policy. Roman Krznaric, who recently published the book ‘The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short Term World’, will connect the participative democracy proposals with the need for more long-term thinking in politics, and discuss how to make sure we incorporate the future generations in our decision-making processes. And last but not least, Ludovic Voet, ETUC Confederal Secretary responsible for just transition, will tell us more about the trade unions’ role and position in this debate.

Register now for the monthly forum discussion on The future of democracy in times of planetary crises

Photo credits joelblit  from Getty Images