Democracy’s Climate Problem: Beyond the Bounds of Territory and Time
Democracy has a climate problem. Democratic political systems are based on the premise that governments derive their mandate from electors who live in a particular time and place. Representative democracy, as it has evolved since the nineteenth century, relies on the principle that governments are elected to serve the interests of the voters within a national constituency who are living right now. But climate change and environmental degradation go well beyond national borders, and their effects will be greater on future humans than the ones living now. Our familiar methods of creating democratic legitimacy were not designed for this challenge.
To achieve net zero targets and avoid catastrophic climate change will require a major system change in order to run economies on renewable energy and more efficient use of natural resources. That, in turn, requires consistent policies and public and private investment over many years and changes of government. Moreover, it requires major changes where citizens cannot know the effect on themselves and their households at the start. That makes it very hard for them to vote in elections with informed choices about the implications. And it requires deep cooperation between countries, particularly through EU-level measures and powers; yet, democracies are still organised nationally. This essay explores this mismatch and the dilemmas that it creates for both democracy and justice, and then considers whether the EU can provide solutions.
The climate democracy mismatch: Territory and time
The nature and scale of the climate crisis challenges several fundamental principles of representative democracy as it has evolved over the past centuries. Climate change transcends the boundaries of democracy in terms of time and geography. It also challenges the concept of political choice at the heart of democracy.
Indeed, Belgian geographer François Gemenne provocatively claims that for governments to go beyond their mandates is a “betrayal” of democratic principles. Gemenne argues for forms of democratic innovation beyond elections in order to avoid the climate transition having to happen through a “green dictatorship.”
To avoid catastrophic climate change, many aspects of the economic system will need to change to give extra-territorial responsibilities to national governments. The atmosphere doesn’t care where the emissions of greenhouse gases are produced, and the resulting climate impact falls on regions that can be far away. Like nuclear proliferation and war, carbon emissions may result from the activities of people in one country but have devastating effects on people living elsewhere in the world who have no representation in the country causing the harm.
Moreover, the transboundary effects of environmental degradation also result from consumption patterns. There are embedded emissions in all the goods that are traded across the globalized economy.
The production of those goods also involved water consumption and pollution somewhere else in the world. However, the transboundary effects of environmental degradation that result from consumption patterns are not accounted for in economic systems, so many voters are unaware of the impact of their choices in the shops as well as at the ballot box.
Climate action requires consistent measures over decades, with continuity of policy to guide both public and private investment on a large scale. Yet the democratic electoral cycle rests on the premise that governments can change at each election, and therefore change policies every four or five years.
Since the Paris Agreement of the UN Conference of Parties (COP), many national governments have set targets for climate emissions, including commitments to reach net zero emissions by 2050 or later dates. Those targets create a moral bind on future governments, and they have created a legal basis for cases that will require governments to do more.
At the same time, effective climate action requires consistent policies. Businesses need predictable policies and clear guidance from the government in order to invest in renewable energy and other means of reducing carbon emissions and the destruction of nature. If governments swing back and forth on climate policies from one election to the next, this creates uncertainty and disincentivizes investment. But to avoid this, the range of policy choices will be necessarily limitedbecause parties standing for election will have to stick to the commitments made by their predecessors – not only on the overall target for moving to climate neutrality, but also on the policies needed to meet it.
It is possible that definition of the scope of climate responsibility will be set more by the courts than by political parties. In a landmark ruling in 2021, the German constitutional court took an expansive view of the binding requirements on future governments. The Karlsruhe court argued that the constitutional right of protection and other fundamental rights under the Basic Law require the German government to serve the health and lives of future generations of Germans, not only current voters, and also to use its foreign policy to reduce emissions outside of Germany. It required the government to specify in greater detail how the reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions are to be adjusted for periods after 2030—well beyond the electoral horizon for the coalition of parties then in office.
Moreover, the German court recognized that some of the complainants in the case were living in Bangladesh and Nepal, thereby giving legal standing to people outside the political constituency of the government. The court thereby extended both the territorial and temporal responsibility of the democratic polity to future generations and faraway countries. However, there is as yet no institutional representation for future generations in most democracies. Inter-generational justice will require someone to speak for the unborn and represent the interests of future humans.
The long-time horizon for climate policy raises a further challenge, in that voters don’t know how the choices they are making now will affect their own lives in decades to come. Although the physical effects of climate change are already happening much faster than climate scientists had dared to predict, the science research still cannot establish with certainty the cause-effect relationships between many of the public policies chosen now and the physical implications in the future. The tipping-points and other complexities in the physics, chemistry and biology of the earth make it hard to say precisely how one or another policy will make a difference. The interactions of national policies with long-term and global climate outcomes complicates the notion of policy choice that is at the heart of democracy, whereby parties compete on the basis of offering different policies, because voters cannot necessariy see a direct connection between policies and outcomes.
When a politician is standing for office in an election campaign, she needs to be able to tell voters why they should support an unpopular policy measure that will cost them money because it might make a difference to someone sometime in the future. The attribution science is becoming more accurate in connecting extreme weather events and other effects with climate change, but it is not an easy sell to voters if they will not see the connection between measures taken now and effects long in the future, potentially several elections hence. The connection is even harder to see if the measures have a negative effect, of avoiding problems, so the electorate never sees them.
Moreover, individual voters will find it hard to predict how some of the climate measures will affect them personally, and what kind of life they will have in the future at net zero. During the major system of post-communist transition, people in Central and Eastern Europe had real, living examples of the new economic system that reformist governments were trying to move towards, because there were countries like Germany and Denmark already operating such a system. They could hope that life under capitalism might give them the better living standards and public services that they could see people enjoying in the West.
This is a real-life version of an important theoretical construct in studies of justice. Political philosopher John Rawls proposed that a “veil of ignorance” should lie between the designers of any system of justice and their own role in the society that it serves. With climate policy, we are all behind a real veil of ignorance because we do not know what our position will be in a net-zero society. Even people in high-income countries are anxious about what jobs will be available after the phase-out of fossil fuels, or whether they will be able to travel long distances for holidays. And for people in low-income countries, there is understandable worry about the basics of how provisioning systems for food and other goods will work.
Can national democracies deliver international climate justice? Trade-offs between dimensions of climate justice
One of the most contentious issues in the politics of climate action is the idea of a “just transition.” Fairness is a powerful idea, and important for maintaining democratic consent during a decades-long change of economic systems. If the transition is seen as unfair, it may not happen.
At COP meetings and other climate summits, every leader professes to be in favor of climate justice and a fair transition. There are many dimensions of climate justice, from who is responsible for the historical emissions that are still in the atmosphere to whether each human should have an individual carbon budget.
Some of the dimensions of climate justice present sharp dilemmas for democratic choice. These dilemmas lie around the trade-offs that may prove irreconcilable in terms of allocating finance, resources and decision-making power.
One of the most difficult dilemmas is between the goals of social justice within societies and of international justice between high-income countries and developing economies. Ideally, the climate transition should serve both, providing a fairer world that leaves nobody behind. But conflicts for resources are likely to arise in this major system change, and the distribution of finance and political capital is already uneven both within and across societies. For example, if the loudest voices of the losers from the transition are those working in the fossil fuel industry, a government will want to provide support schemes to help communities such as coalminers with the transition. But will they also allocate similar resources to other countries through international development aid? Would their voters support similar levels of assistance for the transition in other countries to people in their own countries? New concepts are needed to address these dilemmas.
At recent COP meetings, where all countries negotiate climate action, much time has been taken up by various issues of fairness, from proposals for a “loss and damage” fund for countries most affected by climate change—particularly the finance that should flow from the countries that are most responsible for climate change historically to help those with least responsibility who will suffer the most damage from extreme weather and sea level rise, amongst other consequences. Not only is there a historical fairness issue here, of those who contributed least to the problem suffering the worst of the consequences, but some of these people will lose their territory altogether if it disappears under the sea or becomes a desert or swamp that no longer provides them with food, water or other essentials for human habitation. This is a justice issue that will drive future migration of people from affected areas.
However, there is no supranational body that has the powers or even the mandate to deliver climate justice, which means that the stakeholders who have access to a powerful national government are more likely to get justice simply because an institution exists that could deliver it to them. Consequently, these justice issues are likely to be considered by national democracies that are bound by territory and time—and voters in those democracies may choose to privilege justice within their own societies over justice for other countries. That could mean that leaders trade off the interests of the poorer Global South against those of wealthy Global North voters who emit and consume more.
Inaction on climate would represent the greatest injustice of all. Humanity cannot wait for ideal solutions to the justice problems before reducing emissions. To prevent catastrophic climate change, humans need to do “everything, everywhere, all at once,” in the words of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. However, we can invent new ways of sustaining democratic consent and creating more just solutions, from deliberative democracy to legal principles, from accounting methods to concepts of climate security.
Is the EU the solution? Strong on policy, weak on democracy
The EU is the first mover among large economies to set high ambitions to cut carbon emissions and reduce its overall environmental impact. With the European Green Deal, the Union has set itself a normative agenda for Europe to play a leading role in how humanity stops climate change. It has also created a far-reaching policy framework that deploys the full range of EU instruments—from legislation to diplomacy, funding, regulation and public engagement—to the task in ways that are increasingly evident to the public.
There are many reasons why European leaders have turned to the EU to tackle climate change. Among democratic political systems, the EU has the advantage of having supranational institutions and longer policy cycles than national governments often have. Its mandate can stretch further than national governments can, in both time and geography. The EU is also the forum where multi-interest deals are made that can satisfy many political constituencies and gain a permissive consensus for long-term policies. Although the EU is often criticized for being slow-moving, it has proven capable of pursuing decades-long projects that have resulted in the creation of large-scale governance systems such as the European Single Market, the Schengen area of passport-free travel and the single currency.
The European Green Deal has opened a new frontier for European integration, requiring a whole of economy and whole of society transition. Since 2019, climate action has moved from being one policy among many to being a “meta-policy” that shapes many others.
The EU is one of the few systems of supranational governance that can demonstrate success in undertaking major system change at scale. The UN climate institutions and processes are showing the limits of voluntary commitments under a multilateral system that requires unanimous agreement and therefore tends towards lowest-common-denominator solutions. To change the whole economic system to a no-carbon, sustainable one will require stricter constraints to set the right incentives for investment and behavior. The EU allows the creation of such constraints across 27 wealthy democracies, thanks to its community of law and detailed policies.
However, as a polity, the EU also suffers from defects that limit its capacity to manage the climate transition politically. Its great strengths as a complex, transnational, multi-level system of governance could also turn out to be its greatest weaknesses. Does the EU have sufficient democratic legitimacy to govern a transition on this scale? It is easy for national governments to play the game of agreeing to measures in the Council of Ministers and then blaming “Brussels” when implementation turns out to be unpopular. That already started in 2023 with the nature restoration law and the phase-out date for internal combustion engines. This political game could appear more often during the next term of the EU institutions, from 2024–29, when all the legislation agreed under the European Green Deal so far is due for implementation at national and local levels. Voters are starting to object as they feel the effects of rules and policies changing on transport, domestic heating and other aspects of daily life. Protest parties can easily direct the grievances of voters towards blaming the EU.
Moreover, the EU’s legitimacy as a mode of governance is increasingly challenged from within, as some parties in national governments erode the rule of law in their countries, making the application of EU law less consistent across its territory. The extent to which the EU can be a global leader on climate will depend on whether it can regain its normative ambitions and the capabilities it showed as an external actor in previous decades. Normative leadership requires great strength within, so the battle over values within the EU matters also for the climate globally.
The EU institutions have a tough job ahead. The climate crisis makes them more relevant than ever, as the need grows for long-term planning and better systems for risk identification and management around climate and nature. But at the same time, they could become the main target of the “greenlash” against climate measures.
Conclusion: Can we stop climate change, keep democracy and deliver justice?
The transition to climate neutrality is going to be decades-long andinter-generational, and has extra-territorial effects. Its temporal and geographical dimensions go beyond electoral cycles, geographical constituencies, and national polities. The climate transition is on a different scale of time and place from nationally bound politics. Yet, democratic governments derive their mandate from electors who live in a particular time and place; they serve the interests of the people living in a particular constituency who vote now. But now they are faced with a challenge that transcends these temporal and geographical boundaries, because the causes and effects of climate change affect the whole globe and will hit future generations more than current ones. The climate transition therefore poses deep challenges to fundamental principles of representative democracy.
Political resistance to climate action in one country has devastating effects on people living elsewhere in the world who have no representation in the countries that are causing most harm. The idea of a “fair transition” is hard to argue with: all want justice, all need a stable climate. But it is going to be very difficult to achieve fairness for all stakeholders, especially because people have unequal access to representation in the centers of power. The boundedness of national democracies means that there are trade-offs between international and national climate justice, in particular.
Europe’s future is deeply connected to how successfully it manages the transition to sustainability and the challenges of climate change. The European Green Deal is the EU’s most ambitious policy framework yet. But it is enormously challenging in political and economic terms. The European Union is a vital actor in the climate transition, being a transnational polity that has some capabilities of long-term policy consistency that will be crucial for holding governments to their commitments on net-zero targets. But the EU risks being blamed for all the unpopular effects of the transition, creating a crisis of consent both about the transition itself and about European integration. This challenge will require democratic innovation and new thinking about representation of interests, at national, regional and international levels.
 Gemenne, François (2022), L’écologie n’est pas un consensus, Paris: Fayard.
 Grabbe, Heather, Potočnik, Janez and Dixson-Declève, Sandrine (2022), International System Change Compass, Open Society European Policy Institute, Systemiq and Club of Rome.
 BVerfG, Order of the First Senate of 24 March 2021 - 1 BvR 2656/18 -, paras. 1-270, https://www.bverfg.de/e/rs20210324_1bvr265618en.html
 Grabbe, Heather (2020), ‘Lessons from 1989 for the Forthcoming Climate Transition’, in Europe on test: the onus of the past, eds. Joanna Fomina and Józef Niżnik, Warsaw: Polska Akademia Nauk, pp. 109-115
 Rawls, John (1971), A Theory of Justice, Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press.
 For an overview, see Gardiner, Stephen D. (2011) ‘Climate Justice’, in J. S. Dryzek, R. B. Norgaard, D. Schlosberg (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society, New York: Oxford University Press, 309-322.
 Newell, P. et al. (2021) ‘Toward transformative climate justice: An emerging research agenda’ WIREs Climate Change, 12, 6, 1-17.
 Grabbe, Heather (2021), ‘Normative, Protective, Transformative Europe: Digital and Climate Meta-Policies’, in European Futures - Challenges and Crossroads for the European Union of 2050, eds. Chad Damro, Elke Heins and Drew Scott, Abingdon and New York: Routledge, pp 93-108.
 Grabbe, Heather and Lehne, Stefan (2019), ‘The EU’s values crisis: Past and future responses to threats to the rule of law and democratic principles’, in Europe at the Crossroads: Confronting Populist, Nationalist and Global Challenges, eds. Pieter Bevelander and Ruth Wodak, Oslo: Nordic Academic Press, pp. 49-62.
This publication represents the views of the author(s) and not the collective position of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) or the “Europe’s Futures” project.