Jan 172014
 
U.S. Army helping with Hurricane Sandy disaster relief (image courtesy of U.S. Army)

U.S. Army helping with Hurricane Sandy disaster relief (image courtesy of U.S. Army)

When a crisis develops, what sort of governance is best? Crises have traditionally resulted from situations of social turmoil, such as military invasion, revolution, or corruption, but expectations are that modern-day emergencies are more likely to arise from disturbances due to climate change and other environmental disruptions. Rising sea levels and severe weather patterns are predicted to increase the number of environmental refugees to the tens, even hundreds of millions, with millions more suffering severe disturbances to their livelihoods. In State of the World 2013, contributing authors deliberate over what qualities of governance will be the most effective as we endure the planet’s long future struggle with environmental crises.

It is possible for us to reach a state of sustainable living, but this will happen only once we are able to overcome political—more than technical—problems. Current governments, encumbered by bureaucracy, swayed by special-interest groups, and forced to respond to a variety of competing communities, have so far proven incapable of dealing with the threat of climate change. If we are ultimately unable to push our leaders into effectively rewriting policy, we must prepare ourselves for what kinds of catastrophes might arise and how we can best deal with them politically.

Brian Martin, professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and contributing author of State of the World 2013, provides four essential features of effective governance during times of crisis.

  • Widespread participation: “Significant participation is essential for rapidly responding to a crisis,” says Martin. “Genuine participation is greatest when power is shared. The more people take part in creating a solution, the more likely they are to stay committed.”
  • Development of resources: When troubles arise, we need to be prepared with adequate technological and material resources. These include food, transport, and especially methods of communication.
  • Tolerance and inclusion: Having certain sectors of the population opposed to action can delay and prevent important changes that need to be made. With everyone participating, we ensure that solutions are acceptable to all citizens and that every group is contributing to solving challenges.
  • Skill development: Through education and the sharing of ideas, we can be prepared to respond to threats in effective and intelligent ways. Martin explains that strategic insight is most likely to flourish in a form of governance that gives considerable autonomy to smaller units, while enabling communication between them so that insights can be shared, tested, and applied.

All of these characteristics can be achieved with a government that is both local and flexible. These qualities are best demonstrated by the efforts of smaller grassroots groups, which have been successful in encouraging citizen participation and influencing local government actions. Groups that involve members of the community in which change is being made are so far creating more awareness about climate change than large, international organizations.

“International governance is particularly unsuited for dealing with crisis,” says Martin. “There is little citizen participation and little capacity for skill development. The result is a form of symbolic politics that gives only the illusion of authority.”

David Orr, the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College, offers a long-term perspective on how we can transform our governments to handle any imminent environmental catastrophes. One concern he addresses is the potential for the emergence of authoritarian governments to provide ultimate enforcement of societal change. According to Orr, the most effective alternative to this kind of state totalitarianism is to strengthen democracy.

How to make representative government more representative (image courtesy of Miles530 from Wikimedia Commons)

How can we make representative government more representative? (image courtesy of Miles530 from Wikimedia Commons)

The best way to strengthen democracy is to create active citizen participation in government, rebuilding democracy from the bottom up. A transition to local, self-governing communities will raise the legitimacy of policy choices and improve public knowledge.

“In our time, strong democracy may be our best hope for governance in the long emergency but it will not develop without significant changes,” said Orr. “One necessary change is to confront economic oligarchy. Today the majority of concentrated wealth is tied, directly or indirectly, to fossil fuels. A second change must be to the triviality, narrowness, and often factual inaccuracy of our political conversations. It is time to talk about important things.” While these are not easy tasks, neither will be living through four degrees of climate change.

  2 Responses to “Getting to Effective Climate Change Governance”

  1. Something I have never really seen discussed in relation to increasing public participation in governance processes is the utilisation of technology for relatively real-time, large scale, community polling on important governance issues. I am speaking generally of governance as a whole here, perhaps with more reference to the last paragraph of the above article, but this is also applicable to climate change governance.

    Here in Australia ~42% of people had mobile phones with an internet connection in June 2013, up from ~32% at the same time in 2012, ~21% at the same time in 2011, 13% in 2010… There’s a pattern emerging here. A roughly 10% annual increase in mobile internet users since 2010. Now of course, 4 years isn’t long enough to make a definitive statement about whether or not this will be an ongoing trend, but given the increasing availability of mobile internet technology and the decreasing price of this technology, there’s no reason to think that this shouldn’t continue, or even accelerate.
    (statistics from: http://www.acma.gov.au/theACMA/Library/Corporate-library/Corporate-publications/australia-mobile-digital-economy)

    With an increasing number of people able to use the internet at any time of the day, assuming they are within range of a 3G signal, why is there not work going into development of an app/website/mailing list with the ability to send out policy briefs, or summaries of them, to all users of the app/members of a website/email addresses that allows real-time community feedback or real time voting on the issue at hand. I understand Twitter has the potential to be used this way, but to many, twitter is still just another social-media platform and comes off as more of a popularity contest than a truly meaningful pathway for community engagement in governance processes.

    It often seems that what goes on in parliament is so far removed from what we at the ‘street level’ see in our day to day lives. We vote for a party who we think is most aligned with our belief system and then step away for 4 years and let them do all the talking for us with very little objective reporting on what actually happens over that 4 year period. Embracing technology and its potential for nation/world-wide public participation would foster and grow public interest in politics and governance due to the ease of access mobile internet devices provide and ultimately increase political accountability and transparency.

  2. There is ample evidence for the technological potential of Australia to successfully transition to renewable energy production (BZE, 2012) leading many to reach the conclusion that it is solely political will which acts as a barrier to a less polluting more sustainable Australia. In light of these conditions it becomes paramount to award increased decision-making power to local level environmental management groups where understanding of issues is contextualised and motivation for positive environmental change is strongest (Ostram, 2010; Young, 2011). Groups operating at the grassroots level act as invaluable conduits for local populations; providing easily accessible and contextual information and the opportunity for individuals to voice concerns. The voice of local level organisations generally extends beyond that of their member population inviting citizens to access politics concerning local issues regardless of their alliance to specific groups. The ability of these organisations to disseminate knowledge increases with every new member and the lack of a time delay with modern communications enables these groups to respond rapidly to changes in public policy (Solar Citizens, 2012). Given the representative nature of grassroots movements being truly indicative of local needs and desires, the current lack of accommodation within the political system seems drastically inadequate. I look forward to a time when local level governance in the form of non government organisations maintains a respected status within the political community.

    References
    Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE). (2012) Zero Carbon Australia. available from: http://bze.org.au/zero-carbon-australia-2020

    Ostram, E. (2010) Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric governance of complex economic systems and launch of LKYSPP-IWP Asia water governance index. accessed from: http://youtu.be/E5ZPGeF2ics

    Young, O. (2011) Sugaring Off: Enduring insights from four decades of theorising about environmental governance. accessed from: http://youtu.be/I0VVlk47OvI