Over the last year, I have become increasingly convinced that a key solution to dealing with our global lack of action on climate change lies in building democracies. That’s not easy, nor is it a very heartening conclusion when democracies are sliding backwards everywhere, as the Economist Intelligence Unit concluded in 2010 in a report entitled ‘Democracy index 2010: Democracy in retreat’. I certainly think democracy is currently retreating in the United States and South Africa.
At dinner this evening, I found myself engaged in a somewhat passionate conversation with a friend and colleague who works in corporate sustainability, and who was arguing, if I do him justice, that we cannot rely on democracies to steer us in the right direction on climate change, and that we need ‘philosopher kings’, enlightened people of great power and influence to steer us through the climate crisis.
Is he right?
If my argument is good, then the world’s most democratic countries should also be its most sustainable countries.
Let’s take a look. The table below ranks the top ten democracies according to the EIU report I have just cited.
Then I’ve drawn on the first serious sustainability index I found, also for 2010, the Environmental Performance Index 2010 produced by Yale and Columbia Universities.
I’m also interested in equality and how that correlates to democracy and sustainability performance, so I’m going to add a column for that as well, from the Global Peace Index which draws from the UNDP Human Development Index.
|Sustainability leaders (2010)||Full democracy leaders (2010)||Income equality leaders|
|Iceland (full democracy)||Norway||Denmark (full democracy)|
|Switzerland (full)||Iceland||Japan (full)|
|Costa Rica (full)||Denmark||Iceland (full)|
|Sweden (full)||Sweden||Sweden (full)|
|Norway (full)||New Zealand||Czech Republic (full)|
|Mauritius (full)||Australia||Norway (full)|
|France (full)||Finland||Slovakia (flawed)|
|Austria (full)||Switzerland||Finland (full)|
|Cuba (authoritarian)||Canada||Belarus (authoritarian)|
|Colombia (flawed)||Netherlands||Ukraine (flawed)|
Looking at this list, four of the world’s sustainability leaders are also democracy leaders. Austria, Costa Rica and Mauritius are not top ten democracies, but they are also listed by the EIU as full democracies. So seven of the 10 sustainability leaders are full democracies. France and Colombia (like South Africa, ranked 30 most democratic) are flawed democracies – only Cuba is an authoritarian regime.
To me at least, this snapshot study very strongly suggests that the more democratic a country is, the more likely it is a sustainability leader.
The implications of this are pretty straightforward: trying to persuade policymakers to take climate change and other environmental crises seriously is likely pretty damn difficult where democracy is weak.
As corporate power has advanced and democracy has weakened in the United States in the last couple of years, so climate change has slid down the agenda there. If Obama is a philosopher king, he’s certainly not been a massive asset to the environmental movement.
Looking at the inequality figures I’ve drawn in as a secondary argument, there seems to be a fairly high level of correlation between sustainability, democracy and income equality. (Note that income equality is not the same as wealth equality.)
Interesting to note that the countries that are arguably noisiest about ‘promoting democracy’ – the US and UK – are not in fact its leading practical exponents…