Democracy-Driven Governance for Climate Transition

Authored by Paola Pierri

This post was originally published on the PSA Participatory and Deliberative Democracy Specialist Group’s blog Agora.

The relationship between climate and democracy has been the subject of scholarly debate for long time. Several interesting questions have been raised by democratic scholars dealing with climate change and in my chapter, in the forthcoming edited volume Reclaiming Participatory Governance: Social Movements and the Reinvention of Democratic Innovations, I ask the question, what kinds of democracy and democratic governance arrangements are best to address the climate emergency more effectively and democratically? The core answer to this question, and the main argument in my chapter, is that for climate action to progress through more participatory and democratic ways, social movements need to play a key role in democracy and more specifically governance innovation. Unfortunately, practical examples of social movements’ participation in democratic innovations are still the exception and not the rule.

My chapter draws on the case of the Assise pour la Transition Écologique in France (in the metropolitan area of Orléans) to outline an interesting approach where social movements can play a transformative role as ‘agenda setters’ within right-wing administrations, which have historically been less sympathetic to climate concerns and less open to engage with progressive movements. This case sheds light on building alliances across the political spectrum. Whilst we can find in the literature examples of democratic innovation developed through direct cooperation with left-leaning governments, instances where social movements have engaged in dialogue with more conservative administrations are sporadic. This is potentially a limitation when it comes to swinging the balance towards an ecological transition, since climate movements need to find allies and work with governments at different scales and across the political spectrum.

Social movements play a key role in advancing Democracy-Driven Governance, but how this relationship pans out in political contexts dominated by more conservative governments is not clear. My chapter suggests looking at Empowered Participatory Governance (EPG), as this could provide a useful bridge between models of democracy-driven governance (DDG) and governance-driven democratisation (GDD).

EPG and DDG both present interesting characteristics and design principles that I used to analyse the Orléans case:

  • They problematise the question of power, challenging common objections from the literature against the power-neutralising claim of deliberative and collaborative modes of governance;
  • They do not aim to advance universal solutions to all issues of governance, as they recognise that institutional arrangements are a shifting terrain, where different needs, constellations of actors and power dynamics can change, which will require changes in institutional design;
  • They are equally interested in the question of processes as well as the question of outcomes, as the two should not be assumed to be directly related variables;
  • Finally, they both recover – although in different ways – a role for more critical voices (and specifically social movements’ approaches) within the space of collaborative governance. This is the main point my chapter is exploring.

The EPG model of governance highlights one crucial point that arguably remains partially unclear in the conceptualisation of DDG, that is the role and the skills needed for social movements to advance their agenda within top-down and more conservative governance structures. In order to achieve that, social movements – under EPG – need to dismiss their adversarial tones and tactics and become ‘collaborative countervailing power’ (2003). Differently from adversarial forms of countervailing power that develop through rigid and maximalist frames in opposition to institutional actors and elites, collaborative forms, although still countervailing, develop ways to build collaborations with institutional actors and towards meaningful forms of Empowered Participatory Governance (EPG). ‘Collaborative countervailing power’ might seem – as the authors themselves say– ‘a bit of an oxymoron’ as the concept incorporates two elements seemingly in opposition. Collaborative and adversarial forms of countervailing power require different skills-set and political attitudes that have attracted less research.

The case of Orléans illuminates how radical forms of demonstrating and taking to the street can generate the right political opportunities to shift the role and attitude of social movements towards collaboration – whilst still playing a countervailing role – to put the right pressure on more conservative governance structures towards a democracy-driven regime. This case illustrates the clear intention of the local climate movements to establish direct connections with political parties and influence the upcoming political elections, since movements can play a key role as catalyst of political crises and realignment of political forces. Local activists attempted to set up a full citizen candidate list to push forward their requests on climate change action. When the list option did not materialise social movements and grassroots organisations tried to put pressure on the political establishment through different means. In the months before the elections, they published a visual explainer assessing each candidate’s climate-related pledge and “grading” each programme accordingly.

The case also shoes how movements can be the providers of alternative spaces of political debates, which for climate action means for instance to ensure that adaptation and mitigation strategies are framed as political and not merely as technical questions. Since climate policy has become a central issue in the political and public agenda, studying how strategies for mobilising more conservative elites will evolve together with movement strategies and roles in governance will be crucial. Even when these experiments are not successful they still play a role in shifting important political balances and perhaps in inspiring the democratic innovation of the future.

About the author.

Paola Pierri is currently Director of Research and Design at Democratic Society, where she researches processes of democratic innovation and social movements. She has a doctorate in Design Anthropology and has been a Fellow at the Weizenbaum Institute addressing the question of the impact of digital tools on our democratic lives. She is a visiting lecturer at the London College of Communication and the Technische Universität in Berlin, where she teaches on the topics of design in the public sector, digital inequalities and digital activism.