The climate crisis is a governance crisis

By Juha Leppänen


We’ve been having the wrong discussion. Solving the climate crisis is not a question of individual or institutional transformation. It’s both. To effectively combine both, however, we need to re-engage in one of the oldest conversations of all time: the role of governance


Today, I am writing this from COP26 — dubbed as humankind’s “last chance”. This is what we should talk about in the days that follow: 


Industrial era governance won’t solve the problem it created. 


It’s time to imagine public governance that is capable of solving the climate crisis. 


The missing link

Governance is the missing link between individual empowerment, coherent transformations, meaningful policies, and action of sufficient scale to tackle the climate crisis.


Despite decades of code-red warnings issued by the scientific community and environmental organizations, the latest IPCC report sent a message loud and clear: climate destruction is irreversible, and we are not on track to reach a net-zero planet by 2050


Is this the result of apathy? Well, yes and no. At COP26 we have already witnessed the reluctance of many states and private companies to cooperate for a climate-neutral future. This “apathy” is the outcome of a belief that we cannot achieve sufficient levels of mitigation without severely restricting our freedoms or changing existing structures of power


But, this is what I want us to remember: the problem of collective (in)action constitutes a crisis of governance. This is why institutions were invented: to better govern the many conflicting interests in our societies. During the past 300 years, our liberal democracies have experimented with new solutions to the need for governance. Governance as we know it didn’t happen overnight. It took ample experimentation, detailed analysis, and extended deliberation. But most importantly, it was the outcome of a collective focus on governance


Therefore, it’s not about who supports policies and who doesn’t. As with every aspect of our lives, governance can — and should — evolve to better serve the needs of our time. If our current governance system cannot answer the problems of today, we ought to revise it. 


Industrial-era governance can’t solve the climate crisis

Industrial era governance (whether international, national, or local) has tried its best. While there are some success stories, we are experiencing three symptoms of its inability to solve the climate crisis.


  • Symptom of detachment: individual actions feel insignificant and inadequate in influencing collective action
  • Symptom of fragmentation: governmental budgets and policies are incoherent and climate impact is not scrutinized 
  • Symptom of senselessness: climate solutions feel meaningless or of insufficient quality


In the absence of meaningful action by the public administrations, the responsibility to tackle the crisis has devolved to individuals. In a governance crisis, however, public administrations are in no position to enable, inspire, or nudge individual action. If we are to build governance capable of solving and steering through the climate crisis, we must engage in relentless discussion and experimentation. 


Drawing learnings from the past centuries, I suggest we focus on the following three areas. 


1. Empowering individuals: reimagining participation

Individual contributions won’t be enough unless we learn from them and create policies that ensure their scale.


Tackling the climate crisis requires fundamental changes in individual lifestyles. We need to make changes in how we live, move, eat, and spend our leisure time. Concerned citizens — some of whom already experience extreme weather conditions — have already shifted their lifestyles considerably. 


However, for individual action to contribute to the collective good, we need to feel that our perspectives are heard. Participation is about the option to influence not only through our actions but also through our voices. In the past, our representative electoral system ensured a level of participation that was adequate. From a citizen’s perspective, changes in lifestyles are so fundamental and identity-forming that voting is not enough: we need more nuanced mechanisms for ensuring participation. Participation needs to be reimagined


In the last decades, direct and deliberative democracy have experienced a revival. The Extinction Rebellion is currently organizing a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice, while Ireland has already successfully implemented recommendations produced by its Citizens’ Assembly. Drawing on these experiences should help us reimagine new governance solutions that can ignite, channel, and enhance individual agency and participation towards the collective good. 


2. Coherence of climate action: the core of government capable of steering transformations

Our public governance machinery – the core of government – has to be able to steer the necessary transformations through systems thinking and collaboration.


Steering our societies toward a 1.5° life requires actions that imply nothing less than the renewal of entire industries; the reorganization of our cities; the overhaul of current mobility systems; and much more. These structural changes require not only the creation of solutions that are both feasible and understandable, but also of new ways to marshal public, private, and civic resources in more effective and synergistic ways.


Let’s take budgeting, for instance. Conventional budgeting processes are designed to ensure fiscal stability. Now, we need to assess and make budgets that equally take into account economic, ecological, and social considerations. From now on, having budget allocations “for the environment” is not enough; all budgets have to take climate impact into account.


Our newly revised governance institutions have to recognize the urgency of the action. Failing this, we are unlikely to reach a 1.5° life. If we do, it will be mainly through individual decisions; not through institutional design. 


This is precisely why we have worked with an approach we call humble governance. It is one example of how we can set up new mechanisms for governance – in this case, governments steer societies and take accountability, yet decentralize and experiment with the implementation of policies.


3. Meaningful policies: new capabilities to deliver policies that make sense

As part of our governance revision, we need to urgently put in place new capabilities for governments on the national, regional, and local levels to be able to both design and deliver more meaningful climate-related policies. 


Based on recent studies, people increasingly agree with the need for climate action. However, they are unaware of what it entails and hesitant about specific policies and their implementation. 


We’ve dealt with this before, through building new capabilities. During the buildup of industrial societies, for instance, new departments were created to deliver social security and services. Cities started to systematize urban planning functions to ensure that people would feel more comfortable with their everyday lives. More recently, communications departments were set up to secure the delivery of telecommunications at high quality and without astronomical cost.


From how cities set up restrictions on urban mobility, to how national governments can systematically experiment with interventions, infusing policies with the latest scientific research, the experiential learning of marginalized groups, indigenous knowledge, new policy experiments, and wiser data, will be key in advancing our collective cause. 


It’s the economy planet, stupid 

And, of course, we can’t forget the vested interests in our economy. Individual, national, and policy governance aside, solving the climate crisis requires global action on an unprecedented scale. 


To substitute fossil fuels, our global economy requires a completely unparalleled level of investment. Added to this, there is a dire need for a global redistribution of resources. Redistribution will be necessary to ensure national responses that are equitable and to address systemic global challenges. What would be the fitting modes of governance in order to achieve sufficient coordination of global action and equity? This is the most acute question of our century.


This is an invitation

As before, when previous modes of governance are unsuccessful in solving the most pressing needs of the time, new modes were created. This question, while it may seem abstract, is important enough to call for both urgent and serious exploration.


I end with a wish. Instead of discussing who supports climate policies and who doesn’t, let’s discuss how we should decide and deliver on those policies. Let’s start to solve the climate crisis by focusing on how we govern it. This once-in-a-lifetime imperative for transformation requires governance that is equipped, capable, and well-positioned in leading it. 


This is our goal and I hope you will join us. We are currently putting together the first hypothesis on how empowering, coherent and meaningful climate action could look like in practice—both from the perspective of the nation-state and the new institutions that may be needed. Drop a line if you’re interested.


Feature Image: Matt Mitchell