Climate Change and Democratization - A Complex Relationship - Environment

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August 25, 2010
Peter Burnell


The science of climate change and human responsibility, the economics of addressing the problem and technical solutions, and the aspect of “climate justice” in regard to North-South (developed-developing world) relations in particular have all received substantial exposure in public debate and specialized technical, policy, and academic literatures. We also hear about the imperative to “climate-proof” society, the poor, and even the state. Confident answers to big questions about climate change problems are widely circulated, for example the claim that climate mitigation requires nothing less than a dramatic change in economic lifestyles and aspirations, or the idea that better governance is essential to meet the pressing needs of climate adaptation in poor countries. Occasionally, we are also told the “right political framework” is needed, usually meaning, on the international level, an improvement on the Kyoto Protocol and, at the national level, the right mix of regulatory policies and other legislation for moving toward a low-carbon future.

A surprising omission is the balanced inquiry into what climate change and its effects mean for democratization, and what democratization could mean for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and climate adaptation. This paper draws attention to the little explored relationships between climate change and democratization. It is framed by four key questions of immense importance:

  • Do global warming and its effects make democratic transition and consolidation easier or more difficult?
  • Does democratization make it easier or more difficult for countries, especially in the developing world, to engage with climate change mitigation, compared to countries with authoritarian or semi-authoritarian political regimes?
  • Does democratization mean that climate change adaptation, especially when it is intended to protect the most vulnerable social groups, becomes more likely?
  • Can adaptation to climate change and the means to secure people from its harmful effects help countries that want to democratize, or will it get in the way of democratic reform and boost other forms of rule instead?

Click here to read the full publication (47 pages, pdf, 440KB)



1 Democratization and climate change: a time for action
1.1 Democratization and climate change: the trends and connections
1.1.1 Global warming and the developing world
1.1.2 The hazards of democratization
2 What climate change means for politics
2.1 A changing climate affects politics
2.2 Mitigating climate change has political consequences, too
2.2.1 The Greenhouse Development Rights Framework as a political bargain
3 What democratization means for climate change
3.1 Democracy as a condition for environmental sustainability?
3.1.1 Climate Change Performance Index
3.1.2 Political leadership, institutions, and climate change performance
3.2 Democracies respond to climate effects: adaptation
4 Summarizing climate change-democratization conundrums
5 Some international policy implications
6 Some key questions answered but many more remain
7 Coda


About the Author

Professor Peter Burnell studied at the University of Bristol for a Bachelor of Arts degree (1st class honors) in Economics and Politics before going on to complete a Master of Arts degree in Politics and a PhD on “The Political and Social Thought of Thomas Paine, 1737-1809,” both at the University of Warwick. In 2007 he was awarded a Doctor of Letters by the University of Warwick. Professor Burnell has authored and edited many books and articles and is the founding joint editor of the international refereed journal Democratization and the accompanying