Ripples from environmental activist Greta Thunberg’s passionate speech in Milan this September were still being felt last week as politicians, diplomats, NGO leaders and youth advocates convened during the World Forum for Democracy at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France.
In her speech, Thunberg denounced the planet’s “so-called leaders” for failing to do enough to reverse the effects of climate change, slamming their past pledges as decades of political “blah, blah, blah.”
This has triggered resentment from those in power who believe Thunberg has unfairly singled them out.
Those attending the World Democracy Forum’s final plenary were asked: “How do we get beyond the ‘blah, blah blah’?” The three-day conference focuses on connecting words to action, with an entire day dedicated to labs where organizations and individuals from across the planet present local initiatives to confront the climate crisis — the focus of this year’s gathering.
A ‘categorical failure’
Thunberg’s speech captured some of the frustration heard from young advocates as the forum unfolded. Many highlighted their innovative grassroots efforts as a forward-looking response.
“There’s been a categorical failure of governments all over the world in fulfilling their duty of care to their people,” said Marijn van de Geer of Extinction Rebellion.
Extinction Rebellion has led several UK experiments in deliberative democracy, convening citizen assemblies as a way to give people a way to make political decisions when their elected representatives are too slow to respond. Advocates have convened similar assemblies in France, Poland, Sweden and elsewhere.
“At the local level democracy is growing,” said Marcin Gerwin of the Center for Climate Assemblies, which has gathered thousands in local assemblies across Poland. “At the national level it’s a different story.”
Sarah El Haïry, the French minister of state for youth and engagement, took exception to Thunberg’s assertion that government officials aren’t doing enough. A former member of the French National Assembly, El Haïry felt that dismissing the speech of leaders as just more blah, blah, blah was ugly and offensive. It’s as though the words were being spat out, she said in response to my question.
For her part, Minister El Haïry listed her efforts to engage French youth in the political process and expressed her disappointment at their reluctance to exercise their right to vote. According to figures from nationwide municipal elections held at the end of this summer, just 13 percent of 18–24 year olds in France turned out at the polls.
But perhaps Minister El Haïry misses the point. Trying to get beyond the blah, blah, blah is not a direct criticism of her leadership, but of the world’s representative democracies, where too many politicians care more about the the short-term challenges of getting reelected or maintaining their party’s majority than they are with taking on the decades-long struggle of combating climate crisis.
Perhaps the answer lies with young people, those who have the greatest stake in ensuring a healthy future for our planet. Do we get beyond the blah blah blah by giving more political agency to youth?
Rhys Nugent, a youth delegate from Wales, said “It is often said, ‘young people should have a seat at the table.’ No, we should be setting the table.” In other words, young people are too often asked to take part in climate actions after decisions have already been made, Nugent said. They’re not recognized as having the power to create, organize and lead, and that needs to change.
And what about those who aren’t even represented by a democracy? People in the Global South and Indigenous cultures are suffering the most from the climate crisis. We’ve heard the blah, blah, blah from leaders of representative democracies. That shouldn’t drown out the firsthand experiences and needs of those in countries like the Maldives, Myanmar and Nigeria who are struggling each day to survive.
Getting beyond the blah, blah, blah means we don’t just need a political shift towards the unrepresented, but an economic and cultural one.
Dragan Jonic of Serbia’s Defend the Rivers of the Stara Planina said we must ask questions about the so-called green economy: Is it enough to recycle plastic and use paper straws? How can we move away from a mass consumer-driven economy and a global supply chain to economies that are more local and sustainable?
An even more pressing question: Is an economy driven by free-market principles more important than the survival of our planet? Usmanu Sali of Cameroon’s Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Association said that forming alliances where ownership of land is shared among competing ethnic groups fosters a more sustainable and peaceful relationship among those occupying the same region.
In Sali’s region of the country, there have been violent conflicts between herders and farmers. Sali helps mediate this conflict by negotiating shared use of the land, bringing down fences that demarcate ownership and can incite violence.
“With the climate crisis and COVID-19 the time has come to revisit the social-economic contract,” said Maria Logotheti of Greece’s Democracy & Culture Foundation, which engages people in democratic decision making and develops grassroots leadership. “At the very basis of our project is the understanding that it must be based on a bottom-up approach.”
“Of course we need constructive dialogue but they’ve had 30 years of ‘blah, blah blah’ and where has that led us,” Thunberg said in September. “If this is what they consider to be climate action then we don’t want it.”
Many attending the World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg channeled Thunberg’s frustrations. Yes, talking about the problem is needed, but only as long as those discussions include those who are rarely heard from in representative democracies and during global political summits.
And talk should link to action against the problem at the heart of the climate crisis: a political system where the financial incentives of the most powerful industry in the world still hold sway.
Getting beyond the blah, blah, blah means shutting off the pipeline of cash that connects the energy sector to the world’s political class. And it requires a systemic shift in the understanding of how incentives driving the marketplace threaten the future of our planet.
Timothy Karr is the senior director of strategy at the U.S.-based media-democracy organization Free Press. He served as a general rapporteur for this year’s World Forum for Democracy.
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