Why Green Europe leads the world while the US lags behind
Multiparty democracy and proportional representation create “laboratories for new ideas” that advance green innovation and policy solutions for climate change
A few weeks ago, the world’s political and cultural leaders from more than 100 nations gathered at yet another environmental conference, COP27 in Egypt, which was focused on rolling back the dangerous impacts of global warming. Deep-seated tensions flared between richer countries that have prospered by burning fossil fuels, and developing ones, which are being asked to curtail development even though they are not the ones that have pumped all the carbon into the environment.
As one Indian official has said: “First you [the developed world] do virtually nothing to cut your emissions, and then you threaten us [the developing world] with drowning from global warming sea level rise if we don’t cut ours. It won’t wash.”
But in truth, it’s not all the countries of the developed world that are failing to show leadership. Environmental researchers at Yale and Columbia universities regularly rank the world’s nations according to their levels of eco-friendliness. The 2022 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) graded 180 countries, from Albania to Zimbabwe, on 32 key sustainability indicators, taking into account the latest data on critical things such as CO2 emissions, air and water quality and other public health factors. A few findings of the report stand out.
First, the world’s top fifteen most green, climate-conscious countries are all in Europe. In fact, 23 out of the top 25 green countries are European, with the other two countries in the top 25 being Japan (ranked 25th) and Australia (17). Europe also holds 29 out of the top 35 spots. The European continent is the beacon of the world on this issue.
The United States, meanwhile, is ranked 43rd, right smack between Namibia and Dominica. That’s a decline from the 2020 EPI, when the US was ranked 24th. This is actually a very big deal. The world’s wealthiest nation is projected to fall far short of its net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target established by the 2021 Glasgow Climate Pact. In fact by 2050, over 50% of global emissions are expected to come from just four countries -- the U.S., China, India, and Russia.
The Four Headmen of the Apocalypse
That’s great company to keep, among the world’s most authoritarian states. So the question naturally arises: why is the US so bad at following through on its beliefs and commitments regarding climate change and the environment? Opinion polls demonstrate that a bipartisan super-majority of two-thirds of Americans believe that government should do more on climate. In China and Russia, and to some extent India, popular opinion to save the living ecosystem is ignored by policymakers.
But the US is nominally a democracy, which in theory is supposed to be responsive and accountable to “the people.” So why isn’t the US government, and its 50 state governments, responding? This is perhaps one of the most significant policy dilemmas of our times.
I’ll provide the answer to this urgent question in a moment. But first, I wanted to point out that at COP27 there was no discussion about why some developed countries -- like those in Europe -- are shouldering their environmental responsibility while others – like the United States -- are not. Are there some important cultural or institutional differences that account for this gap? Within the Biden administration and the Republican Party there is no discussion about this, nor within the US media or political scientist circles. Nowhere is this important question being studied and researched with the seriousness it merits. It’s just a big resounding silence.
Why is US democracy failing – not only Americans, but the entire world – in crafting adequate policies to tackle the climate and environmental crises?
Another failure of America’s two party system
To understand Europe's leadership in environmental and climate policy, it is necessary to understand the impact of its institutions of representative democracy on those policies.
Europe's democracies are quite different than the United States because they deploy different institutions and practices. European democracies are far more representative of the varying political perspectives in society. Research by political scientists like Arend Lijphart and G. Bingham Powell has demonstrated that European legislatures produce policy that is more reflective of a society-wide consensus than has been possible in the United States.
Nearly all European nations use proportional representation electoral systems, as well as some degree of public financing of campaigns, free media time for political parties and candidates, and universal/automatic voter registration. These in turn result in a number of other good government features, such as higher voter turnout, more robust political debate, the ability of everyday citizens to make sense of their political world (what political scientist Henry Milner has called “civic literacy”), fewer “if you win, I lose” winner-take-all dynamics, a stronger ability to achieve a broad consensus, and a greater effectiveness to pass policy that reflects that consensus.
In particular, the political practices and methods named above result in a vigorous multiparty democracy that affords certain advantages not seen in America's two-party duopolistic democracy. For example, in Europe minor parties are welcomed for the valuable role they play as the “laboratories for new ideas,” challenging and stimulating voters, the media, and the major parties to think outside the conventional political box. Minor party alternatives to the major parties often are the only hope for shaking things up a bit. Multiparty democracy creates dialogue between the dominant mainstream parties and the junior parties, between the political center and the flanks of the spectrum, which in the short run can sound noisy and untidy but in the medium and long terms allows a much fuller airing of the issues and an inching toward national consensus.
Green Party arising
One smaller party, the Green Party, has specialized in focusing on environmental issues. When the “victory threshold” for winning a seat in the legislature is only five percent or lower, as it is in Germany and other European nations, that quite naturally has resulted in much greater electoral success for the various Green parties located across the continent.
So when it comes to environmental and climate change issues, the various Green parties of Europe have played an indispensable role. They have championed positions that initially had little public support because they were ahead of their time; now those same positions are the core of mainstream European politics, having been adopted by the major parties, even the conservative parties, as those positions became popular due to the increasingly obvious impacts of global warming (heat waves, droughts, flooding, wildfires, violent storms, warming oceans and melting glaciers).
Observing this practice over many years, one can see how Europe’s pluralistic democracies have been advancing consensus building and forward-looking policy on urgent environmental issues. Green parties—once seen as radical outsiders—have increasingly claimed a place in mainstream European politics, ever more so as climate change has moved front and center into European capitals.
The Greens in Germany are one of the best examples. This party has never won more than 15% of the popular vote at the national level, yet is has been able to make inroads because it has been able to consistently win their fair share of seats in the Bundestag, the national parliament. Once in the legislature, Green Party representatives have been able to argue their positions and eventually broaden their support. Green parties are represented in legislatures all over the world elected by proportional representation, including in Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Italy, Hungary, Latvia, Mexico, Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. In Germany, Austria, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg and New Zealand, the Greens are members of the governing coalition, holding Cabinet-level ministries and wielding real power.
Being represented in the federal and state legislatures, the Greens in these proportional democracies are not so easily ignored and marginalized by the media, like the Green Party is in the United States. In America, winning 5% of the popular vote in the single-seat district, winner-take-all elections gets you no representation at all. The Green Party of Germany occupies a large building in Berlin that is a beehive of paid staff and political leaders coming and going. Green parties in Europe receive millions of dollars in public funding that is spent not only on election campaigns but also on staff, office space, supplies, computers, photocopiers, and printers—infrastructure needed to advocate for their positions and win representation.
But in the United States, minor parties are discriminated against with byzantine ballot access laws and various dirty tricks played by the two major parties to maintain their duopoly. There is little to no public financing of campaigns to help them communicate with voters. Indeed, when the editor of the volunteer newsletter of the Green Party of California took a full-time job, the newsletter died. Consequently, the Greens and other minor parties such as the Libertarian Party win virtually no representation at federal, state, or local levels.
Indeed, US voters are mostly bunkered down in safe, one-party districts and states where their frame of reference is not even of a two-party system but of one party that dominates their entire region. Political monocultures result, where debate becomes all but frozen. But in Europe there is a recognition of the importance of minor parties, so they are encouraged with public financing of campaigns, free media time for advertising, and inclusion in televised debates. Those reforms help minor parties reach voters and participate in public discourse.
But only the use of a proportional representation electoral system allows smaller parties to actually win their fair share of seats. The U.S.-style, winner-take-all electoral system using one-seat districts is notorious for preventing minor parties and independent candidates from winning representation at any level of politics. Out of 535 seats in the Congress, minor parties hold zero seats and independents were elected to two seats. With 7,383 seats in the 50 state legislatures, you would think minor parties would have more success, but no: minor parties hold only eight seats today, seven of them from the Vermont Progressive Party in tiny, rural Vermont and one from the Libertarian Party. Independent candidates hold another 23 seats. As one political pundit commented, “Lightning strikes more often than that.”
So without proportional representation, public financing, free media time and universal/automatic voter registration, forward-looking voices have a very hard time breaking through the duopoly and gaining a place at the table. And that is tragic for environmental policy, since multiparty democracy creates a dynamic conversation between the political center and the margins, which in turn is a valuable part of the consensus-seeking process over controversial issues.
The European democracies, rooted in a foundation of proportional representation, are well equipped for consensus-building and policy formation. But they are waiting for their laggard transatlantic partner, which is barely responsive today due to its “winner take all” ways, to get its act together.
The Biden administration’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which will spend an estimated $369 billion on energy and climate change, has been a recent sign of life. But with Republicans taking over the House majority, it looks to be a short-term gasp. The real obstacle is the lack of proportional representation and multiparty democracy.
Steven Hill @StevenHill1776
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Excellent article, Steven. It should be widely shared so that others can appreciate the merits of proportional representation.