European Youth Bet on Authoritarian States to Fix Climate Change - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg joins student environmental advocates during a strike.
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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

The findings are the latest hit to the credibility of democracy in a Europe that is already witnessing the rise of populists.

By Pallabi Munsi

  • A majority of Europeans in the 16-29 age group believe authoritarian states have a better shot at addressing the climate crisis than democracies, according to a new Oxford-backed survey.
  • The findings show growing frustration over the failure to meaningfully cut emissions.

Last winter was Europe’s warmest ever recorded. This spring, the usual crisp winds have been replaced by drier and warmer temperatures, and an unexpected heat wave in May.

Europeans recognize the crisis. In fact, most view climate change as an existential threat, and 58 percent want their countries to go carbon neutral by 2030, according to a recent poll by researchers at the Oxford University-backed Eupinions polling group. But there’s a surprising twist in the findings. 

A majority — 53 percent — of Europeans in the 16–29 age group believe authoritarian states have a better chance of fixing climate change than democracies. 

That drops to 42 percent for people in the 30–49 age group, and 35 percent for 50–69-year-olds. The results demonstrate the growing frustration among young Europeans about the struggles of their governments when it comes to cutting carbon emissions, say experts.

“If there is scepticism about democracy among young people, it is because existing democratic states have clearly failed when it comes to climate change,” says John Dryzek, professor at the University of Canberra’s Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis.

Most young Europeans appear to believe that intergovernmental institutions such as the European Union are “more important” than their national governments in fighting climate change, according to Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European studies at Oxford, and Antonia Zimmermann, an MPhil student at Oxford.

climate change graphic fix

Indeed, “the climate crisis could make or break the European Union,” says Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy, and Stephan Lehne, visiting Carnegie Europe scholar in Brussels, in a Carnegie Europe paper titled “Climate Politics in a Fragmented Europe.” “Climate politics could go from being relatively benign to downright nasty.”

For sure, the responses of young Europeans show that while they know that democracies have largely been ineffective in taking climate action, they don’t know enough about the track record of authoritarian states, says Dryzek. “Think of Russia and Saudi Arabia, two of the world’s worst,” he says. “China is ambiguous: pursuing renewable energy and proclaiming ‘ecological civilization,’ but at the same time still massively committed to coal.”

Researchers behind the poll also acknowledge that it was conducted during the coronavirus pandemic, “at a time of heightened economic and social insecurity.” And the pandemic hasn’t been a great advertisement for democracies. Singapore, where a single party has ruled since independence, is widely viewed as one of the biggest success stories in the battle against the virus. Other countries that appear to have controlled the outbreak — such as South Korea, China and Israel — have used phone-tracking apps that compromise privacy at the altar of public health concerns.

Still, the results point to a larger challenge faced by the EU — the world’s largest bloc of democracies. In part, the problem lies in the EU’s complex political structure that often blocks collective action while at the same time allowing national governments to “shirk responsibility,” Grabbe and Lehne write in their paper.

The challenge before European leaders, they say, isn’t just to devise smart policy measures to tackle climate change, but to get them through the EU system. If they don’t succeed, Grabbe and Lehne say, the EU could face the heat for collective inaction from both ends — as the source of harsh measures to tackle climate change, and for failing to take meaningful coordinated action.

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