Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
17 November 2020

Taking up the task of democratic oversight for climate (in)action

Laura Bullon-Cassis and Livio Silva-Muller explore how environmental “counter-democracy” takes place.

Who can and who should take up the task of overseeing climate (in)action? Commenting on the first thematic sequence of our interview with Pierre Rosanvallon, Laura Bullon-Cassis and Livio Silva-Muller focus on “counter-democracy” in the realm of environmental action. They relate their analysis to their own work.



Pierre Rosanvallon’s analysis of the tensions between democracy and climate action is remarkably pertinent to discussions around democracy and globalization. I was introduced to these debates about ten years ago while studying with a theorist of ‘cosmopolitan democracy’, political theorist David Held. A more democratic global order was particularly compelling at the time as we were in the midst of a global financial crisis that had highlighted global interdependence and inequalities. Decisions by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, in which citizens had no say, were impacting our lives in concrete ways. A transnational movement, Occupy Wall Street, had emerged as a result of these tensions.

The climate crisis raises similar questions and has engendered another wave of grassroots mobilization. How ‘undemocratic’ is global climate governance? Rosanvallon’s analysis is generative in that it opens avenues to think of multilateral negotiations and summits as democratic exercises. He loosely describes democracy as “gaining acceptance through discussion”. This comprises processes at play in these summits. Indeed, after regularly attending UN conferences for work and research, I have come to find ethnographic approaches and theories of social fields helpful in theorizing them and capturing how regular participation produces common ‘acceptance’ of particular viewpoints and behaviours among delegates.

Further, examples of “counter-democracy”, which Rosanvallon sees as part and parcel of democracy, abound. During my doctoral fieldwork among youth activists at COP25, Fridays for Future activists would brandish the palm of their hands, on which they had drawn an eye, towards passing politicians. “It means we are watching them, that they will be held accountable”, one of them explained. They later stormed an event with a monumental flag created by Swiss artist Dan Acher, which depicted an eye made up of thousands of portraits of climate activists. These are visual manifestations of the “eye” Rosanvallon describes in the interview.

There are however obvious limits to this democratic exercise. Rosanvallon points to the gap between a “general agreement on an overall philosophy about what should be done [about climate change] and actual agreement in specific areas”. This was evident at COP25, where frustration was palpable after delegates failed to agree on key points relating to the framework underpinning the Paris Agreement. For Rosanvallon, civil society can bridge that gap by developing “expertise”: I found that young climate advocates, for example, translated scientific knowledge into specific calls for action and communicated interpretations of climate negotiations to social media followers in their home countries. Nonetheless, there are barriers to deploying such expertise to keep political elites accountable: summits are structured by explicit and implicit rules as well as by power asymmetries between Member States and other actors. Rosanvallon nonetheless offers a flexible and useful toolkit of concepts appropriate to different levels of policymaking and to conceiving of democratic practices beyond the ballot box.

ALSO WATCH THE INTERVIEW conducted by Laura Bullon-Cassis with Swiss climate activist Marie-Claire Graf and read her piece on Democratic disenchantments: Fridays for Future, Black Lives Matter, and COVID-19.



Counter-democracy emphasizes the fundamental role of citizens in seeing and overseeing those who are elected. As the causes and consequences of climate change extend across time and space, and states grow increasingly complex in a globalized world, oversight becomes a full-time and complex undertaking. So, who exactly sees climate inaction and who is overseen because of it? Rosanvallon offers the example of green mobility in France: if we want people to use cars less, we should not increase the costs of car usage, but can rather create conditions for them to be able to use cars less. The onus is on the state (to provide public transportation and not subsidize car production) and the market (to find green alternatives to cars), not on individuals.

In many democracies, organized civil society takes on the oversight role. The case of environmental NGOs in Brazil, which I study on my own research, illustrates this well. In an infamous meeting, the Environment Minister said that government should take advantage of the distraction of COVID-19, and “run the cattle herd through” to change the environmental rules, through top-down executive orders. NGOs, however, saw this happening. They had teams of lawyers scrutinizing the wave of top-down regulatory changes, translating them to citizens, mobilizing society through petitions, and finally bringing some of the issues to the Supreme Court. In Brazil, environmental NGOs are often mediators between citizens and governments, but this is a fairly recent event. As Elisa Reis puts it, we increasingly hear governments described as lean firms, firms as welfare providers and civil society as a corrector for political and market inefficiencies (1). For Reis, NGOs may be a response to an ongoing shift in perceptions of the basic mechanisms that organize state, market and society, requiring further sociological inquiry.

Rosanvallon also touches on the importance of having a diversity of points of view, when, for example, he considers the needs of the rural working class outside of Paris and the need for climate action. In an unequal country like Brazil, diversity is often a matter of survival: climate change poses an existential threat for populations with alternative ways of life, such as indigenous peoples. Likewise, black populations – already vulnerable to other threats as police violence – are also disproportionally affected by the hazards of climate change, such as increased rainfall in urban and semi-urban areas. Eliciting these links suggests that a diversity of eyes in the climate movement is the only possibility for a truly democratic life.

  1. Reis, Elisa P. 2009. “New Ways of Relating Authority and Solidarity: Theoretical and Empirical Explorations.” In The ISA Handbook in Contemporary Sociology, 505. SAGE Publications Ltd.

READ MORE about the Centre’s research project on How elites shape unequal democracies: Perceptions of redistribution in Brazil and South Africa. Led by Graziella Moraes Silva, it involves Livio Silva-Muller and Matias López and it is part of the Centre’s research pillar “Transformation of work, inequalities and solidarities”.