Markets and states have failed on climate change – now it is the people’s turn to act

The financial crisis which has unfolded this year has caused governments to release billions of dollars at short notice to prop up the financial system. One might wonder why such funds have never been available to alleviate poverty, cancel Third World debt, or take meaningful action on climate change. But we don’t wonder about such things, since we know the answer… governments are keen to protect ‘business as usual’ for the wealthy few, but they are far less keen to act to transform the lives of the poor or look to the long-term future of the biosphere.

Climate change is undoubtedly the most significant issue facing the planet right now. Human society must immediately begin rapid and radical alterations to the industrial and agricultural production systems causing much of the greenhouse gas emission that is driving this climate change. Yet we seem chronically (one might suggest criminally) unable to make the necessary transformation in the way we live. The best we can do – the EU’s much-trumpeted policy of 20% emissions reduction by 2020 – is ridiculously inadequate.

So what are our options?

Writing in the Harvard International Review, Dutch academic Hein-Anton van der Heijden suggests there are three possible pathways for the necessary transformation:

Ecological modernisation – market-based approaches, using price signals such as emissions trading schemes, and ‘eco-friendly’ approaches to production and consumption. The underlying principle is that environmental protection is compatible with economic growth.

Green governmentality – technocratic and political action through state-based agencies (eg environment ministries) drawing on the expert power of “mega-science” and global institutions (eg UNFCCC), to design and implement policies at national and international levels.

Civic environmentalism – the reform-oriented work of transnational environmental NGOs, sometimes alongside governments, and the more radical resistance of grassroots climate justice groups supporting equitable, localised, practical solutions in opposition to market-based approaches.

Through a series of examples from Europe, Van der Heijden briefly reviews the achievements of ecological modernisation and green governmentality, and shows just how limited they have been. Though there have been some gains, ultimately they have not delivered anything like the transformation that is needed.

So let’s be clear on this: Markets and states have failed us on climate change.

The only option left, therefore, is civic environmentalism. Because markets and states have failed us, Van der Heijden predicts that substantive, meaningful action on climate change will indeed come from the people.  And he is optimistic that it can succeed where other approaches have failed, sensing a groundswell of activism building around the world – one, he says, that is comparable to mass movements experienced in western countries in the 1840s, the 1890s, and the late 1960s, when people mobilised for long-needed democratic transformations.

This groundswell will grow through mass support for green political parties and NGOs, through more direct action in mass protests, and through grassroots practical activities that build the transformation at the community level. For Van der Heijden, the question not whether it will occur, but when it will occur; I would also ask – will it be soon enough?


Hein-Anton van der Heijden (2008) Green modernization: reflections from Europe. Harvard International Review, 30(2), 58-62.


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