Andrew Wilson: Dutch court’s climate call to leaders

Picture: AFP/Getty
Picture: AFP/Getty
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RARELY if ever has this column quoted Latin. But as a telling phrase, albeit stolen, is your loyal columnist’s stock in trade, I make no apologies for it now. So: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?” Who will guard the guards themselves?

Since Plato and Socrates, we have wondered about the dilemma of how to check the leaders we elect, appoint or accept. In them we trust but they must have their power limited, somehow. The Greek philosophers concluded that the best outcome was for leaders to have “divine reason” within themselves rather than imposed from out-with. “Good luck with that,” cry most people, everywhere.

Homer once dealt with the same core issue. Asked “if you are the police, who will police the police?” he replied, “I don’t know… the coastguard?” Homer Simpson that is, not the Greek poet.

The American Founding Fathers created their own system of checks and balances between Presidency, Congress and Judiciary. In the UK, our antediluvian non-constitution has evolved and managed a similar balancing act to varying degrees of success and failure.

Once upon a time Edmund Burke is said to have coined the phrase “the Fourth Estate” to describe a new check on the other three (clergy, nobility and commoners) from the developing news media of the time. It was 1787. Recent events have called out the need for a fifth.

One of the cold realities of the benefits of more democracy is that it can lead to policy and governance dysfunction. Probably the classic example is the tendency to short-termism meaning inter-generational problems and opportunities are not solved or taken.

Driven by electoral cycles and framing against opposition attacks, governments can be driven into the daily noise and choppy waves rather than riding the underlying tides and currents in the right direction.

Major challenges can go unsolved until “mañana” as the immediacy of today’s faux crisis or vested interest gets in the way. This leads to real crises that force the pace of reform or clear the way for painful choices. In an ideal democracy, crises would be avoided by leaders leading strategically for the long-term not managerially for the moment.

So who stands up for the bigger issues when the government and their opponents do not?

In the Netherlands last week an environmental campaign group, Urgenda, took a class action suit to court and won. The judges found in favour of cutting emissions by 25 per cent from 1990’s levels in a verdict that concluded: “The State must do more to avert the imminent danger caused by climate change, also in view of its duty of care to protect and improve the living environment… The State should not hide behind the argument that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend solely on Dutch efforts. Any reduction of emissions contributes to the prevention of dangerous climate change, and as a developed country, the Netherlands should take the lead in this.”

This story stopped me in my tracks. If this decision finds its way through appeals to practically change the Dutch government’s actions it will be a stunning challenge to the system from within the system. Could it then be replicated elsewhere?

In moments of inter-generational import it can take a challenge of this nature to change the world. This could have just changed the world.

Other cases are pending in the Philippines and Belgium and may create momentum elsewhere.

Climate concerns tend to follow their own cycle in the public worry list. Apart from the list of passionate adherents, it tends to need major crises or evidence to be revealed for people to elevate long-term concern for the planet above their immediate worries about, for example, the cost of living. In such ways do we collectively conspire to do the opposite of what our nature intends for us and beggar the generation to follow us.

In Paris, later this year, the United Nations’ 21st yearly session on ­Climate Change will take place. 
The objective of the conference is simple: “To achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, from all the nations of the world.” Gulp.

The challenge of leadership for achieving this is monumental. The Netherlands is one of the most civilised and developed countries in the world. It has a landscape close to sea level (barely half of its territory is more than a metre above) and much of its territory has been reclaimed from the ocean. If any country should “get” the potential calamity of climate change it would be them. But it appears to have taken the courts to truly change the course.

So how will the 192 other members of the United Nations manage to act in concert?

What this court call has done is elevate the issue and remind us to have an eye on who will eye the guards themselves. All of us, as citizens, have a duty to ourselves and people who follow us to play our own part in helping leaders lead for the long term.

None of us should be bystanders. We guard the guards. «