Green Modernization: Reflections from Europe

By van der Heijden, Hein-Anton | Harvard International Review, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Green Modernization: Reflections from Europe


van der Heijden, Hein-Anton, Harvard International Review


There are strong arguments for the thesis that climate change will develop into the single most important global problem of the first half of this century. Rising sea levels; hurricanes and their devastating consequences; ongoing desertification in developing and developed countries; scarcity of water, the resulting "wars on water" and the tens of millions of environmental refugees; scarcity of food--the list of problems is endless. According to British economist and former World Bank vice-president Nicholas Stern, the costs associated with the effects of climate change will rise to US$2.5 trillion by 2050.

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Climate change confronts us with the consequences of modernity, with the consequences of the complex interplay between capitalism, industrialism, military power and the organization of politics in the form of sovereign national states. Climate change is one of the "routine consequences of modernity," and in tackling the problem, the basic question arises of whether we will be able to adhere to the institutional framework of modernity itself. Could the institutional structure that is part of the problem also be part of the solution? I will try to answer this question from a European Union perspective by dealing with three different solution strategies: ecological modernization, "green govermentality," and civic environmentalism.

Environmental Politics in the EU

In the global politics of climate change, the EU has always been a relative forerunner. The European Union has been one of the strongest advocates of the Kyoto Protocol, but it has not hesitated to look beyond 2012, the expiration date of the protocol's expiration. Earlier this year it decided that carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]) emissions in the EU as a whole should be reduced by 20 percent by 2020, and by that year at least 20 percent of all energy used should be renewable. Some scholars have characterized this political model as one of the specific features of "normative power Europe," or the non-military power of the very first cosmopolitan, post-national democracy in the world. "Normative power Europe" refers to an EU that actively promotes a series of normative principles (such as sustainable development) that are generally acknowledged within the United Nations system to be universally applicable.

In comparison to many countries, the level of climate change problem awareness in the EU is rather high indeed, although public opinion polls reveal significant differences among individual member states. In addition, the politics of climate change is one of the core policy fields through which the European Union at present tries to increase its legitimacy to the public, after decades of having been just a "common market" with a widely felt "democratic deficit."

At least two other factors have contributed to the current prominence of environmental politics in the EU: green parties and environmental movements. During the 1990s, when important parts of EU environmental politics were taking shape, green parties were highly visible in the European and national member states parliaments, although they seldom received more than 10 percent of the vote. But by the turn of the century, three out of four of the largest EU member states--Germany, France, and Italy--had Green Party Ministers of the Environment. These ministers also represented their countries in the European Council of Environmental Ministers. Green party influence in other policy sectors, however, remained rather limited.

Environmental movements have played an even more prominent role in EU politics. Like those in the United States, European environmental movements have played a crucial role in putting environmental problems on the political agenda. They work by denouncing pollution of air, water, and soil as the joint result of our specific kind of social arrangements, and by presenting alternatives to unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. …

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