Keynote at the Budapest Forum on Building Sustainable Democracies


From 15-17 September 2021, the Budapest Forum gathered local decision-makers from Europe and beyond on how to strengthen sustainable democracies. Combatting the climate crisis including the participation of civil society will be key to sustain democratic liberties for the generations to come, said Dr. Ellen Ueberschär in her keynote on the panel 'People's power vs Climate crisis'.

Dr. Ellen Ueberschär

The need for an ambitious climate agenda happens in a time of crises. We find ourselves amidst a climate crisis whose immediate, devastating consequences for our lives and the environment are already showing. The floods in Western Europe or the devastating fires in Southern Europe appear to be more than the writing on the wall. Amidst that climate crisis, governments and societies and the European Union try to get a grip on the Covid crisis. Our societies are being weakened by the economic downturn due to the pandemic, exacerbating social inequalities. We also observe a continuous backsliding of democracies in Europe and not only here. What lesson do we learn from this accumulation of the climate crisis, democratic crisis and health crisis?

One major lesson we have learnt from the pandemic: Crises do not exist in a vacuum and we need to map their linkages: The spread and mortality of Covid-19 were increased by the degree of air pollution that had already left health and social vulnerabilities. The more, climate change has exacerbated the inequalities for marginalised groups that have already faced sexism, racism or other forms of social injustices. In many cases, it is the vulnerable groups of our societies who carry the main burden of the changing climate.

Authoritarian governments have used their chance to further infringe democratic rights and the rights of institutions like parliaments in the course of tackling the pandemic. Right populist groups capture the issue of climate change to counter science and the international community with nationalistic and isolationist responses.

Yet, crises can be used as a momentum for real change. I do not speak about revolution, but about the fact that crises can spark structural transformation and make our societies more resilient. Civil society and people who care play a major role.

But: The prerequisite of those resilient and democratic societies is a liberal democracy and not an illiberal one that undermines the fundamental rights and human dignity pretending to combat the pandemic or the climate crisis.

Soon after Covid occurred, a debate evolved whether tough measures and bans could be a role model to tackle the climate crisis. To make it absolutely clear - we will not succeed to overcome any global crisis through dictatorship and authoritarian measures. Freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of science are the prerequisites for a sustainable solution of the climate crisis and any other crisis.

And let me add - for sure we need to build strong, democratic and progressive alliances on political and administrative levels, especially among communities and the local level, where the immediate process of change of a social and ecological transformation takes place. At the same time, we have to convince majorities in our European societies, make them part of the solution, show them respect and recognition. This is the only way to prevent citizens from following right-wing authoritarian ideas, falling prey to conspiracy theories or emigrating in frustration. Democracy needs strong, committed citizens!


I would like to bring three major theses into the discussion:

First: Climate protection for all generations is a democratic and a social matter!

The fact that preserving the livelihood of citizens is a democratic issue and protecting the climate is necessary to protect civil liberty rights by law was highlighted by a verdict of the German constitutional court in April 2021. And this verdict came after a verdict of the Dutch Supreme Court: Climate protection is a human right!

An environmental and economic transformation has to go hand in hand with a social transformation that takes all people into account equally regardless of their age, their origin, their social position. The young generations have called for an immediate reaction to the climate crisis – to protect their upcoming generations. This also makes clear: climate protection is a generational project.

If we seek to guarantee liberty to our children and the next generations, it is imperative to not only stabilise but improve the living conditions for the generations and citizens to come – in urban and rural areas, for workers in trade, factories and agriculture, for students and the elderly alike.

Transformation can only lead to success stories with the necessary political backbone of a society that has its own take and its own interest in bringing forward a real social and ecological transformation.


Second: A participative, green and equitable renewal is key to preserving the liberty and dignity of people and societies.

What does liberty mean in the context of an ecological renewal? Protecting and strengthening freedom in Europe is to make sure that all citizens have the means and opportunities to decide freely in future. None of us wants to see governmental bodies using emergency laws to determine access to water, clean air, or permanently limiting mobility options.

Governmental regulations on environmental protection, whether it be regulations on CO2 emissions, on traffic or consumption are often regarded as restrictive measures to liberty today. The main question, however, is: What if today’s liberty to consume freely will bring severe restrictions to the liberties of the next generations in terms of their living conditions and living space? Preserving the livelihood of our societies is hence core to protecting the dignity of all citizens.

To use moments of crises for real change, it is necessary to now assume responsibility and lay the groundwork for an ambitious recovery from the pandemic. The European Green Deal and recovery programme of the EU is a great start – and it needs to have a consequent strategic orientation of its investments based on environmental and social criteria.

By the way - municipalities need direct access to European Structural Funding. It is the municipal level that is decisive for social and economic cohesion and environmental protection, integration and inclusion.


Third: Citizens and civil society have to be involved in shaping the Green Deal.

Communities, local initiatives and civil society are placed exactly where transformation happens and hence present important drivers of environmental, social and economic renewal.

The European Green Deal will become a success story only if it is established with a broad alliance of civil society, economy, science and trade unions that has their say in how to shape a sustainable and green renewal. Responsive city councils and mayors are needed, trustworthy decision-makers beyond any corruption but instead with a vision of a fair and just municipality.

There are already many local success stories happening all over Europe and beyond that serve for a great basis to create synergies, learn from each other and foster political and environmental partnerships. Involving community actors, climate activists or establishing citizens’ councils are only few examples of how governments have systematically engaged with civil society in the political process. In the end, shaping transformation together with the people will strengthen and enrich our democracies, as well.

I would like to end here – and I am looking forward to your perspectives and a fruitful discussion!