19 July, 2021

Transatlantic Listening Series on Revitalizing Democracy.


Wilton Park

The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands

The Ditchley Foundation



Flashed around the world, the events in the US on January 6th when protestors forced entry to Capitol Hill buildings to disrupt the validation of the election results, marked a symbolic low for democratic politics and revealed some deeper fault lines and tensions, also apparent in European liberal democracies.

The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, the Ditchley Foundation and Wilton Park are holding a series of three transatlantic virtual dialogues to consider this political disaffection and what’s needed to reboot democratic processes and institutions.

Bringing together political, media, business and education interests from the US, Canada, France and the UK, Ditchley, last week, held the first session of the ‘Listening Series’ on the question of political support for action on climate change.

The following is a summary of the discussion:

Public concern about the threat of dangerous climate change is widespread and Governments have responded with high level targets for achieving net zero, but the detailed policies and priorities for reducing emissions have yet to be established and publicly debated. There are serious challenges ahead and potentially difficult trade-offs to be made but any delays to the implementation of policies to meet emissions targets will only increase costs in the longer term. Much climate action must take place within the remainder of this decade.

We cannot afford for short term electoral, partisan politics or timid, even disingenuous, political leadership to undermine climate action. There are political risks of electoral backlash if climate policies threaten standards of living but there are also risks of anger towards governments that fail to protect citizens from the impacts of extreme weather and fail to protect lives and property from catastrophic events.

Reducing carbon emissions from energy, transport, buildings, agriculture and adapting to increase resilience against severe weather presents a huge, complex mission for a government system that is not sufficiently oriented towards the scale of the task. Citizens also have a responsibility to drive political institutions to take the decisions that govern collective responses, and industry sectors can collaborate to lead substantial changes in practice. There is a lot going on in relation to climate change.

But we are still in the foothills of an effective, pragmatic democratic political response to climate change.  Far greater honesty and transparency from politicians and from executive government will be needed along with more opportunities for democratic accountability beyond electoral cycles that allow citizens to express their political will, and for a political consensus to build progressively on actions taken. The media discourse too has been hampered by misplaced emphasis on balance and insufficient attention on the quality of public debate. The politics of climate action must mature, and executive government overhauled alongside, or as part of, effective climate policies.

Two further sessions will take place later this month:

  • The Annenberg Foundation at Sunnylands in the US is leading a discussion on the importance of local news media in revitalising democracy.
  • Wilton Park is leading a discussion on how response to the COVID-19 pandemic globally has affected trust in democratic institutions.

A report that draws on all three sessions will follow later in the Summer.