A Velvet Climate Revolution?

The regime changes of 1989 required people to change not only their way of life, but also their habits of mind. The ecological revolution that the world demands today – a transition to a low-carbon global economy and a low-carbon way of daily life – will require a similarly comprehensive change.

BUDAPEST – In the discussions now underway in Copenhagen, the fate of Earth’s climate is at stake. Although many of the participants recognize the urgency, the actions of many of them suggest that a business-as-usual approach will suffice. But it will not. The world needs a decisive break with the past, and that break needs to start now.

Fortunately, we have recent precedents for changes that fundamentally alter the economic and political landscape – i.e., of revolutionary change undertaken peacefully and with enthusiastic popular support. The collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe 20 years ago, and the establishment of new democratic polities with market economies, was precisely such a decisive and positive rupture with the past.

Those regime changes required people to change not only their way of life, but also their habits of mind. The ecological revolution that the world demands today – a transition to a low-carbon global economy and a low-carbon way of daily life – will require a similarly comprehensive change.

Obviously, such a comparison has its limits. The regime change that took place in the communist world introduced a well-known model (or so we thought), whereas there is no existing model at hand for a low-carbon and yet efficient economy.

In Central and Eastern Europe 20 years ago, comprehensive change demanded that all political and economic institutions be discarded, altered, or built anew; a complete change in society’s “hardware” was required. But the ecological revolution has less need for new institutions. Rather, what is needed most is a new way of thinking – new “software” (though effective “hard” green technologies also are essential).

As we saw in the postcommunist world, changing attitudes is often the hardest problem of all. People quickly embraced formal democracy, but the tolerance and compromise that is at the heart of the democratic process took time to take root. And it is this very change in mindset that we most need today.

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Yet, apart from the clear differences between the revolution of 1989 and the green revolution that is to come, there are striking similarities. First, a thoroughgoing alteration of highly complex systems will be needed to preserve the world’s climate, just as such root-and-branch changes were needed 20 years ago in the postcommunist countries.

Second, the crisis of today must be managed in a peaceful manner, which was also our goal in 1989 – reflected in dissidents’ startling idea of regime change through negotiation. Finally, today, too, comprehensive transformation is supposed to occur in a very short time, which 1989 taught us is eminently possible.

The method of change that we followed then – and which I recommend now – precludes violence and minimizes costs. The tool for achieving it was – and remains – agreement in advance on the fundamental goals of change and on a roadmap to guide the interested parties. The essence is that the decision to carry out fundamental change must be made (and clearly communicated to everyone involved!) at the outset. The idea of “reforming” or adapting the old system without decisive change must be rejected before the process begins.

Hungary and Poland reached agreement on the rules for peaceful transformation through a series of negotiations between the ruling communist parties and the opposition organizations. This bears a similarity to climate conferences where countries – developed, emerging, or poor – sit down at the same table and try to reach agreement on a common goal: a fair model for reducing CO2 emissions.

The people of Central and Eastern Europe simply wanted democracy and prosperity – but the elite had to be able to convince them to accept many unforeseen concurrent events, which was by no means easy. Similar acts of compromise on sustainability, measures to limit consumption, and to ensure equality will require the involvement of all stakeholders in order to gain their acceptance. This underlines the huge responsibility of those charged with guiding and managing these changes.

Even though the transformation cannot be fully planned in advance, insisting on certain key points at the start is a basic requirement. One such requirement during the changes in 1989 concerned the creation of minimum institutions to guarantee the rule of law: free elections, civil liberty, and an independent judiciary. The factors forcing ecological regime change – climate, biodiversity, injustice – cannot be managed in isolation from one another. Nevertheless, a key component must have priority: reducing the effects of and adjusting to climate change.