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New and old forms of wind power
New and old forms of wind power in Flevoland province, Netherlands, on April 8, 2014. DeAgostini/Getty Images

Feature

There’s Only One Way for Democracies to Save the Planet

The Netherlands is taking the lead in solving climate change—and proving that the rest of the West is doing democracy wrong.

In 2016, the Netherlands’ center-right government signed the Paris climate accords with very little enthusiasm. “Climate change is not an advantage with our voters,” Klaas Dijkhoff, leader of the governing People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) in the country’s lower legislative house, the Tweede Kamer, told me when I visited the Netherlands last fall. The party had hoped that the European Union would formulate a solution and force it on member states. It didn’t; and when the VVD sought to form a new government in the aftermath of elections the following year, one of its partners, Democrats 66, agreed to join only if the new government would enact policies to achieve the Paris goals. The issue could no longer be avoided.

The government turned to a deliberative structure known as the polder model, after the word for land reclaimed by dikes, and thus for the collective effort required to keep the Netherlands from flooding. Much of the country lies at or below sea level; as far back as the 13th century, local water boards built and maintained dikes and dams and controlled the flow of water. (These water boards remain powerful forces in Dutch life and politics to this day.) The polder model brings together all stakeholders on a given issue in order to reach a conclusion at least minimally acceptable to all—though it is up to the the Netherlands’ parliament, to convert this consensus into legislation.

An approach to politics devised to withstand the effects of climate have now enabled the Dutch to formulate—and perhaps also implement—one of the most ambitious climate-change policies in the world today. (Last month the EU issued  a legislative roadmap to a “European Green Deal,” though the proposed policies will take effect only when adopted as national legislation.)

While nations can muddle through almost every other issue according to their own peculiar habits, climate change demands urgent, sweeping action

Few other countries share the Netherlands’ ancient traditions of cooperation, its distinctive political culture, or the institutions that give that culture expression. It’s hardly reasonable to expect that more individualistic and adversarial societies, such as the United States, will adopt the virtues of fraternity at this late stage of their histories.

Yet national cultures do change when they meet an immovable obstacle. (Think of the closing of the frontier in the United States, or the abandonment of war-making in Europe after World War II.) Climate change is just such an obstacle. While nations can muddle through almost every other issue according to their own peculiar habits, climate change demands urgent, sweeping action. Unless humans are prepared to concede, as the political theorist David Runciman has suggested in Foreign Policy, that democracy is intrinsically ill-suited to solving climate change, we must ask ourselves what kind of democracy, or what features of democracy, can forge the social consensus required to devise ambitious climate policies and put them into practice.


A polder landscape painting of Hillegersberg, Netherlands.

A polder landscape painting of Hillegersberg, Netherlands. Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The polder mentality is ancient, but the institutions upon which the Netherlands’ deliberative system rests date largely from the postwar era. At its core is the Social and Economic Council (SER), established by law in 1950. The SER advises the government and the parliament, but is independent from both. The council’s cadre of scholars churn out reports on the social and economic issues that are the subject of legislation.

At the same time, the SER organizes polderstyle deliberations (which are themselves each called a polder) and provides space for deliberators to meet in its almost featureless headquarters building in the commercial center of The Hague. At times the state asks the council to convene a polder on a specific topic; otherwise the council undertakes such an effort on its own. In that case council officials choose a leader, who is typically responsible for selecting stakeholders.

The Netherlands is a country of strong and coherent institutions, including labor unions, industry associations, consumer groups, and nongovernmental organizations. Whether because of the threat of inundation or a deep sense of national kinship, the Dutch like working together: Countless paintings in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum show 17th-century neighborhood watch groups passing the evening in one another’s company with no obvious threat in sight. It is these civil-society bodies that furnish the representatives who serve on polder deliberations.

Doing so is often part of their job; they are at once technocratic experts and interest-group representatives. The combination often seems blurry to an outsider. Steven van Eijck, for example, is an economist and businessman who now represents the mobility industry, which stretches from bicycles to cars. He is also a “Crown member” of the SER—that is, an appointee of the king—who said that he has overseen five polder debates. In a different society, van Eijck might seem like a bought-and-paid-for representative of industry; in the Dutch context, his bona fides as a public servant are not questioned.

Just in the past year, the SER has organized deliberations, and delivered recommendations to the government, on meeting the U.N.’s “sustainable development goals,” on increasing gender and ethnic diversity at the upper levels of Dutch business, and on increasing economic opportunities for refugees. Some issues prove so intractable that the representatives temporarily admit defeat. This happened recently with the effort to reform the pension system to raise the retirement age and cover independent and temporary workers. Yet Dutch society is not so polarized that deadlock and drift seem acceptable. The discussants began again, and earlier this year delivered a package of proposed reforms to the government.

The polder is a hybrid entity in terms of democratic theory. As a conclave of technocrats, it is an elite institution that stands above Dutch society; but because the members are broadly drawn from Dutch society, it has something of the legitimacy that adheres to representative institutions. Polder accords have no legal force of their own, yet they enjoy a moral authority and political legitimacy that policymakers cannot ignore even when they did not ask for the advice.

In 2013, the SER organized talks on renewable energy. The Energy Agreement, as the resulting report was known, recommended a major push for offshore wind power as well as some efficiencies to reduce emissions. The government had neither promised nor planned a major investment in renewable energy, but the report helped galvanize public support, and the recommendations were soon incorporated into legislation.

This year’s climate accord did not emerge from a typical polder process; the sacrifices required to significantly drive down carbon dioxide emissions are so painful, and thus so politically dangerous, that the new government insisted on exercising an unusual level of control. Political leaders instructed the polder members that they had to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 49 percent (using a 1990 baseline) by 2030.

They assigned specific emissions targets to the five relevant sectors: industry, electricity, mobility, agriculture, and the built environment. Each would independently determine how best to reach the assigned target. They chose as overall director of the debate Ed Nijpels, a former VVD minister who had headed up the Energy Agreement, and thus was seen as both a party loyalist and an environmental progressive. They also chose the leaders of the five sectoral subgroups, including in the mix several figures from opposition parties.

Kees Vendrik, a banker and the former parliamentary spokesman for the Green Left party, was asked to serve as head of the electricity sector. Soon afterward, he received a memo from the minister of economic affairs and climate policy with, he said, “a list of do’s and don’ts.” He was told, for example, not to consider using coal, which the government had already decided to phase out. That was hardly a problem for Vendrik. In any case, he said, he could choose the members of the group, and to hit the assigned target in whatever manner they agreed upon.

Vendrik invited representatives of two power companies that used only renewables as well as two that still used coal; he knew that he would need the backing of both to gain wide industry support. Vendrik asked them, as well as representatives from grid operators, consumer groups, environmental organizations, municipalities, and the water boards to submit their own plans for carbon dioxide reductions, as well as for a transition to a zero-emission generating system by 2050. He got 23 plans in all. For the first half of 2018 the group worked to meld the proposals into a single plan.


A demonstrator holds a sign during a climate strike in Amsterdam's Dam Square on March 10. Thousands of people gathered to demand affordable green energy.

A demonstrator holds a sign during a climate strike in Amsterdam’s Dam Square on March 10. Thousands of people gathered to demand affordable green energy. Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The polder system enables bargaining among diverse interests, but the system cannot magically resolve intrinsic conflict. Martijn Broekhof, an economist who works for the association that represents the Netherlands’ enormous chemical industry, spent much of 2018 sparring with environmental groups, including Greenpeace. Broekhof said that the debate was amicable, but sharing a thousand cappuccinos did not change anyone’s worldview.

The chemical firms, which account for 61 percent of the Dutch industrial sector’s emissions, had concluded that they could reach the 2030 goal chiefly through the technology known as “carbon capture,” injecting carbon dioxide into the deep offshore pits created by natural-gas exploration rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. Green organizations countered that carbon capture had never been tried on an industrial scale, and in any case did nothing to move the Netherlands toward the goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. “We don’t think it’s about efficiency,” as Marjolein Demmers, head of Natuur & Milieu, a major Dutch climate NGO, told me. “It’s about transformation.”

The standoff posed a fundamental question: How do you shift to renewable energy without damaging the competitiveness of the nation’s largest employers? Northern European though it is, the Netherlands is a mercantile nation deeply committed to the principles of the free market. Industry has traditionally wielded tremendous political power. Broekhof and his employers accepted that they could achieve some of the mandated reductions through the substitution of offshore wind power for natural gas; carbon capture would supply the rest.

The environmentalists disagreed. An even tougher question was how to ensure that industry would actually hit its mandated target of 49 percent reductions. Not only the environmental advocates but also the local and national government representatives among the group argued for a carbon tax that would penalize emissions beyond a specified amount. Industry proposed instead a voluntary system in which companies would set out targets for investment to drive down emissions over three years.

In June 2018, after four months of deliberations, the five groups issued their preliminary findings. The government and its conservative supporters had never seriously contemplated the array of taxes and subsidies that would be required to change the behavior of Dutch citizens and firms. Now they recoiled in anger. The daily Telegraaf, the chief media outlet of the right, attacked Nijpels and his lieutenants as “the climate mafia,” though quite a few were VVD members like himself. The upshot of the campaign, as Nijpels recalled, was, “They’re going to take away my heating installation and make me pay 50,000 euros to replace it. They’re going to take away my car.”

The government convened a secret meeting of top officials, dubbed the “Cockpit,” to receive intelligence from their representatives sitting in the deliberations and plot a counterstrategy. A senior minister told the head of deliberations on housing that the government would neither offer major subsidies for conversion to renewables nor impose substantial taxes on the use of gas for home heating—the two obvious instruments for accelerating a switch to renewables. This very unpolderlike political backlash showed the extreme political sensitivity of the subject.

Nijpels delivered the group’s final report to parliament in December. It was very far from the kind of document that environmentalists would have written on their own. The industry view on carbon capture and carbon taxes had prevailed. The government had stipulated in one of its memos that deliberators in the mobility sector could not consider “pay-as-you-go” pricing, which charges motorists more with each mile in order to discourage unnecessary driving.

Van Eijck, who participated in the mobility discussions, told me that every member of his group, including the Dutch drivers’ association, the ANWB, considered pay-as-you-go indispensable to reaching the target, but they had to leave it out of their report. Nevertheless, the climate report constituted a sweeping plan to use a combination of taxes, incentives, investment subsidies and suasion to change Dutch habits on driving, farming, home heating, and power generation.


Windmills dot the horizon at the offshore wind farm in Urk, Netherlands, on June 21, 2016.

Windmills dot the horizon at the offshore wind farm in Urk, Netherlands, on June 21, 2016. REMKO DE WAAL/AFP via Getty Images

The climate accord required not one, but two separate stages of bargaining—first between the parties themselves, and then between the technocrats and the political order. The publication of the report, like the issuing of the midyear headlines, triggered outrage on the right. Both the VVD and its right-wing allies, the Christian Democrats, “freaked out,” recalled Vendrick, the environmentalist banker. Dijkhoff told me that his own constituents were shocked at the recommendations—even though the polder deliberators had essentially offered means to hit targets set by the state. When we met last month in the Binnenhof, the 13th-century castle that houses parliament, Dijkhoff told me that he “saw the political support draining away week by week.”

Whether or not that was the case, Dijkhoff feared the political costs of adopting the more painful measures proposed in the report. He gave interviews in the Telegraaf and elsewhere reminding voters who has the last word in a democracy. “I said, ‘No, the technocrats do not govern the country. We, as parliament, do. We will not just act as a rubber stamp. We will decide, and if you don’t like our decisions you can throw us out in the next election.’”

Now it was the technocrats’ turn to be outraged. They had done the government’s bidding. Did the ruling parties have less painful ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 49 percent? They did not. Dijkhoff offered me elaborate, but not altogether convincing, rationales for the repudiation of pay-as-you-go pricing and of the proposed taxes on gas heating in households. The truth seemed more straightforward: People care very deeply about their homes and their cars, and politicians were protecting them from what they saw as threats to both. They were standing with the voters against the climate mafia.

Residents walk in Nijmegen, one of the Dutch cities affected by flooding of the Rhine on Jan. 7, 2018.

Residents walk in Nijmegen, one of the Dutch cities affected by flooding of the Rhine, on Jan. 7, 2018. Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Yet this new level of bargaining did not doom the accord; in some regards the need to court public opinion pushed policymakers to the left as well as to the right. The ruling parties shocked almost everyone by imposing a carbon tax on major emitters after its planning office concluded that the alternative scheme industry had proposed would not achieve the required reductions. Broekhof says that his party’s members were appalled, and regarded the decision as a sop to voters. A less prejudicial way of putting the issue is that voters who would now be paying higher taxes to support the transition to renewables were not sympathetic to the claims that a carbon tax would damage the competitiveness of Dutch industry.

The Climate Act, issued this past June, retained the overwhelming majority of the original recommendations. What’s more, the government incorporated into the Climate Act  a system that established a fairly rigorous (if also watered-down) system of monitoring and reporting. Nijpels says that he feels confident that the 49 percent target will not slip. (Others are not so confident.)

While it’s plainly true that Dutch politicians pandered to voters—that, after all, is what politicians do—they may have had a firmer grasp of what citizens were prepared to accept than the experts did. Dijkhoff offered me some unsolicited advice for Jesse Klaver, the charismatic leader of Green Left party: “Shut up.” The Dutch, he said, do not need to feel guilty about driving a gasoline-powered car. They don’t have to accept the beautiful vision of a carbon-free future. “They only have to believe,” Dijkhoff observes, “that it’s good for them.”


Workers install solar panels atop a house in The Hague, Netherlands, on April 23, 2018.

Workers install solar panels atop a house in The Hague, Netherlands, on April 23, 2018. Yuriko Nakao/Getty Images

As the Dutch have long worked together to keep out the sea, so now they will have to work together to drive emissions toward zero. The implementation of the new policy will thus depend on the polder, not as a set of formal institutions, but as an ingrained culture of cooperative action. This principle is explicit in the climate report. Vendrik told me that half of the new renewable energy to be generated on land—as opposed to offshore—“will be by the people, for the people, and owned by the people.”

Municipalities, which own much of the public land in the Netherlands, will be directed to facilitate the licensing process for groups of citizens that want to set up electricity cooperatives by building windmills or establishing solar farms. Big firms will not be allowed to monopolize the process as they had in the past.

Denmark has gone even further than the Netherlands, vowing to drive down emissions 70 percent by 2030.

Right now, Americans live amid the high drama of political debate. Very few countries have adopted climate policies in line with the commitments they made in Paris. Though the proposed terms of the EU Green Deal are very similar to those of the Netherlands’ Climate Act, only Denmark, among other EU nations, has adopted a national plan. (Denmark has gone even further than the Netherlands, vowing to drive down emissions 70 percent by 2030.)

It seems all too likely that the major emitters—China, the United States, India, Brazil—will continue to burn coal and oil and natural gas until it’s too late to prevent irreversible changes to the planet; in December, they along with Australia and others prevented a U.N. conference in Madrid from issuing even voluntary goals for emission reductions. Yet if and when they do adopt a serious national plan, countries are likely to learn that implementing it, which requires innumerable actions from the very top to the very bottom of society, is even harder than formulating it.


The Dutch climate accord has only been in force for a few months. The process, however, can already be observed in the province of Gelderland, in the country’s east, which produced its very own climate pact in 2014. Executives at the province’s public grid company asked Thijs de la Court, a longtime municipal official and head of the national association of cities, to build their own polder model to develop climate-change policy.

De la Court created a provincial version of the SER, invited the full range of representatives, and kept the government out of the process, as had been the case with the Energy Agreement, to which he had contributed. As in that case, the local government accepted the findings, and since then has provided 30 to 40 million euros a year for green projects. One of de la Court’s favorite innovations is the so-called Neighborhoods of the Future project, which provides up to 100,000 euros a year, with an equal match from localities, to groups that present plans to reconstitute their area around renewable energy rather than, as de la Court puts it, “to just plug in changes.”

The province now has 45 such projects. One is in the Spijkerkwartier, a diverse neighborhood of single-family homes in Arnhem, the capital of Gelderland (and the site of the 1977 World War II movie A Bridge Too Far.) The project began when Patrick Hoogenbosch, an executive at the Dutch telecom company KPN, realized that he could save money on solar panels if he enlisted friends, and ultimately several thousand neighbors, to order in bulk.

Then, after he heard his neighbors complain about how much they hated LED lights, Hoogenbosch and friends put together a suitcase with 30 different brands that they could take home and try out. Then he began thinking more systematically. The municipality had offered to build a new sewer system in Spijkerkwartier, but proposed to cut down all the trees along its path. That brought neighbors together in a way that his talk about renewables never had.

“Nobody cares about energy,” Hoogenbosch said when I visited him and three colleagues at their new office on Spijkerstraat, paid for by Neighborhoods of the Future. The former telecom executive, who had quit his job when he discovered how much more satisfaction he got from revitalizing the neighborhood, was wearing a rumpled flannel shirt. “You can’t buy a kilo of it at the store. We found that trees are much more important than power.” They learned that the leaves of a single mature tree cooled the air as much as ten air conditioners. Water mattered as well. Hoogenbosch found that he could win converts by talking about public space. That people care about their neighbors, and wish to act in concert with them, seems to be an axiom of Dutch life.

The volunteers of Spijkerstraat, businessmen like Hoogenbosch, began to work on green start-ups. They established a landscaping company and then agreed to work with the city’s own contractor to fill the neighborhood with water and trees. They started a service to deliver organic produce into pedestrian zones by electric bike; they pick up coffee grounds around the city and turn them into a substrate from which to grow oyster mushrooms; they operate a neighborhood-based bed and breakfast. The Spijkerkwartier now evangelizes for what it calls “the Blue Neighborhood Economy.” “Small is the new big,” as their founding document cheekily puts it.

China’s Politburo could decide to do everything the Netherlands has done, and more, without asking anyone.

The city government has come around as well. In 2017 Arnhem established a civic body, Arnhem Aan (Arnhem On), that provides seed money for small-scale energy projects. David Willemsen, a former city council member who runs the organization, put private investors, the local grid company, and neighborhood figures together around a plan to place a balloon 100 feet in diameter underground, fill it with water, heat it during the summer with thermal panels and then use it in the winter as a source of natural geothermal energy for 500 to 600 homes. Now the community owns the cooperative along with the investors and the grid company.

Arnhem Aan provides heat cameras to scan for leaks, and housing “coaches” to advise on renovations. Willemsen says that the coaches always ask, “How can we help make your house better?” before saying a word about energy saving. “There is already some kind of tiredness with always thinking about 20 years from now,” he conceded. As Dijkhoff put it, most people will only take measures that appear to be in their own immediate interest.

This is, of course, a particular problem in democracies. A society like China, both totalitarian and bureaucratic, has the capacity to issue edicts from the top and see them carried out at the bottom. China’s Politburo could decide to do everything the Netherlands has done, and more, without asking anyone.

If China’s leaders conclude, as they have not yet done, that drastic reductions in emissions are in the national interest, the world will see whether a coercive model can gain mass compliance. Liberal societies, by contrast, typically use incentives to modify public behavior. With enough taxes on fossil fuels and subsidies on renewables, people and firms will switch from one to the other. But the process of democratic bargaining, as the Dutch example shows, puts limits on those policy changes. And people are deeply attached to the way they drive, eat, and live in their homes. Absent an enormous incentive to change, they’re inclined to stick to what they know.


What, then, are the lessons of the Dutch experience? Or rather, what are the lessons from which others, differently constituted, might possibly profit? Above all, in a democratic society that depends on the consent of the governed, people are most likely to agree to make very serious changes in their daily lives if they feel they have been consulted on the formulation of the policy, and if they have a central role in implementing it.

France provides the counterexample: last year, President Emmanuel Macron imposed a gasoline tax in order to reduce driving (and to raise revenue). Apparently, he had little idea that millions of French people in small towns spent a good share of their disposable income driving back and forth to work. Outraged citizens took to the streets in what became known as the gilet jaune, or yellow vest, protests. Macron ultimately revoked the tax, and recently decreed the convening of a citizen assembly to devise new solutions (or perhaps to ratify his own). Only in France, with its dirigiste tradition stretching back to the 17th century, would a process of bottom-up consultation arise from the diktat of an imperious president. The French solution looks more like a performance of participation than like the thing itself.

The Dutch experience may also shed light on the “Green New Deal” that has become almost a litmus test of progressive thinking in the United States. The proposed legislation would utterly transform the relationship of the state to citizens and to markets in the name of a zero-emissions future. Though the authors pay ritual homage to the need for “transparent and inclusive consultation” with all Americans and all institutions, the bill could become law only if a hypothetical left-leaning Democratic majority managed to ram it down the throats of skeptical moderates and outraged conservatives. Such far-reaching measures would then have to be implemented by compulsion. The slow-gestating and consensual polder model, by contrast, affords citizens a sense that they have actively assented to a policy choice by the time it has been adopted.

In certain respects, democracies are ill-suited to solve a problem that requires present sacrifice in the name of future benefit. In the free play of competing interests, those who feel immediately disadvantaged, whether consumers or employers, will tend to eclipse those who defend the long-term public interest. Yet the polder model does not assume that citizens will have the foresight and restraint to subordinate private interest to public good.

Rather, it accepts James Madison’s view that the good will emerge from the clashing interests inherent to large-scale democracies. It seeks to manage that clash through a form of structured bargaining; that is, compromise. Most people are inclined to think that the exigent demands of the climate leave no room for compromise. Yet if democracies don’t build it into the system, they’re much likelier to go nowhere at all than to make a breakthrough to the carbon-free future.

At present, Americans seem incapable not only of compromise but of any collective endeavor. Sacrifice in the name of a common national good is not contrary to Americans’ nature—think of the Civil War, or World War II. But climate change is not war; and it is a global rather than a purely national good. Is the threat of environmental catastrophe grave enough to compel a change not only in policy but in political culture? Could Americans—in their own manner, not the Dutch manner—reason their way to a collective solution to climate change? It is very hard to imagine, at least before the catastrophe has changed their lives irrevocably. Yet the consequences of failure are too terrible to contemplate.

Climate change may pose an existential challenge to the U.S. model of liberal democracy, as it does to the Chinese capitalist-totalitarian model. Perhaps this great threat will force democracies to become more democratic—more participatory, more decentralized, less tribal. At a moment when despair seems more realistic than hope, that is a prospect worth pursuing.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.