How local politics put climate adaptation on the agenda

Politicians these days are “acknowledging that change in the Earth’s climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind”. Besides mitigation, climate change adaptation is one of the main coping strategies, and it involves lowering the impact caused by climate change. These strategies are not only considered within the context of the UNFCCC, where the above quote comes from, but also all the way down to municipal politics.

A short impression of climate adaption in several countries, made by the UN 

In Leiden, the city where I follow my studies, the municipal council has for the past 4-year term been dominated by D66, a political party that also participates at the national level. It is often described as a liberal-democratic party, leaning towards the left of the traditional political spectrum. As stated by the Leiden branch of D66, it was their aldermen that in 2015 drafted the duurzaamheidsagenda, one of the most important documents concerning sustainability.  The climate adaptation goals mentioned in this agenda are mainly focused on resilience against heat stress and flooding.

The current municipal council only has a few months left before the next elections take place on the 21st of march, this year. Since I’m majoring in political science, I started to wonder how these municipal elections might influence climate adaption policy. Of course, politics are a fickle subject. We can’t see into the future, so any predictions we can make about future elections are usually based on past elections and coalitions. First, let’s take a look at how the duurzaamheidsagenda in Leiden might have come to be. I’ve looked into three factors that might have contributed:

– D66 gaining more seats

– Other left-wing parties gaining more seats

– D66 changing their ideological course

Firstly, it could be the case that D66 won big in the elections of 2014, giving them the possibility to come up with the duurzaamheidsagenda as biggest party in 2015. But if we look at this graph, made by Tom Louwerse (assistant professor in political science at Leiden University, this is his website), we see that D66 actually caught their big break in the elections four years earlier, in 2010.

Another explanation might lie with the other political parties in the municipal council. Could it be that D66 suddenly had the opportunity to propose the duurzaamheidsagenda because of an increase of left-wing, progressive parties that also care about the environment. But looking at another one of dr. Louwerse’s graphs, we see that the left side of the political spectrum has held a relatively majority starting in the 1990’s.

A final explanation could lie with the possibility that D66 as a political party has become more aware of climate issues. If we check the party’s election programme written for the 2010 municipal elections, we find 0 mentions of the word ‘duurzaamheid’ (Dutch for sustainability, the more you know). There’s only three climate-related goals, the likes of more parks and promoting pet welfare. The 2014 programme paints a different picture: duurzaamheid is mentioned 13 times. There are over 5 pages on sustainability, showing a plethora of new goals, including those on climate adaptation. At first glance, this explanation looks promising.

A case that bears similarity to Leiden in all of these aspects is Amsterdam. Looking at the election results from 2006, 2010 and 2014 we can see that the municipal council in this town is also dominated by D66, albeit for a shorter amount of time than Leiden. There has also been a left-wing majority of fairly stable size. And to top it all off, the city also launched its own sustainability agenda in the same year as Leiden did.

Now, can we conclude from this that if you vote for D66, your city will soon have its own climate adaptation goals? Unfortunately, we can’t. There are many more factors at play when it comes to policy analysis and many more cases to consider. It is often only after thorough scientific research (which, to state the obvious, this blog post is not) that we can uncover why certain decisions were made. The factors that I looked at could however provide an entry point for actual research. I also hope that I’ll make readers reflect on their own hometowns (lack of) green initiatives. Every initiative, however small, helps.



2 thoughts on “How local politics put climate adaptation on the agenda”

  1. Hi, great post. As you are concluding the main factor for bringing duurzamheid on the agenda more prominently might have been a change inside D66, would you then say that it could be an effective way forward if citizens and organisations start to lobby relevant party politicians directly and individually on sustainability? The benefit being that if you get to the right people, they can put it higher on the agenda of their respective party


    1. Hi! Thanks for commenting. I’d say that all factors I looked at may or may not play a part in putting climate adaptation on the local political agenda. More comparative research between multiple cities, or deep qualitative research of the Leiden case might tell us more. But to respond to your question, I believe that lobbying works, even if you’re not a professional lobbyist in the west wing. If a certain part of the electorate would be willing to lobby specifically on sustainability related issues, it would be my hope and expectation to see some things change.


Comments are closed.