15 November 2019


Is Greta Thunberg Revealing the Weakness of Global Constitutionalism?

by Omar Makimov Pallotta

Few days ago, a remarkable number of people gathered in 123 countries and 2050 cities in order to put pressure on power-holders, urging them to act on climate change. This movement – called Fridays for future – was inspired, as most of you already know, by Greta Thunberg, a 16-years old Swedish girl who is school-striking every single Friday in front of the national parliament, in the name – it goes without saying – of the environment.

At this stage, the movement is showing a sort of embryonic organization (website, emails, social media accounts, both on the global and local level) and, since the protests seem likely to continue in the following months, it has wisely provided for a formalization of the different kind of strikes that the movement itself is going to support. Thus, it’s possible to distinguish between weekly global strikes (single-country level), big strikes (when one or two countries create “fireworks”) and, finally, deep strikes (global level: that’s what happened on March 15th).

Climate change is no doubt the political topic of the century and the current procrastination syndrome that is affecting national and supranational decision-making hubs seems to be only functional to their respective de-responsabilisation. Therefore, we are now witnessing the rise of an

unprecedented environmentally-conscious global civil society and, simultaneously, an embarrassing shrinking of the main (glocal) political actors from the issues put on the table by the Fridays for future movement.

The current short-circuit proves that society sometimes runs way faster than politics, let alone law. As pointed out by John Keane, «an ethic of global civil society puts pressure on any and all actors – within the governmental or nongovernmental domains – who are tempted to play dangerous games with humankind and its biosphere. This universal ethic heaps doubt on their arrogance. It calls upon them to restrain themselves» (1).

There is an unbridgeable gap between the current ethic of global civil society and the global decision making processes: the latter is still stuck in a last-century-dimension, in which the State is the main (only?) actor. As a matter of fact, the Fridays for future movement is well aware of the mentioned gap, since Greta herself gave a remarkable speech during the last COP24 in Katowice, thus trying to put pressure on… parties to an international Convention. In fact, the UNFCCC was originally signed 27 years ago and is, to this day, the old-fashioned cornerstone of the supranational climate regime.

While global civil society proves to have finally found its own subjective dimension, global politics is still a matter of intra-state relationship. This means that any action to comprehensively tackle, let’s say, climate change, must follow an intergovernmental method. This frequently leads to what has been called “diplomatic failure in decision making”, since inter-national dialogue is mainly based on diplomacy and diplomacy means balancing different (national) interests: a game that usually ends in a tie. And ties are not what Greta and her supporters are searching for.

Global civil society, however, is faced with a brick wall that practically rules out any possibility to reach any transparent, democratic, legitimate decision, capable of realistically binding the whole global community. And the high wall has been built by the States themselves, that fear to lose portions of their own sovereignty. There’s an ocean between the emerging Weltgesellschaft and global decision making processes. Most of the people who rallied on March 15th are well aware of this. That’s the reason why the Fridays for future movement has provided itself with a multi-level action plan, which has among its targets also national and local parliaments.

We cannot say whether the existence of a conscious global civil society will lead, one day, to a political unification of the planet in the name of values such as tolerance, pluralism, democracy and peace (2). Nothing, however, gives us hope that this process may start within a reasonable time. In the light of the adopted perspective, what we can learn from Greta Thunberg’s protest, then? Surely, that we all must be rather cautious when talking about global constitutionalism. As authoritatively pointed out, «constitutionalism somehow suggests a progression towards a global polity or even federal union that appears problematic» (3).

Thus, constitutionalism should be only applied to the inter-national legal order – at least for now – «to legally frame activities of international institutions in light of first principles» (4). The Fridays for future movement, then, has shown us – if proof was needed – that global citizens are quite ready for a responsive global governance. Global governance, however, is far away from reaching a true constitutional dimension.

The mentioned problems are likely to prevent the creation of a virtuous circle where inputs coming from global society tend to match the outputs produced by global decision making processes. As a matter of fact, this is something that may be only achieved when the involved communities share the same values and, last but not least, when those values are enshrined in a Charter that attributes normative power to a representative body. And this is apparently the furthest thing from what the global order now is.

(1) J. Keane, Global Civil Society?, Cambridge, 2003, 209

(2) As deemed by many authors. See in this respect D. Zolo, Globalizzazione. Una mappa dei problemi, Roma-Bari, 52-53

(3) See A. V. Bogdandy, M. Goldmann, I. Venzke, From Public International Law to International Public Law: Translating World Public Opinion into International Public Authority, in EJIL, n. 28, 1/2017, 129

(4) Id., 128.

*Omar Makimov Pallotta is Ph.D. candidate in Global Studies. Justice, Rights, Politics at the University of Macerata.

Twitter: @pallottaomar | LinkedIn: Omar Pallotta

The information and views set out in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Good Lobby.