For many Europeans, last summer was one of the worst in living memory, and not only because of the cruel war on their eastern flank or the return of inflation. Even more important, from a long-term perspective, it was the public’s realization that the continent is far more vulnerable than expected to changing environmental conditions. As Europe experiences the warmest winter on record, it must prepare for more climate upheaval, from substantially warmer temperatures to variable water resources, both of which pose a fundamental political challenge to the European project.
For decades, Europeans have concealed the deeply political nature of European integration behind an economic project focused on ensuring the free flow of goods, capital, services and people between member states. It has worked because the single market can rely on a vast legacy of infrastructure and institutions to ensure its material security. Goods can travel safely across the continent because roads are, for the most part, free from floods. European farmers can produce food, thanks to centuries of reclamation and benign rainfall. Financial centers can operate at the rhythm of capital markets, because their workers do not have to wade through rivers on their way to work or carry buckets for hours to secure water for their families.
The infrastructure and institutions that convert the climate into such predictable operating conditions are an inheritance, financed, in Europe’s case, by colonial resources and, more recently, by the Marshall Plan, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and member states’ own treasuries. All helped establish the legitimacy of modern European states.
However, the past summer and the anomalous winter that has followed provide abundant evidence of the ongoing demise of Europe’s once-favorable human geography — and that the continent’s constructed landscape, finely tuned to earlier climate conditions, is no longer fit for purpose. Last year, drought crippled Spain, Greece and Italy. Central European rivers — centuries-old transport routes for goods reaching the heart of the continent — ran dry. Then, the continent was hit with monsoon-level quantities of rainfall, owing to above-average sea temperatures in the Mediterranean. October was the warmest on record, as was last month. As more variable conditions set in, this is likely to be the new normal.
Despite this increasingly radical environmental shift, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s proposal to mobilize funds to accelerate the transition to a green economy — her response to US President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act — had little to say about Europe’s ability to withstand physical changes.
Europe’s citizens and their institutions must therefore answer a question that goes to the heart of their civic compact: Who will decide, plan, finance, pay for, and build the infrastructure and institutions needed to adapt the constructed landscape to Europe’s new physical reality? Until this question is answered, Europeans will find that they are increasingly unable to ignore the changes happening to the continent’s climate as they go about their daily lives.
THE NEW FRONTIER
The EU has had an adaptation strategy since 2013 and acknowledged the issue’s growing importance as recently as 2021. However, given the surprise with which most member states have responded to last summer’s events, and the egregious failures to mitigate their impact, the strategy’s reliance on national plans and local adaptation strategies is simply not adequate to the task at hand. Both the scale of the resources involved and the degree of sovereignty needed to transform the landscape to achieve climate security imply that the integration project that Europe has been pursuing since the 1951 Treaty of Paris now faces a “constitutional moment.”
Physical changes to the environment will challenge all member states, but some of those that are most exposed are in southern Europe and are too indebted or too small to be able to afford the amount of investment required. Europeans will have to rely on each other even more than in the past if they are going to succeed in adapting to increasingly severe climate change. Europeans should recognize that managing changing climate conditions is akin to having a new European frontier.
The frontier is a liminal place where society and a challenging environment meet. According to the 19th-century historian Frederick Jackson Turner, the US’ own political and social culture was forged by this collision of forces. As people moved west, the country became ever more American and ever less European: Prevailing over the wilderness shaped pioneer culture and American democracy, too, Turner said.
Turner’s “frontier thesis” was steeped in mythical American exceptionalism and bogus “manifest destiny,” but it captures a simple idea: that what defines a society and its governing political institutions is the process of constant renewal that difficult material conditions make necessary. A political community forms and re-forms in the extreme.
The frontier is not just a geographical location. It is a moral and political boundary where people build infrastructure and forge institutions. It is integral to the formation of the modern state. That is why a changing climate constitutes Europe’s new frontier.
The EU is the most important contemporary republican project. While other places — particularly developing countries — will suffer more from climate change, no other polity is pursuing state-building on the scale that Europe is. Not only has Europe established institutions to underpin the world’s largest consumer market; it is also constructing a political framework to govern a territory as large as the US. In the process, it is building a European identity. Europe must engage in the fundamentally political question of what its physical landscape should look like to ensure human security in the EU.
What people see when they look out their window is integral to the European project. How effective European supranationalism is at controlling the landscape will define the legitimacy of its institutions, which will be undermined if those institutions, designed to protect society, fail to do so.
Consider last summer’s drought, which soon became an existential risk to the Italian economy, occupying the front page of every newspaper in the nation. While most commentators pointed to climate change, the immediate problem was caused by a failure of institutions and infrastructure. The Po, the river that cuts through Italy’s fertile northern plains, went dry. This was not just because spring rainfall was below average, but also because water-storage infrastructure was inadequate to make up for below-average snowfall the previous winter, and because the system of licenses that apportions water among users is insensitive to the amount available. For the most part, people were allowed to behave as if nothing was happening, leading to overextraction.
Then, coinciding with this failure, national elections were called for September. However, Italian political parties did not campaign on promises to implement policies that would help mitigate the next drought. It is precisely this type of political failure that most threatens the bloc.
It is not an accident that both the EU and politicians in its member states struggle to treat the changing physical environment as a high priority in terms of security. After all, both the EU and civic concerns about the environment are rather recent developments in the context of modern constitutional republicanism. The latter was conceived only in 1776, when 13 British colonies proclaimed a government based not on some transcendental source of legitimacy, but on the “consent of the governed.” It was born 13 years later, when the US Constitution entered into force, combining an Aristotelian organization of the state with (codified) protections for its citizens.
However, neither the US Constitution nor the ones it inspired back in Europe — in post-revolution France, Poland and elsewhere — mentioned the landscape or the environment as a constitutional subject. They were concerned with suffrage and individual rights, not with the physical landscape in which the relationship between citizens and the state plays out. Even today, the physical world is not strictly a constitutional subject in the US. Most environmental statutes are based on the federal government’s authority over interstate commerce.
When another revolutionary wave swept Europe in the middle of the 19th century, it brought to power nationalist and republican movements that would fundamentally alter the continent’s politics. However, it was not until after World War I that concerns for the national landscape entered constitutional compacts. Article 150 of the 1919 German constitution establishing the Weimar Republic states that: “Artistic, historical, and natural monuments and scenery enjoy the protection and care of the State.” Similarly, the relatively short-lived Spanish republican constitution of 1931 referred specifically to the “cultural treasure of the nation,” and charged the state with protecting places of natural beauty. However, none of these provisions spoke to landscape management’s more functional roles, such as the security and predictability that comes with proper water management and other investments in shaping the state’s terrain.
After World War II, the Western world re-established the constitutional state in the French and American tradition; over time, the environment became a constitutional subject in most countries. The Italian constitution of 1948, for example, recognized not just territorial integrity, but what that territory looks like — its cultural content — as something that the state ought to protect. Since then, several more countries have enshrined environmental rights or responsibilities in their charters, and this trickle became a flood after the 1992 Earth Summit. Today, three-quarters of all countries recognize the environment in their constitutions. However, in most cases, the environment is treated as a matter for protection and conservation, not for the delivery of security in the face of climate change.
The EU’s supranational institutions represent the most significant recent step in this longer tradition of republican constitutionalism. While the 2009 Lisbon Treaty superseded any attempt to establish a European state, the normative material from which the EU was formed is firmly republican and constitutional in nature. Even in this case, though, environmental protection, while a high priority in principle, has not delivered a systematic approach to landscape transformation in the service of climate security. To change this, Europeans would do well to recognize the foundational role that strategic management of the landscape played in the formation of the EU.
FROM THE GROUND UP
Jean Monnet, the architect of European integration, was an unusual politician: socialist in his view of the state’s role, but republican, liberal and business-friendly by inclination. Instead of pursuing an elite education, he chose to travel, developing a particular fondness for the US, and a fascination with the American West, the frontier. Monnet’s relationship with the US was rooted in his admiration for the model republic, and in a network of close associates, including David Lilienthal, the first director of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Monnet applied the lessons he learned from the US in laying the foundations for the EU.
Immediately after the war, Monnet was fully engaged in France’s reconstruction as the head of the French General Planning Commission, where he imbued the recovery and modernization efforts with ideas he picked up from Lilienthal’s TVA. One result was the Bas-Rhone-Languedoc project, a river project for public benefit that helped develop the south of France, promoted by Libert Bou, Monnet’s collaborator, and Philippe Lamour, subsequently the founding chairman of the BRL Group, which manages the project to this day.
Monnet was also involved in broader European reconstruction efforts, participating in negotiations over the allocation of the Marshall Plan funds. Here, he saw that there was no way of designing a framework for recovery without addressing the intra-European role played by the German economy. At the time, France was Europe’s biggest coal importer, and Germany was the continent’s largest exporter of it. Much of Europe’s coal came from the Ruhr Valley, a complex system of rivers and canals that had formed Germany’s industrial heartland before being occupied by Allied forces after the war.
Monnet, an incrementalist by nature, devised an economic solution to a political problem. Again, inspired by the experience of the TVA, he proposed a new International Authority for the Ruhr that would govern pooled resources — especially steel, the principal ingredient in most arms production — thus exercising control over German industrial production and mitigating the risk that countries would once again develop their military industries in isolation from each other.
Eventually, this authority evolved into the European Coal and Steel Community, the centerpiece of the Schuman Plan. The community, formed under the 1951 Treaty of Paris, was the first step in European integration, and it was fundamentally political in nature. The process of integration would then continue from the 1957 Treaty of Rome to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which established the EU. The DNA of the European project evolved from the European landscape, and its genetic code carried principles concerning how modernization could be achieved through a suitable relationship between the landscape, its waters and a republican state.
MISSING THE POINT
To be sure, most European citizens today think of supranational European institutions as a bureaucratic regulatory superstructure, not as a political project. However, the new European frontier will force a reconsideration of this view. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that climate change will hit Europe, especially the Mediterranean region, harder than the rest of the northern hemisphere.
These past few months were no fluke. Europe is changing physically, and the coming years will be defined politically by how Europeans respond to these changes. Europe needs a new “modernization” project, and on a scale not seen in a century. It is a fully political project requiring solidarity between countries.
There are signs that European institutions have begun to recognize what is at stake. In 2021, the European Central Bank ran a climate stress test to determine financial institutions’ exposure to physical risks, by simulating how real assets and business would fare in extreme events, from droughts to floods. However, this focus on one-off catastrophes misses the larger story. As important as floods, droughts and other extreme weather events are, what matters even more is the slow, relentless transformation of the landscape.
The decadal shift in climate will destabilize an economy that is calibrated to past conditions. Tourism will move if the physical environment in a once-favored destination becomes unsuitable. Heat will depress productivity and weigh on welfare. Agriculture will suffer from increased aridity. Logistics infrastructure will deteriorate. The economy will prove increasingly maladapted.
Given these risks, one might think that the European political system would be kicking into high gear and charting a new adaptation road map, but just as the EU has struggled to articulate an integrated defense vision, it has also been incapable of establishing a coherent and resourced framework for climate adaptation.
Consider the disbursements earmarked for recovery and resilience. The NextGenerationEU program and the EU’s seven-year budget allocate 2 trillion euros (US$2.2 trillion) to make Europe “greener, more digital and more resilient.” But while investments in green energy and digitization have received ample attention, Europe does not have an adaptation plan that is commensurate to the scale of the problems it faces.
Given what we saw last summer, the test for any investment in resilience should be this: Having spent the funds, do we now have a better chance of coping with the next drought? In the case of Italy, by far the biggest recipient of NextGenerationEU funds — totaling 190 billion euros in grants and loans — some planned investments, such as the 2 billion euros that are set aside for water resource infrastructure (canals, dams and reservoirs) should clear this bar. However, overall, the figures seem too small, and there is not enough coordination to offer any guarantee of improved security.
There was a time, in the early part of the 20th century, when countries around the world acted on a modernist ambition to transform their landscapes so that they would be habitable, cultivable and conducive to industrial development. However, this was a decidedly political project, which meant that it required establishing a vision for the future as a common goal, as well as a credible and politically legitimate path to reach it. Climate change is making some version of this project necessary again.
Europe’s landscape has always been at the heart of the European project. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights states that “a high level of environmental protection and the improvement of the quality of the environment must be integrated into the policies of the Union and ensured in accordance with the principle of sustainable development.” This political commitment is no less important than ensuring peace, freedom and security on the continent.
The EU will need to embrace its role as the underwriter of last resort to achieve resource security at the climate frontier. Europe can no longer afford to operate as if it is only an economic project. It must become a new model republic: a political union forged for a new age and a new environment.
Giulio Boccaletti is an honorary research associate at the University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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