For most of its recent history, Mexican democracy has been a story of gridlock. With three dominant parties in a system in which a majority is needed to accomplish anything in the legislative realm, the opposition parties typically align to deny any significant changes to the status quo. And when the occasional reform is passed –say, with the long overdue oil reform that was approved in 2008– it is often so weak that it ends up being entirely ineffective.
While the prevailing do-nothing ethos is largely a product of political expediency –if you see politics as a zero-sum game, than why hand unnecessary victories to the president and his party?– it also reflects ideological differences between the three parties that on many issues are simply insuperable. Much of the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) has a statist approach to the political economy that its counterparts in other nations tossed aside with the end of the Cold War. The right-leaning National Action Party has embraced a liberal economic outlook that that is diametrically opposed to the PRD. The ideologically amorphous Party of the Institutional Revolution has elements in each camp, but is ordinarily a force for legislative obstruction rather than reform.
But on environmental issues, the support of right-leaning president Felipe Calderón has confounded the ideological patterns undermining support for the modern democratic era. Whereas locked horns are the prevailing dynamic on most issues, the president’s embrace of a progressive approach to the environment has helped create a basis for consensus. And while Calderón often receives attention for what’s going wrong in Mexico, his signal achievement in office may turn out to be the international climate agreement that Calderón’s foreign minister, Patricia Espinosa, was essential in engineering during the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun in December 2010. Thanks to that conference, the world’s major economies all agreed to targets for emissions reductions by 2020 and achieved some degree of harmony on this issue that has always divided developed and developing nations.
Following the conference in Cancun, Harvard climate expert Robert Stavins wrote that Mexico’s stewardship could have a lasting impact on the global approach to combating climate change.
“Mexico’s adept leadership also made sure smaller countries were able to contribute fully and join any meetings they wanted, avoiding the sense of exclusivity that alienated some parties in Copenhagen. That’s a sign that Mexico is one of the key “bridging states” that have credibility in both worlds.”
While that episode made the largest impression internationally of any of Calderón’s recent doings on the environment, his commitment to green policies is longstanding, and has been on display periodically throughout his presidency. He announced a national climate change strategy within a few months of his arrival to power in December 2006. In meetings with political and business leaders from across the globe at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he has repeatedly pushed for different ways to use economic forces to boost environmentally friendly policies. In June 2009, Calderón proposed a $10 billion fund to be administered by the World Bank, for countries to draw on to mitigate the ill effects of climate change, a version of which was included in the Cancún Agreements.
In December, on the heels of the Cancún triumph, Calderón promised to phase out all incandescent light bulbs in Mexico over the next four years. Around the same time, his finance minister, Ernesto Cordero, announced a plan to reduce greenhouse emissions by half by 2050. And to reiterate, while the Republican Party is locked into a feedback loop of climate denialism, this is a right-wing leader pushing these policies.
But Calderón isn’t the only heavyweight politician embracing environmental policies. Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard of the PRD has also earned a reputation for green policies, among them a new trash-separating campaign to improve recycling and a program to increase the use of bicycles in the smoggy capital. Ebrard has a decent chance of becoming president at some point in the future –he is already campaigning for his party’s nomination for the 2012 presidency, but if you believe the polls, 2018 seems a more likely for an Ebrard victory– so this pro-green instinct that Calderón has cultivated could grow in the years to come.
A cynical response to all this would be that it’s mostly window-dressing; Mexico hasn’t done anything beyond make promises for the future and announce some minor attention-getting changes. Furthermore, even if Mexico radically reduces its carbon footprint, with just one-sixtieth of the world’s population and the eleventh largest economy in the world, there’s a limit to what it can accomplish.
There’s certainly an element of truth to this, but Mexico appears to be one of the nations ahead of the curve on this issue, which is clearly something worth celebrating. And the dedication of a PAN stalwart, a conservative true believer in many respects, has the potential to shape an enduring pro-green coalition in Mexico, and turn environmentalism into an example of democratic efficiency, rather than stalemate.