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An Environmental Governance System after Overthrowing the Regime

Photo: Nikahang Kowsar

Iran is undergoing a tumultuous period, with people taking to the streets in response to the tragic death of Mahsa Amini. The protests have been met with a heavy-handed response from security forces, leading to numerous fatalities and mass arrests. At the same time, the population is grappling with the effects of worsening air pollution and a water shortage in many parts of the country.

One major topic that is now getting hotter these days is the state of Iran’s environment. Many experts agree that the current environmental governance is unsustainable, but most critics lack any sort of executive experience and have not proposed any alternatives to Iran’s environmental protection structure.

Professor Kaveh Madani is a notable figure in the environmental sphere, having served as the deputy head of the Department of Environment in Iran for a six-month period. In 2017, he left his job at Imperial Colledge in London, but after facing intense pressure and threats, he decided to go into exile in early 2018. After five years away from Iran, Dr. Madani was recently appointed as the Director of the United Nations University Institute of Water, Environmental and Health (UNU-INWEH) on February 1st. I had the opportunity to speak with him before his flight from Europe to Canada in January.

Ehsan Daneshvar: Dr. Madani, as you have a comprehensive understanding of the system, do you believe that it has the capability to protect itself from ongoing uprisings or revolutions?

Kaveh Madani: It doesn't matter if the people want to overthrow the current regime or reform it in some way or another or if they favor the Islamic Republic. It’s no longer working, and it would be one big failure.

E.D.: One of the factors in saving and sustaining the country is protecting the environment and Iran’s natural resources, but experts have raised serious concerns about it. Are the Iranian people paying attention to the alarming signs and warnings raised on issues affecting the preservation and sustainability of the country?

K.M.: Unfortunately, much is not being said about the environment in this situation, and that's pretty worrying, but it's very understandable at the same time. Why? Because when people's fundamental rights, the very basic human rights, are violated, they can’t think about the environment and the future.

When people are suffering from hunger, and they are unemployed, they don’t have the bandwidth to think about or even care about the endangered species and the future of water resources, of a country, wetlands, lakes, and so on, because what matters to them is short term and survival.

People in society and people in survival mode don’t normally think much about the environment, and that’s very unfortunate because unless you care about the environment as one of the pillars of sustainable development, long-term survival is not guaranteed.

E.D.: Is there a clear solution to this? Are there any reasonable examples to follow?

K.M.: When it comes to the environment, there is no clear answer to how the environment and natural resources should be governed within any political structure. Different countries have decided to structure their environmental governance system differently, and they have different conclusions.

While you can cite and refer to some examples, and positive experiences, you can not claim that by replicating those systems, you can guarantee a sustainable environment for a country.

In the case of Iran, the environment is supposedly being watched by the department of environment which is managed by one of the vice presidents of the country, In the past we have heard many concerns about the structure and people have suggested that turning the department into the Ministry of Environment, this government body could become stronger, and better protect the environment, but some opponents of this opinion, like myself, argue that the result as easy as you think, unless the country as a whole at the highest level decides to treat the environment differently, plus in the current governance system in Iran you can create a lot of other issues by turning the department of environment into a ministry, because after that, essentially the boss and the main protector of the environment of the country must get approved and respond to and satisfy the parliament members, and we are talking about a parliament that has actually had a tremendous impact on the environmental degradation of Iran by pushing different unsustainable development plans, and if you are looking at what is happening right now in Iran, I think the current number of approved projects by the parliament that lack environmental impact assessments are 411, and this is clearly illegal. Still, the parliament has decided to overlook this matter and proceed with their development plans, thinking that this is beneficial for the country and creates a positive economic impact.

E.D.: Can the general public exert influence and advocate for reasonable changes to take place?

K.M.: The first thing to note here is that any government structure that we establish has pros and cons; we want the governance system to be decentralized, inclusive and just, free of corruption, transparent, legally functional, and solid, but this cannot be achieved unless the society and their leaders understand the importance of the protection of natural resources and the environment of a country. So, if you do that, you can go after changing and revising the country’s economic development, and we are seeing that in the world after Covid. Even in most advanced economies, the environment was marginalized at a time when people were fighting for survival. Even now, we are on the verge of a big recession.

E.D.: So, if I’m getting this right, you’re saying that regardless of national problems or global issues, there needs to be a structural change. Right? Now, who’s supposed to take charge of leading the necessary environmental reforms?

K.M.: Going back, one important thing is that if we have these challenges at a global level, one can easily create a solid and effective environmental governance system after overthrowing a regime or if we give a chance to revise the environmental structure system fully. I think no matter which system you pick, what we see has pros and cons. At the end of the day, governments are getting re-elected in many countries, and most get reelected and their top concern. Environmental protection has long-term benefits, but in the short run, normally, you have more strict environmental measures. You are imposing costs to society, like raising the price of energy, raising the price of water, or imposing any environmental tax. There would be people who are affected, and jobs can get affected, so it’s not trivial to really impose stricter environmental measures. Governments normally escape that, so now let’s go back to the question of Iran; for example, should environmental protection, either a ministry or a department, be given to a government or even given to the president that’s being elected by the system whose ministers must be approved by the parliament.

The question is whether you have to give it to the executive branch of the government or not. If you do, you see the situation you are witnessing now in Iran[with how the environment is being protected]. Now, as an alternative, you can give environmental protection to the judiciary branch of the system, assuming that they can protect the country’s natural resources and essentially protect the rights of different generations.

E.D.: Suppose you think handing the department to the government’s executive branch is inappropriate, as we have seen the challenges in Iran, the United States, or elsewhere. How about giving it to the legislative branch?

K.M.: In the case of Iran, the legislative branch can create issues and be defective and ineffective because the legislative branch is also composed of people who are elected and re-elected, and they become short-term benefit maximizers. We see the challenges that we have seen in Iran.

Now the other option that people normally suggest is giving it to the judiciary branch. Again, the system of getting elected or appointing them usually is different. People have long-term positions, and they also have the trust of society in properly governed systems, but again giving it in the hands of the judges and the judiciary system would not make the environment necessarily free of danger; why? Because if the judicial system is corrupted and unfunctional in any way, as it happens in many countries, handing it to the judiciary would not save the environment.

People could argue that with a better understanding of the value of natural resources and understanding that these resources belong to all generations of the country and the whole nation, we may need a new branch to control and protect the environment.

E.D.: You mean we’ll need a fourth branch?

K.M.: Whether we have to create a fourth branch of government that is charged with essentially protecting natural resources of the country and protecting it against other branches that have sort of other natural objectives, people think they could balance the conflict of interest issues, which is an interesting proposal, but again and again, if any of these systems are corrupted or not remaining loyal to the constitution, and laws of the country, it really doesn’t matter who you give it to and who will be in charge, because the environment will not be protected.

So what we need to understand is the attitude of the nation. Have the people and society really understood the value and importance of the environment? I’m afraid that still, in a world with advanced and developing economies, we are not there yet! We have strong evidence that we are still not afraid of what can happen to the human species due to what we do to nature. That’s why we have not been able to solve the problems like climate change or many other environmental issues that we see worldwide.

E.D.: Talking about the people, how do you envision the public having a different role in managing the environment after the revolution?

K.M.: The transition to a system that is inclusive, just and decentralized, and involved is not an easy thing and will not happen overnight, and necessarily through a revolution or a simple reform unless the attitude of the nation changes toward the environment and unless the way that the politicians and the society value the environment, and understand the urgency and the importance of environmental matters and change.

We know the principles and what we want the environmental system to be like, but we really don’t know what structure can guarantee that at this point. I’m afraid we don’t have many successful examples to present as even the most advanced economies are known for caring about the environment and are not also jeopardizing the environmental protection movements when their economies are under pressure, or they want to please society’s big businesses or get re-elected.


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