Chile’s constitutional fight over climate change

For the past year, Chile was closely watched as an assembly of elected officials wrote what was shaping up to be the world’s first constitution to confront the climate crisis. But change is hard. The proposal was firmly rejected on Sunday by 62 percent of Chilean voters.

The proposed constitution made the environment a consideration in almost every aspect of society and governance, from education to monetary policy. It required the state to cooperate internationally to adapt to and confront the climate crisis. It mentioned nature dozens of times, granted nature its own rights to be protected, and created an agency to defend them. Beyond that, the proposal also enshrined more than 100 new constitutional rights, from abortion to housing.

Despite Sunday’s vote, Chile isn’t done. There is strong consensus across the political spectrum that the existing constitution must be reformed. We don’t know how yet, but the effort will likely continue.

Why it didn’t work this time

Constitutional changes happen in democracies when “there has been such an important change in society that institutions are rendered out of date,” said Pamela Figueroa, a professor at the University of Santiago Chile who researches constitutions.

Many democracies can modify their constitutions through amendments or referendums — and even that process can be far from straightforward. What pushed Chileans to totally rewrite theirs?

The current constitution was put in place in 1980 by one of the bloodiest dictatorships in Latin America. Chilean society has certainly changed since then. That was made dramatically clear starting in 2019, when Chileans staged enormous protests.

Critics of the 1980 constitution felt that it created gruesome inequality by giving too much power to the private sector. Among other things, corporations control many water resources, health care services and pension funds. In 2020, the government held a referendum to ask citizens if they wanted a change, and four out of five Chileans voted to replace the constitution.

After such an emphatic vote for change, some observers were surprised by the size of the proposal’s defeat. It made clear that this draft didn’t reflect popular opinion. “It appears clear that it was too ambitious, it was too much change,” my colleague Jack Nicas told me from Santiago, where he was covering the vote.

One reason Chileans rejected the proposal may have been the lack of dialogue across the political spectrum during the constitution-building process. As a former leftist president told Nicas, the proposal was “extremely partisan.”

In assembling the constitution-writing committee, known as the “constituent assembly” or Constitutional Convention, Chileans elected numerous outsiders, such as scientists and journalists, with little to no political experience. Leftists had the majority of seats, rendering input from conservatives almost unnecessary to approve any part of the proposed constitutional text.

In the end, a lot of issues that were approved by the assembly were contentious in the rest of society. The roster of new rights to Indigenous people, which included governing their territories and having their own court system, were among the most polarizing.

How it could work in the future

After Sunday’s defeat, it seems clear that political parties and leaders from across the spectrum are going to come together and figure out what’s next, Nicas told me. He added, though, that it’s unlikely any new proposal with more input from conservatives will enshrine as many protections to nature.

Still, in a country where 91 percent of people believe climate change should be a priority for the government, environmental issues will likely have a meaningful place in whatever Chileans ultimately approve.

While climate wasn’t Chileans’ main concern when they decided to change the constitution, it was certainly a major one. As my colleague Somini Sengupta wrote when she visited Chile, there was a pointed interest in transforming the country’s economic model, which is based on mining and natural resources. Some people saw it as too costly to the environment and to the Indigenous people who were left to live with the consequences.

Take lithium mining for example. Though key to Chile’s economy, it has put a strain on water resources in some of the country’s most vulnerable regions.

President Gabriel Boric is developing new regulations that could make these mining activities more sustainable. But, if approved, the new constitution would have given his administration much bigger authority to enact protections.

In a moment when polarization is so prominent in public debate around the world, many Chileans were proud that their country chose to tackle its problems by improving institutions. Though this path is clearly complicated, it could offer a lesson for other nations.

“It showed how you can solve very complex crises through dialogue and democracy,” Figueroa told me. “But it doesn’t mean problems will be solved overnight.”

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