Climate change is a reality for everyone, no matter who or where they are, and climate action is necessary. States play a central role in financing research and developing solutions. They are also central in creating the necessary framework to force industries to change. Some argue that democratic governments are not equipped to deal with climate change and that authoritarian regimes are needed to act. Others, on the contrary, argue that current authoritarian leaders and the growing right-wing populist governments around the world are not fighting this oncoming climate crisis, as they prefer to keep to business-as-usual even if it leads to unregulated climate change. In practice, authoritarian and populist leaders have, indeed, worse records in terms of climate action than democratically elected ones and are often climate deniers.
One might argue that autocracies would be effective at fighting climate change because their centralisation and limited civil liberties help to implement costly and unpopular measures. Still, for a successful long-term implementation, there is a need for coordination and support from lower administrative levels. Quantitative research on several countries’ policies has shown that authoritarian regimes do not do better than democracies at reducing their emissions and fighting climate change, on the contrary.
Protecting the environment, on the other hand, tends to be more of a priority for democracies. This is thanks to their more effective governance, their higher engagement with the global climate institutions, voters’ pressure on the government, and the freedom of science and of information. However, even with democracies, climate action can be difficult. Governance can be hindered by corruption, which can severely affect the progress of climate policies. Business interests can lobby against those policies, and governments can be short-sighted. Moreover, democratisation and unsustainable economic development can lead to deforestation and other environmental degradations. Still, democracies are the most effective system to fight climate change compared to authoritarian regimes. As a result, the sustainable democratisation of autocracies and the protection of democratic institutions is not just desirable, it is of the utmost importance.
The consequences of the climate crisis and associated environmental stress are already being felt in some countries. This makes the process of democratisation even more important to enable appropriate responses to crises. Environmental crises are already leading to political destabilisation, such as in the Middle East where farmers joined ISIS following droughts. The instrumentalisation of the 2015 so-called “migrant crisis” fuelled people’s sense of insecurity and instability. In the future, the number of environmentally displaced persons will grow. This could lead to a further instrumentalisation of people’s fears and growing nationalist and populist sentiments in more developed countries. Additionally, national crises make governments vulnerable to becoming authoritarian regimes, as is the case with the Maldives, where the pro-climate Prime Minister was deposed in a coup and replaced by a new government whose goal is development, regardless of its sustainability.
Authoritarian and populist leaders are gaining ground around the world in recent years with Brazil’s Bolsonaro, China’s Xi, the Philippines’ Duterte, Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdogan, or the US’ Trump. While Duterte has called for more international collective action on climate change, he has also been accused of not doing enough internally. China is an outlier when it comes to both actions and speeches. It has aimed to take a leadership role in climate talks. Its emissions output has started to decrease thanks to an increase in the use of wind and solar power technologies. China is also one of the leading producers, innovators, and providers of wind and solar technologies for both Southern and Northern countries. Still, it has planned to build new coal plants and continues to grow its use of coal. Its reasons to develop renewable technologies stem more from energy security issues, health, air pollution concerns, and responding to its weakening growth model than from a genuine concern for the environment. In China and Southeast-Asia in general, the forces protecting the environment are weak, especially in the face of continued exploitation of natural resources.
Gulf countries are both major perpetrators (with their economies based on oil and gas exporting) and early victims of climate change. Yet, there is no real sign of action, and fossil fuel energy is still subsidised. The UEA has developed a few environmental initiatives but only related to the necessity for diversification in prevision for the “after oil,” and even if these are potentially environmentally sustainable, they are not socially sustainable. Climate action in these countries only happens, so far, following external pressures.
Some countries have been called resource nationalist/populist. They include autocratic Russia, as well as populist Poland, India, and the US, or democratic Norway. This means that resources (such as oil and gas in the case of Russia, for example) are essential to all their policies, even those unrelated to energy. As such, those countries have to continue exploiting those resources if they want to continue their current model of development and growth, regardless of global consequences, which are often not even acknowledged. Conspiracy theories characterise the discourse related to this resource nationalism in Russia. Furthermore, the exploitation of resources is justified and framed as the solution to Russia’s and other developing countries’ problems.
The growing populist movement in Europe is also a fertile ground for this vision of the environment and of resources as something to be used for one’s gains. Right-wing populist parties can exhibit a so-called “green patriotism” where they support environmental conservation but not climate action. Climate policies in Poland and Hungary, where populist governments are in power, have scaled back their climate policies as much as they could under EU regulations (and the Danish People Party, while not in government, managed to affect negatively Danish climate policies). Most are hostile to international cooperation. In their manifestos, they are all either sceptical or silent on the climate issue, with a general hostility towards renewables and scientists. In practice, right-wing populist members of the European Parliament have consistently voted against resolutions on energy and climate issues since 2015.
This trend can also be found in the USA under Trump who took the US out of the five greenhouse gas emissions strategies agreed under the Paris Agreement, as well as the Paris agreement itself. Trump’s policies also demonstrate the aforementioned distrust of international organisations and the delegitimisation of environmental science. There is, in addition, a relegitimisation of fossil fuels. They are not just framed as a nationalist issue to protect insiders. There is a change of language through example such as the renaming of fossil fuels as “molecules of freedom”. This is to do away with the negative connotation associated with the term “fossil fuels”.
Brazil, before Bolsonaro’s election, had been a frontrunner in climate change policy and environmental diplomacy. Since his election, the country has withdrawn from hosting the COP25. Every mention of the word “climate” has disappeared from the ministries’ structure. The department in charge of combatting deforestation has been cut. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, a known climate denier, has called climate change a dogma to ‘suffocate the economic growth of capitalist, democratic countries’. The Minister of Environment has shifted the focus from deforestation to sanitation, water, and air pollution. Moreover, plans for mining and deforestation in the Amazon regions are back on the agenda and seem to be focuses of the new government policy.
These are only a few examples of the current (lack of) climate policies by authoritarian and populist leaders. Although most populist leaders have not completely gotten out of previous policies and agreements like Brazil and the US have, they are generally sceptical of climate action. This is especially true if climate action challenges economic development and nationalist ideology. Discourse on the benefits of fossil fuels for development is still widely used by populist and authoritarian leaders. Even authoritarian states who, like China, posit themselves as climate champions, do not “walk the talk” when it comes to reducing their emissions. Democracies are not exempt from hypocrisy when it comes to climate action, but they far outperform their authoritarian counterparts. The trend of populist and authoritarian leaders gaining ground around the world is worrying if we want to prevent the climate crisis that is upon us. If we want to fight the incoming climate crisis, fighting for democracy is not just desirable, but necessary.
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Alix Gabaude has B.A. in International Relations from the University of Nottingham in the UK and is completing a M.Sc in European Studies from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Her focus is on multi-level governance in sustainable development and climate change.