Is Climate-proofing a Tool for Dictators?

I came across this interview last Wednesday with Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia of the Center for Climate and Security talking about the ways in which climate change impacted the violence in Syria. There is a lot of meat to the article, but I found one quote particularly striking – I’ll post it here:

“In other words, doing something about climate change is not going to bring world peace, in and of itself. However, it is very important that governments and the international community recognize that we can do something about mitigating climate change and also adapting to the risks. Governments can climate-proof their infrastructure: We’re talking about better water practices, better irrigation techniques. It also means climate-proofing institutions we normally don’t think of as associated with climate change, such as health infrastructure.”

I found the idea of “climate-proofing” government institutions to be really interesting. It seems to me that often the best forms of “climate-proofing” are just good governance to begin with – i.e. improving access to healthcare, ensuring an equitable and efficient distribution of clean water in rural areas, etc.

If that is the case, though, does it really make sense to talk about “climate proofing” as a tool of governance that any regime can use to shore up control over their citizenry? For example, given what we know about the Assad regime could it have ever employed “climate-proofing” without a radical shift in strategy – one that might have been equally destabilizing to the regime as the climate changes it sought to mitigate?

My worry here is that pursuing “climate friendly” governmental policies could be used as tools for keeping dictators and tyrants in power. I would love to hear what Werrell and Femia think about that and how they would answer the above questions. In any case, it’s something for me to grapple with for a while.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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3 thoughts on “Is Climate-proofing a Tool for Dictators?

  1. Pingback: Can Authoritarian Regimes be Climate Resilient? Not Likely | The Center for Climate & Security

  2. Hi Will,

    Good points – and it’s a legitimate worry. Your comments feed into a larger debate about the capacities of different forms of government to respond to climate change (see for example Fredriksson:http://www2.lse.ac.uk/geographyAndEnvironment/whosWho/profiles/neumayer/pdf/Democratic-Capital-and-Climate-Change-Policies.pdf), Gilley: http://www.web.pdx.edu/~gilleyb/Gilley_AuthoritarianEnvironmentalism.pdf, Held and Harvey: http://www.policy-network.net/publications_detail.aspx?ID=3406). In the context of our comments, “climate-proofing” simply means ensuring that one’s governance structures are able to anticipate and absorb current and projected climatic changes, without significant harm. But studies demonstrate that part of that “climate-proofing” requires more participatory governance – and authoritarianism obviously doesn’t provide that.

    For example, evidence suggests that authoritarian regimes are far less resilient (and thus, less climate resilient) than more open or democratic societies, partly because they are generally unaccountable to the needs of their citizens (see the aforementioned Fredriksson’s literature review), have high levels of corruption (see Gilley above), and are less capable of, or willing to, adapt to rapidly-changing external and internal circumstances that effect their publics. Al-Assad’s regime, due to its authoritarian nature and general “deafness” to the grievances of the Syrian public, particularly in agricultural areas, seems to have had very little incentive to improve its natural resource management practices, nevermind its climate policies (see Acemoglu and Robinson on this dynamic in the historical record: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/pg/modules/ec928/details/arbdist.pdf&embedded=true). And even if, as you suggest is possible, authoritarian regimes attempt to maintain continuity and stability by improving their climate change or natural resource management practices, the historical record shows that such attempts can only go so far (and that’s not far at all). This is shored up by the Frederiksson study which states: “Using data classifying countries as democracies and autocracies going as far back as the year 1800, we find that democratic capital has a robust positive effect on national and multi-lateral policies addressing climate change.”

    Societal inputs in authoritarian regimes are so low, and decision-making so potentially (and actually) arbitrary, given the concentration of power and wealth in a very small number of individuals and other factors common in autocracies, that good governance and sustainable natural resource management are rarely the result (Gilley’s example of China is a good one). Resilience, in our view, requires a healthy degree of “distributed power” across a populace (Rafe Sagarin is compelling on this subject: http://rafesagarin.com/learning-from-octopuses/), just as a national energy infrastructure would be more resilient if it has more “distributed energy.”

    It does not follow that more open or democratic societies are always more sustainable or climate resilient, but evidence suggests that they are generally far better at it. Winston Churchill’s famous quote comes to mind…

    Based on this evidence, we believe that authoritarian regimes are not climate-proof by their very nature. And our suspicion is that if such regimes attempt to appease their respective publics through trying to improve their climate change policies, that would still fall well short of addressing their myriad grievances, which go far beyond the climate-related. This would surely not be a silver bullet for the al-Assad’s of the world.

    But again, thanks for bringing this up. It’s an important discussion to have!

    Best,
    Francesco and Caitlin

    • Hi Francesco and Caitlin,

      First of all, I want to say that I am a big fan of the work you guys do at the Center for Climate and Security and am really honored that you even found our blog – much less read and responded to my post! It means a lot, thanks!

      You bring some really interesting and useful information to this discussion. Actually, its interesting that you bring up the point about “resilience” and “distributed power;” just after I read your article I read this one about democratizing energy systems and that prompted me to ask the questions in the first place.

      I think its becoming clearer that the most effective climate, environment, energy, etc. policies are the ones that depend on the participation of and benefit local communities. At the same time, I think there are policies that regimes can pursue that benefit the environment and improve their livelihoods of the people they govern (and therefore their own internal stability) without necessarily opening themselves up to greater democratization. Here I am thinking of some highly funded and publicized alternative energy projects in the Gulf, for example.

      So I agree with you that improving climate resilience needs to go hand in hand with a greater distribution of power across a given society, but I wonder if you guys have found that the “power distribution” part of the equation gets neglected when its being discussed in security circles, especially in the Middle East? Or do you think that security figures in this region tend to treat “climate proofing” as a technocratic solution to what might be a democratic problem?

      Thanks again for responding to my post with such an informed and helpful answer! I really hope that you will keep reading the Strategist and look forward to continuing to discussing these issues with you in the future!

      Best regards,
      Will

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