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Can Authoritarian Regimes be Climate Resilient? Not Likely

Bashar_and_Asmaa_al-Assad_in_MoscowWilliam Goodyear of the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University recently asked an excellent question in response to something we said in an interview on climate change and Syria. The question is: “Is Climate-proofing a Tool for Dictators?”

To get definitions out of the way, our use of the term “climate-proofing” referred to the practice of ensuring that one’s governance structures are able to anticipate and absorb current and projected climatic changes, without significant harm. Mr. Goodyear’s concern was that: “pursuing ‘climate friendly’ governmental policies could be used as tools for keeping dictators and tyrants in power.”

That’s a very legitimate concern, particularly as authoritarian regimes, past and present, have often deployed half-baked “service provision” strategies for maintaining security and stability, and dulling the appeal of dissent.

However, a number of studies demonstrate that part of “climate-proofing” may involve developing a greater level of participatory governance, and authoritarian regimes obviously do not do so by definition.

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 Fredriksson and Neumayer’s literature review), have high levels of corruption (see Gilley), and are less capable of, or willing to, adapt to rapidly-changing external and internal circumstances that effect their publics.

In the Syrian context, 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, never mind its climate change policies (see Acemoglu and Robinson on the weak incentive structures of such nondemocracies).

And even if authoritarian regimes attempt to maintain continuity and stability by improving their climate change or natural resource management practices, the historical record shows that such “improvements” can only go so far, and that’s not nearly as far as democracies can go. This is shored up by the aforementioned Frederiksson and Neumayer study, where the authors state:

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 usually 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 (see Rafe Sagarin), just as a national energy infrastructure would be more resilient if it had more “distributed energy.”

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

Based on this evidence, it seems that authoritarian regimes are not climate-proof by their very nature. And our suspicion is that if such regimes attempted to appease their respective publics through trying to improve their climate change policies, they would likely fall short, both because true climate-resilience would require healthier levels of citizen participation, and because climate-related problems are clearly not the only ones plaguing such societies.

In other words, “climate-proofing” would surely not be a silver bullet for the al-Assads of the world. Dictators could not use it as a tool for maintaining their viability, unless they were prepared to loosen their own grip on power, and cease to be dictators.

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