How climate change is undermining democracies in small island nations

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New Deakin University research suggests climate change could be leading to the emergence of authoritarian governments in small-island states.

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Climate change could be contributing to the rise of authoritarian states, through a new phenomenon dubbed “storm autocracies”, new research from Deakin University has found.

Professor Mehmet Ulubasoglu, who leads the Centre for Energy, the Environment and Natural Disasters at Deakin University’s Business School, analysed 60-years of data identifying strong correlations between the timing and frequency of storms impacting small island nations and the rise of instances of government oppression.

The research was a collaboration between Ulubasoglu and Monash University’s Dr Muhammad Habibur Rahman and Professor Nejat Anbarci who has worked at both Deakin and Durham University.

The research draws upon a nation’s Polity Score, a measure of the strength of a country’s democratic systems. Researchers compared changes in the Polity Scores for countries with instances of extreme weather events, observing a rise in autocratic systems of government in the years following substantial storm events.

The rise in the intensity and strength of storms has been a factor linked to the effects of climate change, with Ulubasoglu pointing to climate change as a potential contributor to the rise of authoritarian regimes.

“This research on the effects of storms on political conditions is likely to illuminate the increasingly likely changes in the government-citizen relationship where storm autocracies may become even more prevalent than ever,” Ulubasoglu said.

“It’s yet another unfortunate consequence of our inactivity on climate change that autocracies may continue to rise, thrive and endure.”

The researchers theorised that the disruption that severe storms cause to communities, including the breakdown of day-to-day business and routines, as well as the need for government intervention to support storm recovery, provided an opening for governments to tighten their control over citizens, taking advantage of a period of vulnerability.

Climate change scientists have long predicted the emergence of more intense and more frequent extreme weather events, driven by global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the impacts of climate change would dramatically increase the risk of severe weather events, even under just 2 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels.

“We believe that in the wake of disasters like storms, the government provides their citizens with post-disaster palliative relief, such as aid or financial assistance, and in this window of opportunity they are more able to take steps towards a more autocratic or authoritarian regime,” Ulubasoglu said.

“Citizens are less inclined to resort to an insurgency in these circumstances because of the disaster relief they are accepting as well as the perceived efficiency of more autocratic governments in decision-making during crises.”

“Essentially what we are seeing is a form of mutually-agreed political oppression brought about by a natural disaster.”

Professor Ulubasoglu pointed to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Haiti, Fiji and the Philippines as examples of countries were severe storm events may have been a contributor for why they had remained so over longer periods of time.

“These are countries we’re now dubbing ‘storm autocracies’,” Ulubasoglu said.

“Using storms in island countries is a highly novel way of deciphering the autocratic turn we have seen in recent years, as it arguably offers rare causal evidence for a phenomenon that is otherwise a highly unique situation in countries caused by a range of historical, economic, cultural or other factors.

“The United Nations has declared climate change as the defining issue of our time, and the effects of the changing climate are arguably threatening island nations most urgently and devastatingly.

“These effects are not just rising sea levels swallowing land or rising sea temperatures decimating marine biodiversity, but also the increasing frequency and severity of climatic events such as storms.”

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