Systemic Failures – Climate And Democracy
Michelle Goldberg had a typically marvelous piece in the New York Times a few weeks ago where she talked about the similarities between the despair created by climate change and that brought on by the Trump presidency. Wrote Goldberg, “The despair felt by climate scientists and environmentalists watching helplessly as something precious and irreplaceable is destroyed is sometimes described as ‘climate grief.’ Those who pay close attention to the ecological calamity that civilization is inflicting upon itself frequently describe feelings of rage, anxiety and bottomless loss, all of which are amplified by the right’s willful denial…Lately, I think I’m experiencing democracy grief. For anyone who was, like me, born after the civil rights movement finally made democracy in America real, liberal democracy has always been part of the climate, as easy to take for granted as clean air or the changing of the seasons. When I contemplate the sort of illiberal oligarchy that would await my children should Donald Trump win another term, the scale of the loss feels so vast that I can barely process it”. Needless to say, the actions of Republican Senators as they deal with the overwhelming case for impeachment is enough to cause any one to despair for our democracy. But Goldberg’s piece is actually more prescient than even she might have realized and that is because the impact of climate change creates an environment where illiberal democracy and autocracy can thrive.
Certainly, there has been an ongoing discussion about whether democracy or autocracy is better suited to deal with climate change. In one camp there are those who think that “a crisis as severe (if man-made) as rising temperatures can be mitigated only by the firm smack of authoritarian rule”. The autocrats believe that the short-term pressures of elections and the multiple veto points for powerful economic and special interests make democracy uniquely ill-suited to dealing with climate change. Only an autocrat can make the drastic and structural changes climate change requires while being able to withstand the pressures from their own citizens who may see those changes actually reduce their quality of life.
Those in the democratic camp point to the fact that, so far, “democracies are much more likely than authoritarian regimes to give environmental sustainability priority over either energy security or affordable energy supplies”. In fact, it is exactly the need for politicians to respond to voters who have been adversely impacted by climate change that make democracies more responsive and more adept at dealing with that crisis.
Unfortunately, recent history has shown us that perhaps the more immediate question is whether the negative externalities created by the increasingly rapid pace of climate change creates challenges that populists and would-be autocrats can effectively exploit to undermine liberal democracies. A 2019 study found that island nations became increasingly autocratic after significant storms such as cyclones, typhoons, hurricanes and tornados. Governments on those islands “increased their level of political oppression by around 2.5 per cent per year following storm events”.
As opposed to storms, however, the largest political impact to date has come from severe droughts associated with climate change. The prime example of this would be Syria, where the extended drought from 2007-2010, which was the “most severe drought in the instrumental record” and “exacerbated existing water and agricultural insecurity and caused massive agricultural failures and livestock mortality”, has been directly linked to the resulting civil war.
That civil war, in combination with conflicts in Africa, created a massive refugee crisis which, in turn, created political instability throughout Europe and exacerbated the rise of xenophobic right-wing parties in the middle of this decade. One fifth of the Syrian population, about four million people, fled the country, accounting for over one-third of refugees arriving in Europe by sea. Large numbers also escaped to Europe on overland routes. As that wave of refugees rippled through Europe, so did the emergence of far right, anti-immigrant parties in the countries in their path. In Greece, there was Golden Dawn; in Italy, it is now the League Party; in Bulgaria, Volia and United Patriots; in Hungary, it is Fidesz led by the autocrat Viktor Orban; in Austria, the Freedom Party; in Germany, it is AfD; in Poland, Law and Justice; in France, it was the National Front; in the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom; in Belgium, Vlaams Belang; in Denmark, it was the Danish Peoples Party until the leftist Social Democrats coopted their anti-immigrant policies; in Sweden, the Sweden Democrats; in Norway, the Populist Party; in Spain, Vox; and in the UK, the Brexit Party. Because of the freedom of movement provided by the Schengen accord, no European country really remained untouched by the refugee crisis. And at least two of those countries, Poland and Hungary, solidified their standing as certifiably illiberal democracies.
In many ways, the United States has suffered a similar fate. Since 2014, the northern triangle of Central America which includes Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have been enduring a serious drought, receiving 40% less rainfall than normal in some years. Coffee production, an economic driver for the area, was also negatively impacted by an outbreak of coffee leaf rust, made more damaging by climate change, as well as the volatility in global coffee prices. Pine beetles, whose spread has been exacerbated by climate change, have been ravaging the region’s forests. Corn and bean harvests have been decimated by the drought for the last five years. An estimated 200,000 people in the region suffer from food insecurity. All this in a region noted for both its political instability and narco-violence, both of which are exacerbated by the negative economic effects of climate change. It is therefore hardly surprising that US border apprehensions from those three aforementioned countries have skyrocketed from under 60,000 in 2011 to over 220,000 in 2018. Half of the adults currently apprehended at the US border previously worked in agriculture. And it is only going to get much worse. The region is currently suffering through an epidemic of dengue fever, again made worse and more frequent by climate change. The World Bank currently estimates that there will be an additional 4 million refugees from Central America and Mexico as a result of climate change.
As with the xenophobic far right in Europe, a critical element of Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016 was his pledge to stop these climate refugees from entering the US. He began his campaign by trashing immigrants, saying, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” And the most popular line in his stump speeches was that he would “build the wall and Mexico will pay for it”. That xenophobia has also targeted Muslims and has become part of what is basically Trump’s white Christian nationalist administration. It has also been integral to Trump’s attacks on the separation of powers and our democracy. The initial Muslim ban was an attempt to impose a religious test to simply enter the US. CBP openly defied court orders to enforce that ban after it had been ruled unconstitutional. The Trump administration has used the refugee influx to declare a national emergency on the southern border. He has used that national emergency to send military forces to that area where it appears they are acting illegally as part of domestic law enforcement. The administration has now classified information about military operations at the border, making it more difficult to discern whether those efforts violate the constitutional prohibition from involving the US military in domestic law enforcement. The administration has built concentration camps for immigrant children where far too many of them die and which often violate the court-ordered Flores Agreement on detention of children.
In India, it is estimated that 21 cities in will run out of groundwater in the coming year and two-thirds of the country’s reservoirs are holding below normal levels of water. By the end of the next decade, Indian’s demand for water will nearly double the actual supply. Last summer, a brutal heat wave killed 137 people and the city of Chennai basically ran out of water. Inadequate or unsafe water kills over 200,000 Indians each year. As a sign of just how serious the crisis has become, the recently re-elected Prime Minister Modi made the water crisis the focus of his Independence Day speech and initiated an over $800 million project to try and deal with the chronic water shortages in the country’s agricultural heartland, although how that might be accomplished is not so clear.
Modi has always been a Hindu nationalist with autocratic tendencies. He recently attempted to pass a law stripping Indian Muslims of their citizenship. That effort has been met with massive protests to which the government has responded with force, detaining hundreds and arresting opposition and protest leaders. A slowing economy and Modi’s privatization plans are also leading to additional protests, with the government warning striking workers that there will be “consequences”. With Modi already cracking down on internal dissent, one can only imagine how much worse it might get when he is confronted by further protests and outbreaks of violence as India’s cities run out of water this summer.
Finally, in Australia, this year’s bush fires have been unprecedented. Smoke conditions in Canberra and Melbourne have made it unsafe even for the world’s premiere athletes. The devastation to wildlife may mean extinction for some species. The fires have caused the evacuation of over 100,000 people, most of whom have headed for the safety of cities. Areas of New South Wales have become dust bowls, destroying the cattle industry there. The temperatures are now so high that cattle no longer even breed because the bulls’ testicles have become so hot they are infertile. The government is now facing protests not only for its climate change denial but also because of its anemic response to the fire crisis. Now, I’m not expecting Australia to turn into an autocracy, although its citizens already have no right to privacy. But there will be significant numbers of internal climate refugees as climate change ravages that continent and it will be accompanied by increasing political instability.
In addition to the climate refugees from Central America, the US is already seeing its own internal refugees fleeing the effects of climate change. Last summer, Phoenix and Tucson saw temperatures so high that road sings melted and planes could not take off or land. As a result, residents who could afford to flocked to Flagstaff, just two hours drive to the north and some twenty degrees cooler due to its 7,000 foot elevation. As one city official noted, the “[t]own gets crazy on the weekends when it’s 115F in Phoenix”. Some of them are deciding to stay in Flagstaff permanently and the influx in residents is driving up the cost of housing. According to Flagstaff’s mayor, “As it gets hotter, we are getting a lot of climate refugees. We don’t mind people moving to Flagstaff at all. But about 25% of our housing is now second homes. The cost of living is our number one issue”. There is a similar situation in Miami, where the rising sea level is driving new development in higher elevation areas like Liberty City and little Haiti, traditionally African American and Hispanic communities, driving up housing costs and driving local residents out.
What Flagstaff and Miami illustrate is the phenomenon of climate gentrification. Lower income citizens will be left to suffer the worst of climate change while wealthier residents will be able to move to safer areas, often driving low income residents out of those areas. The super-rich have already been preparing for the political and economic instability driven by income inequality and climate change. According to the founder of LinkedIn, around half of the Silicon Valley billionaires have purchased “apocalypse insurance”, a safe and secure place in the US or abroad. Peter Theil, a man who has stated that “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible” and is currently advising Facebook and his own company, Palantir, on how to further empower autocrats, has a place in New Zealand in the belief that “it is remote enough and unpopulated enough to survive there”. Others have converted abandoned missile silos in Kansas into livable hardened bunkers with their own private security forces. At the extreme, space exploration funded by billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk is largely on focused on providing an escape from apocalyptic climate change and will primarily only initially be available to the wealthy.
A UN study estimates there will be 200 million climate migrants by 2050, which includes both internal and external refugees. But it cautions that number could end up being as high as 1 billion, meaning that around 1 in 10 people in the world will be on the move. Compare that to the political instability we are seeing today where there are just 60 million refugees, from both war and climate change. That massive migration will also be accompanied by economic collapse and disruption, also caused by climate change. These conditions will challenge even the most well-functioning democracies and will be exploited by would-be autocrats and warlords. Donald Trump has been described as the first demagogue of the Anthropocene Era. There will be many more to follow.