Why small islands need stronger democracies to fight climate change

Sonja Wiencke
Dec 6, 2019 · 10 min read

Do human societies have a better chance at surviving and beating climate change as democracies or as autocratic states?

Many clever and reputable people have given this thorough consideration, with inconclusive results. Some blame the moderate way of decision-making in democracies, the short-term orientation of elected politicians, and the influence of big business lobbies for part of the failure to tackle climate change to date. Others point to the fact that statistically, states with stronger environmental and climate change policies tend to be democratic, though that is mainly true for wealthier states with low levels of corruption.

A lot of it sounds quite theoretical — I want to tackle that question based on the very real possibility of states moving towards autocracy when faced with the challenge of climate change.

The discourse on this topic seems heavily focused on rich industrialised states. As is so often the case with white Western topics, this is not explicit, but obvious given the problems considered: what you can find online on the topic focuses on the need for reducing emissions and managing the interests of big corporations, as well as on the covert, long-term nature of the issue that makes it difficult to tackle in short-term political cycles.

However, a very large part of the world population lives in places where the democracy, and the climate change problems, look very different. In many states, the problem is not so much reducing emissions, but dealing with the consequences of global warming.

Will stronger democracy/democratic governance help tackle climate change adaptation in these circumstances? This is a much more pressing question given that this applies to some countries whose governance structures are closer to “flawed” or “hybrid” democracies (according to the Economist Intelligence Unit), and where therefore a move towards autocracy in the face of climate change is a genuine possibility.

This article tries to answer a part of this question by looking at small island developing states (SIDS), a group most urgently affected by climate change.

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The problem for SIDS is not so much the influencing of behaviour away from habits and standards of consumerism — small island states tend to have little to no industry, in many cases limited disposable income, and small populations (all of them together account for about 65 m people), so even if all of them ate as much meat and bought as many physical things as they could, that would not make a big difference. All SIDS together currently account for less than 1% of global GHG emissions.

The problem in SIDS is that climate change there is already a reality, not a projection in the future. A real danger to livelihoods and communities, not a potential reduction in comfort.

Below, I’ll look at the types of issues SIDS face in relation to climate change, and make some educated guesses about whether states with stronger democratic or autocratic structures may have a better chance at dealing with them to safeguard communities.

Problems faced by SIDS related to climate change

Radical changes to environment and society

No need to go into detail here about all the potential catastrophic effects of climate change on small island development states, but the increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters, and biodiversity loss are only half the picture. Water stress and scarcity will become an issue in most small islands. Most SIDS are net food importing countries, thus highly vulnerable to global fluctuations in food prices. In addition, there will be pressure on the health systems due to higher likelihood of food- and waterborne diseases.

All of these will lead to increased migration, along the entire spectrum of so-called “economic migration” to seeking refuge. There is likely even a need to resettle entire communities, away from hazard-prone or uninhabitable areas.

As a result, governing populations will be a seriously different challenge — there will be high levels of uncertainty and frustration, and likely genuine threats that citizens will react to in their own ways, including with looting and other acts of desperation. Solving crises of that kind will require potential radical action — relocation, changing the very basis of livelihoods — from a governance perspective.

Democracies, from a logical point of view, are better at producing solutions that represent compromise and slow progress, as opposed to fast and radical change. That said, there are examples of big and small decisions taken by democracies that are fairly radical: the British Brexit, the Irish abortion referendum, the Kiwi ban on assault weapons.

There are two types of government that may be able to lead and implement the type of radical reforms needed for climate adaptation: a) governments that have the required level of trust and legitimacy from the population, or b) governments that have the required structures to forcefully ensure adherence to norms in all areas of life.

The latter is a form of authoritarianism — and also not a theoretical one. The experience of East and South Asian states acting on environmental protection has given rise to the concept of “environmental authoritarianism”. As the name suggests, this is a “public policy model that concentrates authority in a few executive agencies manned by capable and uncorrupt elites seeking to improve environmental outcomes.” (B. Giley) Research has shown that these states are significantly more effective at adopting policies for climate and environmental protection, since they do not have to mediate the number of different interests represented in a democracy.

However, on average they seem to be no more effective at translating these regulations (“outputs”) into changed practice (“outcomes”). They are therefore not necessarily the solution to all SIDS climate change problems.

There is, in addition, an inherent danger in trying to infer from these studies any practical lessons for SIDS at the present moment. Accountability structures are not strong enough in all SIDS, even where the system is democratic. Setting up “elite structures” that authoritatively rule public policy making may very likely backfire in a place where meritocratic principles are often trumped by nepotism. SIDS are most likely better served with advisory boards of experts that do not monopolise decision-making, or at least have a strong link of accountability with the population whose lives they are supposed to improve.

In terms of dealing with difficult public policy challenges, then, stronger democracies seem like the way to go for SIDS.

Economic woes

The following is true to varying degrees for the 58 SIDS: The islands tend to have small populations with limits on the type of income they can access — the main sectors providing livelihoods are agriculture, fisheries and tourism, as well as services for the local market. This small range of sectors can turn out problematic, because all of these sectors are set to be highly impacted by climate change. Changes in temperature, weather, acid levels, and increased likelihood of extreme weather events are going to make all of these sectors significantly more risky and likely unprofitable for the mostly small businesses that are common in SIDS.

This is even worse in combination with another consequence of climate change: more frequent and impactful extreme weather events, especially storms, flooding and earthquakes. And I’m not talking of the obvious problems of being a small island with flooded ports and airports while relying on external help. I’m talking of scale — in small economies, damage from extreme weather events often outstrips resources/GDP. For example, in Dominica, hurricane Maria in 2017 caused damage worth 240% of the country’s GDP.

In addition, most of the income generating assets of small island states tend to be situated along the coastlines, such as fisheries infrastructure, tourist resorts, and human settlements. Local businesses thus often have their means of production destroyed and are unable to function for long periods after natural hazards. As a result, the UNDP estimates that a one-meter sea-level rise by 2080 will lead to losses and damages of about 8 percent of projected GDP (Simpson et al., 2010), thus hitting SIDS much harder than the world average (1–4%).

All of this in turn makes it near impossible to repair damage and rebuild using the locally available resources, thus creating dependence on foreign aid in disaster situations. SIDS have also faced high barriers trying to raise funds abroad for adaptation and mitigation — many of them already have high levels of public debt.

This creates a vicious cycle: each new weather event creates massive economic loss and damage, and decreases the states’ chances of raising enough capital to cover both rebuilding and preventative measures against extreme weather.

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Given these enormous challenges, would SIDS be better off tackling them as democratic or autocratic states?

There is an obvious need for economic diversification and creative expansion of income sources on SIDS. This will require large amounts of public investment in different sectors, including those that are not as dependent on climate and a stable natural environment — the IT sector might be one, or renewable energy production.

Are autocracies or democracies better at managing economic diversification?

The question on whether long-term economic growth and prosperity are more likely in autocratic or democratic states has never been conclusively solved — there is plenty of evidence for either. Examples of successful economic diversification and transformation include both autocratic and democratic states, and a lot in between. China and the Asian “tigers” present one alternative, with strong and diverse export economies on the more autocratic end of the spectrum.

However, the Arab Spring has shown that focusing solely on economic development and restricting civil rights in the process is a recipe for conflict and instability. There are also examples of rapid growth and economic diversification such as Mauritius, Estonia, and Finland, which are firmly rooted in democratic governance. Often, rapid economic transformation in democracies had support in the form of heavy foreign direct investment, for example through the Marshall plan after the second world war.

This suggests that democracy may be more of a determinant of type and quality of economic development, not the motor behind it.

What kind of economic development?

With a view to climate change, clearly the type and quality of economic growth required is development that

a) fills public pots of money responsible for large infrastructure investments, such as flood protection and hazard-prone electricity networks, and

b) allows the majority of the population to increase their income enough to reduce vulnerabilities to climate change. That means enabling citizens to make choices improving their climate resilience, in the form of insurance and material improvements to their homes (such as freshwater tanks, solar equipment for the case of electricity outage etc).

The reasons for point b) are twofold:

  1. Governments of SIDS won’t be able to deal with all problems stemming from climate change in a centralised, top-down way. SIDS governments don’t have that capacity, as shown above with a view to their chances of raising required funding. They will need to enable their citizens to deal with problems independently, for example through taking up work in less climate-reliant sectors.

In other words, governments will need to produce legislation and policies that are responsive to citizens’ needs and open up opportunities for them to fight climate change.

Responsive policies are what democracies are good at. At least, that is what they have been conceived for. The incentives for an autocratic government to be fair and considerate towards its citizens are much smaller — if governments do not consider themselves as accountable to a population or parliament, if citizens in reality do not determine who stays in power and if therefore good performance does not matter much to a government, the chances of developing the best policies to manage adaptation are small.

If we want responsive policies for climate adaptation, therefore, it looks like chances might be higher under democratic as opposed to autocratic systems.

Conclusion: What now for democracy in SIDS?

SIDS likely stand a higher chance at successfully adapting to climate change through governments that are

  • trusted and legitimate in the eyes of their citizens — to manage radical social change

All of these point towards the need to improve and increase democratic governance in SIDS, as opposed to trying a type of autocratic environmentalism.

In reality of course, things are not quite that black and white. The majority of governance systems in the world are somewhere along the middle of the scale between autocracy and full democracy. That applies to SIDS as well.

External actors, such as foreign governments or influential donors, may be able to help some of these developments along. They could, for example, make financing for climate adaptation more easily available to SIDS. States may be more likely to deliver for their citizens on the enormous challenges ahead if they a) have the financial means for it, and b) strong accountability structures to their population and the demands for adaptation.

However, external actors cannot simply fund accountability. It will largely be up to the local populations to pressure their governments into more effective action on climate change and adaptation — governments have to believe their losses are greater if they refuse to respond to citizens’ demands and needs. Climate adaptation needs to be their priority for staying in power.

Islands of Sustainability

Stories and ideas on sustainable development, climate…

Sonja Wiencke

Written by

Evaluation/data/social impact nerd and activist. Interested in democracy, and social/environmental justice.

Islands of Sustainability

Stories and ideas on sustainable development, climate change and changemakers

Sonja Wiencke

Written by

Evaluation/data/social impact nerd and activist. Interested in democracy, and social/environmental justice.

Islands of Sustainability

Stories and ideas on sustainable development, climate change and changemakers

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