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Can a government be bad on protecting human rights, but good on fighting climate change?

Elia Preto Martini

This past November, Egypt hosted “COP27,” the annual United Nations conference on climate change. The event’s discussions took place against the backdrop of the energy crisis created by Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has shifted countries’ short-term priorities away from a green transition and toward assuring the supply of energy. The persistent human rights abuses under Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi evoked criticism about the choice of Sharm el-Sheikh as the location for the conference.

In recent months, many Egyptian environmental activists denounced the security forces’ crackdown on them. They also claimed that the government’s multibillion-dollar sustainability projects only aim was to “greenwash” a full-fledged police state. They are right. According to the Climate Action Tracker, an independent research group, current Egyptian policies are “highly insufficient” to meet its environmental targets, with an expected rise in CO2 emissions of about 15 to 40 percent by 2030.

The relationship between human rights and climate change is complex. During the 1970s, a political ideology called “eco-authoritarianism” claimed that liberal democracies were inadequate to combating global warming. The main argument behind the assertion is that the rule of law and checks and balances undermine the adoption of effective science-based policies. In recent years, many renowned scientists have supported the notion, directly or not. “We need a more authoritative world,” stated English scientist James Lovelock in 2010.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Despite its poor climate record, Egypt would appear on the surface to be an ideal eco-authoritarian country: the regime is unaccountable to the population and dominates the state apparatus. In theory, Egyptian policymakers could adopt even the most extreme environmental strategies. In practice, they do not. Several factors undermine Egypt’s ability to enact climate-friendly policies, such as a lack of resources to invest in the green transition and high unemployment. Another problem is al-Sisi’s erratic personal will. He is all-important in setting national priorities, yet his positions change depending on the political situation. Climate change is a long-term issue that requires an ongoing commitment, not just temporary promises.

For these reasons, China is considered more of a model eco-authoritarian country. Compared to the Egyptian regime, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has more complete control over society and more resources to invest. According to the World Economic Forum, China is the world’s largest investor in the green transition, with an aggregate total commitment of $266 billion in 2021. Under Xi Jinping’s rule, the CCP has also put the concept of “ecological civilization” at the center of its national development strategy, stressing the need to define a new relationship between nature, human needs, and economic growth.

The regime’s bombastic propaganda, however, hides its true priorities, brutal approach, and limitations. China is the largest solar panel manufacturer worldwide, an industry that relies on polysilicon as an essential component. About half of the global reserves of this material lie in Xinjiang, where, according to independent reports, a massive labor coercion system affecting Uighur Muslims is used for polysilicon extraction.

Environmental action by the CCP is hindered by the fact that local officials are the actors responsible for implementing central government plans. In 2017, for example, the local government of Shanxi Province banned the use of coal for energy. Overnight, many lower-income residents could no longer afford the more expensive gas, resulting in many people spending a whole winter without heat in their homes. Absent accountability to the people, local officials are prone to prioritize meeting data targets rather than the needs of local communities. The success of their careers and their rise within the party depend largely on obedience to the CCP leadership. And if they fail to achieve the regime’s objectives, they have significant incentives to inflate data, clouding the emissions picture of the world’s second-largest economy.

With regard to the obstacles liberal democracies face in enacting climate legislation, chief among them are slow decision-making processes, political polarization, and the influence of oil lobbies. All of these elements are in play in the U.S. political system. Concerning the first point, when the United States has a divided government, as it does today—the situation in which one party holds the White House while another party holds one or both houses of Congress—its legislative process has slowed down sharply. In 2015, political scientists Tyler Hughes and Deven Carlson estimated that such a situation could lead to an average sixty-day slowdown.

Polarization has meant that Democrats and Republicans are embracing increasingly extreme positions on domestic issues, widening the gap between those positions. According to a 2021 Chicago Council on Global Affairs report, only 16 percent of Republicans consider climate change a serious threat, compared to 82 percent of Democrats.

The influence of oil lobbies has long characterized the U.S. political landscape. The pressure exerted on congressional members and the Washington establishment can slow or block the adoption of policies that aim to mitigate global warming. Last year, for example, the oil company Shell revealed a single large donation of about $10 million to the American Petroleum Institute (API). This political lobby group opposes the green transition. In mid-2022, API pressured President Joe Biden to remove restrictions on fossil fuel development, raising climate activists’ concerns. According to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit organization based in Washington D.C., the oil and gas lobby has spent, on average, $100 million per year to influence U.S. politicians, significantly higher than the $250 million spent by the same industry to influence EU policymaking over the last ten years.

Yet, as Francis Fukuyama has written in these pages, authoritarian countries are not guaranteed to prioritize environmental considerations over economic ones, and democratic societies have a number of features working in their favor.

First, democracies protect a public space within which journalists, activists, and NGOs inform people about the risks connected with global warming. In 2013, a Dutch environmental group, the Urgenda Foundation, even sued its state for not sufficiently reducing CO2 emissions. In 2019 it won the case, galvanizing ecological activists worldwide, who have tried to replicate the same strategy in their own countries.

Additionally, democratic and decentralized countries grant a certain degree of autonomy to the different levels of governance. Central governments, regional authorities, and the mayors of cities can indeed pursue diversified goals. Once again, the United States provides a useful example. After President Donald Trump decided to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement in 2017, Los Angeles and New York mayors decided to keep following the Paris objectives regardless of Washington’s decision. Such an occurrence would be unthinkable within a one-party political system like China’s, where local administrators are under watchful eye for their loyalty to the regime.

With regard to liberating scientific decisions from political hindrances, there is no evidence that decisions made by well-informed elites are more effective than those made by democratically formed governments. The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic was a testing ground for theories of technocratic superiority. Government responses to the fast-spreading virus in early 2020—at least during the initial phases—followed the model many eco-authoritarianism advocates have long proposed.

China, the first country affected by Covid-19, adopted a national, full-scale lockdown to eradicate the virus; some weeks later many Western countries emulated its lead, severely limiting the individual freedom of their citizens. Legislators delegated the power to draft policy responses to independent authorities composed of scientists, statisticians, and virologists. The technocratic dream became a reality overnight. Yet the untenable position China is in today due to its zero-Covid approach, compared to the effective coexistence of Western democracies with the virus, demonstrates that, in the long run, a balanced approach to the pandemic guided by the full array of political considerations has achieved better outcomes.

In fact, considering the adaptive capacities of liberalism, we should advocate for “more” democracy, not “less,” to solve the planet’s most intractable problems. The social contract—an agreement based on the voluntary consent of the people to government that promotes the common good and protects fundamental rights—can guide us through troubled times.

We need a new “green” social contract that pursues three main goals. First, work to rebuild public trust between citizens and the government. This is crucial to empower elected governments in implementing new climate change policies. Second, ensure that both elected officials and the private sector will play a significant role in the green transition. Even if many on the left accuse capitalism of being a primary cause of pollution, market forces are effective in providing technological solutions to reduce CO2 emissions. Third, clarify citizens’ rights and duties. Rather than embrace an ideological stance toward climate change, we should rather seek to balance addressing that issue with other things we value, such as individual freedom and economic growth.

The reflection on a “green” social contract is not merely theoretical. In recent years, some liberal democracies have tried to adopt such a course. In April 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the creation of the Citizens Convention for Climate to respond to the so-called “yellow vests” protests. It was an experiment involving 150 citizens representing a population sample who submitted decarbonization policies to the French Parliament. Even if very few of the proposals later became law, this public policy experiment went in the right direction. Macron understood that solving an issue as large and complex as climate change requires more voices, not fewer. Will other democracies follow this path?

Elia Preto Martini is a journalist whose work is at the intersection of European and Middle Eastern affairs.

Image: Tianjin, China. (Flickr: Bill Benson)

AuthoritarianismClimateChinaDemocracyEnvironmentUnited States