Strongman Politics Remain a Major Threat to Climate Action, Experts Warn

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, on Feb. 4, 2022. Credit: Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, on Feb. 4, 2022. Credit: Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

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It hasn’t been a great year for democracy.

In February, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s ironfisted leader, shocked the world by invading Ukraine, which sparked a global energy crisis and left Western democracies scrambling to respond. Weeks later in April, strongman politician Viktor Orbán was reelected as the president of Hungary, despite being accused of rigging the election and using his power to jail and intimidate journalists. 

Soon after, far-right leaders with neo-facist roots were also elected into power in the Philippines and Italy, prompting warnings from civil liberties advocates and surprising political analysts who have expressed concerns in recent years that liberal democracy around the world is in decline.

Many have since reiterated those fears after Chinese President Xi Jinping secured his third term over the weekend, solidifying his rule for several more years and further shifting the country away from the shared power system it had moved toward in recent decades. And this Sunday, Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro—who has long been accused of human rights abuses and authoritarianism—will face a contentious reelection that could ultimately decide the direction of a country that houses one of the planet’s most important carbon sinks: the Amazon rainforest.

Experts have been sounding the alarm over the decline of democracy for years, saying the world appears to be entering a new era of strongman politics that jeopardizes global cooperation on efforts such as fighting the climate crisis. A growing number of countries—even those supposedly run by free democratic elections—are embracing authoritarianism over civil liberties and democratic rule, they warn. And recent research shows that autocratic leaders have managed to strengthen their positions in recent years by continuing to restrict the rights and freedoms of their citizens.

A report released in February by Freedom House, a pro-democracy advocacy group, found that 60 countries suffered democratic declines in 2021, while only 25 improved, and that only 20 percent of the world’s population currently lives in countries the organization designated as “free.”

Former President Barack Obama, too, warned of the trend in 2018 during a high-profile speech at a memorial event for civil liberties icon Nelson Mandella, which took place the day after a controversial meeting between then-U.S.-President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The politics of fear and resentment” is “on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago,” Obama told a crowd of thousands in South Africa. “I am not being alarmist, I’m simply stating the facts. Look around—strongman politics are ascendant suddenly.”

In fact, the global divide between democracies and autocracies has only grown more stark in recent years, threatening many efforts to address shared global challenges, said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “The Problem of Democracy,” which talks in part about the growing popularity of modern autocratic leaders.

“With the rise of existential politics—where elections come to be seen as a matter of life and death—it is also the case that voters are less focused on long-term challenges and much more focused on short-term survival,” Hamid told me in an email. “Of course, the irony is that climate change is itself a potentially existential threat.”

Hamid also noted that having a democracy doesn’t necessarily translate to the adoption of strong climate policies, especially if voters don’t agree that global warming is an important issue. 

But research has found that democracies consistently perform better than autocracies when it comes to committing to policies to mitigate climate change. And, in many ways, autocrats have played a big role in the false and misleading climate information that continues to run rampant online—an issue many experts say is at the heart of public disagreement on the issue. 

While modern technology has helped citizens to fight corruption and spread democratic ideals, it has also been a major tool for autocratic regimes to maintain power, Ian Bremmer, founding president of the political consulting firm Eurasia Group and a political science lecturer at Columbia University, said in a 2018 opinion essay for TIME Magazine.

“Western leaders believed social networks would create ‘people power,’ enabling political upheavals like the Arab Spring. But the world’s autocrats drew a different lesson,” Bremmer wrote. “They saw an opportunity for government to try to become the dominant player in how information is shared and how the state can use data to tighten political control.”

Now, just days before the U.S. midterm elections and the highly-anticipated COP27 global climate summit in Egypt, the impacts of strongman politics on international climate efforts is clearly playing out in major ways.

In the United States, vastly different views of climate change by the two main political parties has led to a contentious midterm election that many analysts say will have lasting consequences for both the U.S. and global efforts to rein in emissions. Republicans continue to oppose any meaningful U.S. climate policy. And as the party attempts to retake control of Congress next month, many political experts have expressed deep concerns over Republican candidates adopting classic strongman tactics—such as muddying public discourse by repeatedly claiming falsehoods without evidence.

A new analysis by the political news site FiveThirtyEight found that a staggering 60 percent of Americans will see at least one candidate on their midterm ballot next month who in some way denies the results of the U.S. 2020 presidential election, perpetuating former President Donald Trump’s lie that it was stolen from him through widespread voter fraud.

At a global level, disagreements over human rights abuses and civil liberties have led to an increasingly cold relationship between the U.S. and China, derailing talks over the summer between two of the most climate-polluting countries over how they can more effectively reduce their carbon footprints. Brazil President Bolsonaro has also angered world leaders and environmentalists after his repeated failures to follow through on promises to end illegal deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. And Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted many Western nations, including the U.S., to reverse several of their climate commitments as they struggled to wean themselves off ubiquitous Russian fossil fuels.

Such deteriorating relationships have ripple effects, too. On Thursday, Rishi Sunak, the United Kingdom’s new prime minister, announced he wouldn’t be attending next month’s COP27 climate talks due to “other pressing domestic commitments.” Among them, the country faces a number of financial crises that have been exacerbated by Russia’s self-serving war in Ukraine—the latest example, perhaps, of how isolationism can spur other nations to turn inward in a self-perpetuating cycle.

The announcement, which received harsh rebuke from environmental groups, can be viewed in an even more troubling light, given the pair of grim reports released by the United Nations this week that found global efforts to curb rising carbon emissions have been “woefully inadequate.” Just 26 of the accord’s 193 signatory countries have followed through with their promise to adopt more ambitious climate targets before November’s summit in Egypt, one UN report found. A second UN report found that the three primary greenhouse gases driving climate change—carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide—all hit record levels last year. 

Without stronger intervention, the world will warm by an average of 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels by the end of the century, the reports’ authors said, calling their findings an “ominous” sign that nations are turning inward to focus on short-term national interests at the expense of long-term global climate ambitions. And both reports come as the fossil fuel industry continues to post record-breaking profits, yet another indicator that international climate efforts simply aren’t cutting it.

“Global and national climate commitments are falling pitifully short,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Thursday after the reports were released. “We are headed for a global catastrophe.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Today’s Indicator

62 percent

That’s the percent of Americans who say the U.S. government is not doing enough to fight climate change, according to u003ca href=u0022 new pollu003c/au003e by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The poll also found a stark difference in opinion between Democrats and Republicans.

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