The military takeover that deposed democratically-elected Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed in 2012 was an early example of the drive toward autocracy that can be triggered by climate change impacts and the public anxieties they produce, Oxford University’s Samuel Miller McDonald warns in a post for The New Republic.
“Major shifts in the global climate could give rise to a new generation of authoritarian rulers, not just in poorer countries or those with weak democratic institutions, but in wealthy industrialized nations, too,” McDonald writes. His post recounts Nasheed’s election in 2008, his rapid emergence as a global leader on climate action and rapid decarbonization, and the military coup that forced him to flee his country at gunpoint after four years in office.
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“This is perhaps the most overlooked threat of climate change,” McDonald adds. “If any lesson can be drawn from the power struggle in the Maldives, it is that people who feel threatened by an outside force, be it foreign invaders or rising tides, often seek reassurance. That reassurance may come in the form of a strongman leader, someone who tells them all will be well, the economy will soar, the sea walls hold. People must only surrender their elections, or their due process, until the crisis is resolved.”
McDonald cites a 2015 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that connected the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to a 2006-2010 drought in the Fertile Crescent that was likely driven by climate change. “While we’re not saying the drought caused the war, we are saying that it certainly contributed to other factors—agricultural collapse and mass migration among them—that caused the uprising,” UC Santa Barbara post-doctoral researcher Colin Kelley said at the time.
A year later, McDonald now writes, a paper in the journal Science found that climate change would produce a 50% increase in the risk of armed conflict in Africa by 2030.
“Refugee crises, famine, drought—these are materials strongmen can use to build power,” he writes. “Already, strife and civil instability are spreading throughout the global South, with droughts and floods stoking conflict and refugee crises in parts of Africa and the Middle East.”
And “it’s not just developing nations that are at risk of opportunistic climate-fueled authoritarianism. Wealthy countries may possess the resources to insulate themselves from the near-term physical impacts of climate change—they can afford sea walls, emergency services, and air conditioning. But when conflicts over resources break out in the developing world, they are bound to generate crises that spill into wealthier countries.”
The obvious solution, McDonald says, is to halt or slow the effects of climate change. “So far, the Paris Agreement is the only tangible result of those efforts, and its fate is far from certain,” he notes. “But this might change, if the problems caused by climate change—not just stronger hurricanes, droughts, and rising seas, but political rupture—keep washing up on the disappearing shorelines of wealthy governments.”