ECC – AS1 – 663776
Which factors influence political leaders to address environmental issues in democratic and authoritarian regimes?
It might be surmised that authoritarian regimes are not well placed to meet the critical environmental challenges humanity now faces. After all, they are, ostensibly, unaccountable, electorally unresponsive, and generally preside over top-down policy processes, often with little room for public participation. Thus, they appear to lack either the incentives or the capacity to respond to the needs of their citizens, including maintaining a clean, habitable environment. Further, there is an abundance of literature stressing the importance of democratic processes in producing positive environmental outcomes, and avoiding negative ones (Carter, 2007; Spilker, 2013). Some have weighed the environmental merits of deliberative and liberal democracies (Smith, 2003); while some have considered the forces shaping the ecological impacts of economic globalisation (Newell, 2012); in both cases, a positive correlation between democracy and environmentalism is assumed.
However there may be reason to question the robustness of this relationship on both empirical (Midlarsky, 1998), and theoretical grounds. Literature on ‘environmental authoritarianism’ has considered whether authoritarian regimes might be better suited to meet environmental challenges than democratic ones under certain conditions (Beeson, 2010, 2016; Schreurs, 2012; Gilley, 2012; Han, 2017). Building on this literature, this essay will analyse the factors that influence the demand for political leaders to address environmental issues, and the channels through which this demand is expressed, in both democratic and authoritarian regimes. It will be argued that, in both cases, leaders are motivated to meet environmental challenges under certain conditions, but the complex relationship between democracy, economic development and environmentalism makes a systemic comparison problematic. A simple, linear relationship between democracy and environmental performance cannot be assumed.
Both intuition and theory suggest that political leaders will only address environmental challenges if it is in their interests to do so. As their primary goal(s) are staying in power, concerns will be addressed if failure to do so will pose a threat to that end. In the case of democratic regimes, citizens can express their preferences through formal political processes: people who care about environmental issues can (theoretically) vote out politicians with lacking environmental records and vote in new ones, so long as they are in the majority. This may take the form of parties focussed specifically on green issues, or mainstream parties coopting environmental issues in response to a perceived electoral threat (Spoon, Hobolt and de Vries, 2014).
Grant and Tilley (2019) identify two main determinants of voter demand for environmentalism: post-materialist attitudes and the presence of tangible environmental issues, observing a positive association between the success of Green parties and high levels of economic development. This, they argue, supports the post-materialist thesis: when countries have reached a certain level of wealth, scarcity is no longer the main factor driving voter behaviour, and the electorate begin to care about other issues, such as environmentalism. This inverse relationship between scarcity and environmentalism is also evident in the short term. Voters tend to punish parties associated with green issues during an economic downturn (Abou-Chadi and Kayser, 2017), when material concerns loom larger (Inglehart, 2008: 135). Advanced economies, which are more developed, broadly speaking, generally perform well by many measures of environmental performance (Environmental Performance Index, 2020), which would appear to support this hypothesis. According to the Democracy Index 2020, almost all of these countries are democratic (The Economist Intelligence Unit [henceforth: EIU], 2020).
But, as Midlarsky (1998) highlights, considering purely Western industrial democracy leads to erroneous conclusions about the relationship between democracy and environmental outcomes. Nearly half of the world’s countries are democratic (EIU, 2020); not all of these countries are highly developed. For less developed countries, post-materialism is hardly in reach, nor is it particularly clear that this should be a desirable objective at a planetary level. Indeed, the environmental credentials of advanced countries deserve closer examination. They are, in fact, responsible for the bulk of cumulative CO2 emissions since 1751 (Ritchie, 2019), and, aside from major oil producing countries, tend to have among the highest per capita emissions (Statista, 2021a). Further, these figures may obscure the true culpability of these countries as they do not encapsulate the outsourcing of emissions-intensive production by advanced economies to developing nations (‘carbon leakage’) (Jakob, Steckel and Edenhofer, 2014).
Thus, even if we accept the that economic development as a teleological process will eventually lead to democracy and post-material environmental enlightenment, which is highly problematic in itself, planetary constraints make it largely untenable for developing countries to follow the developmental trajectory of their advanced-country counterparts. Moreover, there is not necessarily any causal relationship between economic development and democracy (Robinson, 2006), nor is there any unproblematic, uniform relationship between democracy and environmentalism (Midlarsky, 1998). Hence, while post-materialist attitudes may result in positive environmental outcomes, they will only be observable in countries on particular developmental trajectories, which may be neither possible nor desirable for developing countries to achieve, and which do not divide neatly along democratic and authoritarian lines.
The complex relationship between economic development and democracy makes the observance of post-materialism in authoritarian regimes problematic. Not all democratic countries are advanced, but most advanced countries are democratic. Hong Kong, although not a state, is a possible exception: one study suggests that post-materialist attitudes can indeed be observed, especially among younger generations (Wong and Wan, 2009). Singapore may be another, although its inclusion here requires qualification. Although technically a ‘flawed’ democracy according to the Democracy Index 2020 (EIU, 2020), it is a borderline case. It is mostly dominated by a single party, and lacks many features considered to be integral to functioning democracies (Freedom House, 2021). Regardless, the (relative) electoral success of the Worker’s Party, who espouse post-materialist values, might indicate a broader sociocultural and economic shift in this direction (Heijmans, Mokhtar and Chia, 2020).
The second determinant of voter demand for environmentalism is the presence of tangible environmental issues (Grant and Tilley, 2019). Support for environmental policies is higher when the benefits fall within one’s own country and when those benefits are more immediate. Support is also higher for policies that address ‘concrete’ environmental problems such as natural disasters (Sparkman, Lee and Macdonald, 2021). This dynamic is problematic with respect to addressing environmental problems such as climate change, as its negative effects are often temporally and geographically dispersed. This may explain the generally low priority given to environmental issues in the United States and elsewhere (Motel, 2014; Harms, 2013). Furthermore, as democratic countries typically hold elections every 4-6 years, political leaders arguably have little incentive to pursue long-term objectives. Policies to address climate change often entail significant short-term costs, for the promise of, often, intangible benefits decades in the future. And while extreme examples of environmental change may increase the salience of environmental issues, and hence support for green parties and policies, their incidence is hugely variable. The negative impacts of climate change are likely to disproportionately affect countries in the Global South (Roy, 2018), a dynamic that is complicated further by ‘carbon leakage’. As many advanced countries outsource emissions-intensive activities, their populations are, to some extent, physically and psychologically removed from from their worst effects. Consequently, support for environmental parties and policies may be lower than would be otherwise.
By contrast, authoritarian regimes are electorally unresponsive and therefore do not, theoretically, have comparable incentives to respond to the needs of their citizens. Dissenters must express their preferences largely through informal channels, such as protests, often with a significant risk of a backlash by the state. But, as some scholars have argued, authoritarian regimes may respond to environmental issues under certain conditions (Doyle and Simpson, 2006; Sowers, 2007; Beeson, 2010, 2016; Schreurs, 2012; Gilley, 2012; Moore, 2014; Han, 2017). When environmental issues pose a threat to social and political stability, or economic growth and, hence, the legitimacy on which stability depends, or else where these objectives can be strategically synergised, states may find it in their interest to address environmental concerns. Importantly, this pursuit of developmental objectives to maintain legitimacy is by no means universal to all authoritarian states. This may be why studies on environmental authoritarianism have focused on the East Asian developmental states, notably China (Beeson, 2010, 2016; Schreurs, 2012; Gilley, 2012), and, to a lesser degree, Singapore (Han, 2017), although some authors have observed similar patterns in Egypt (Sowers, 2007), Burma and Iran (Doyle and Simpson, 2006).
In China, high levels of atmospheric pollution have led to significant social unrest (Economy, 2011; Beeson, 2016), and have been a key factor in the state’s efforts to diversify its energy mix away from coal (Chen and Lees, 2016; Isoaho, Goritz, and Schulz, 2017), its primary energy source. China’s leaders have achieved some success in that regard: as of 2019, China is the world’s biggest investor in clean energy (Statista, 2021b). More recently, the need to mitigate the effects of climate change have also been elevated to a policy priority, with significant pledges to cut carbon emissions, both at the 2015 Paris Agreement (Li, 2016), and the recent pledge to become carbon neutral by 2060 (McGrath, 2020). China is particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, which may have significant negative implications for economic growth and social stability (Lewis, 2009). Thus, with respect to the primary goal of China’s leaders, it is necessary to address this issue. However, coal still comprises over half of China’s total energy supply as of 2018 (International Energy Agency, 2021), and China remains the biggest emitter of CO2 emissions in absolute terms as of 2019 (Statista, 2021c), indicating that economic growth is granted a higher priority than environmental concerns. This suggests that environmental concerns are addressed insofar as they are reconcilable with sustained economic growth, or when they pose a serious risk of civil instability.
Similar patters can be observed in Singapore, where the government has followed a top-down, non-participatory approach to environmental policymaking. And while its environmental policies have been successful in promoting the expansion of green spaces and infrastructure, they have been adopted only to the extent that they overlap, or do not compromise, the governments other developmental objectives. Like China, economic growth has taken priority (Han, 2017). In both countries, the legitimacy of government depends upon the ability to deliver economic growth. In comparison to democratic regimes, their governments have greater incentive to pursue strategic, long-term objectives, including environmental goals, as leaders expect to be in power when the benefits become apparent.
As in democratic countries, the tangibility of environmental problems is seen to be an important factor in the demand for environmentalism. China’s leaders have recognised for some time the urgency of air pollution as a problem (He, Huo and Zhang, 2002), even if these efforts have been largely undermined by the drive for rapid economic expansion. By contrast, climate change has become a national priority relatively recently. Again, this relationship can be explained in terms of visibility and temporality. For citizens, air pollution is an immediate and visible threat to their livelihood, whereas climate impacts, although inevitable, remain largely abstract, except where they are instantiated by extreme weather events. For political leaders, both pollution and climate change have negative implications for stability and growth, but those of the former are far more immediate. Thus, tangibility is a crucial factor in the demand for political leaders to address environmental issues in both democratic and authoritarian regimes. Although, as mentioned, this demand may be expressed in a fundamentally different way, as citizens in authoritarian regimes lack formal channels to express dissent.
Building on the literature on ‘environmental authoritarianism’, this essay has sought to problematise the often-assumed relationship between democracy and environmentalism. Specifically, it has compared the factors that influence the demand for political leaders to address environmental issues and, to a lesser degree, the channels through which it is expressed. It has been argued that political leaders in both democratic and authoritarian regimes may be motivated to adopt green policies under certain conditions. First, the influence of post-materialist attitudes has been analysed. This has been shown to be an important determinant of voter demand for environmentalism in some democracies, although its relevance to authoritarian regimes is, so far, limited, as the theory predicts that these attitudes would be most prevalent advanced economies, the majority of which are democratic. Hong Kong and Singapore may be exceptions, and constitute avenues for further research. Second, the tangibility of environmental issues was shown to be an important factor influencing the demand for environmentalism in both categories, although this demand may be expressed in different ways. The presence of tangible environmental issues generates support for green parties and policies in democratic countries. And, insofar as they pose a threat to the stability and longevity of authoritarian regimes, may pressure leaders to address environmental concerns. Air pollution in China is one notable example. Finally, the role of emissions outsourcing in altering the psychological proximity of environmental issues was examined, with disparate consequences along economic and geographical divides. Hence the complex nature between economic development, democracy and environmentalism is apparent.
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