In recent decades we have witnessed a significant increase in extreme weather and natural disasters that we can attribute to climate change, writes Nejat Anbarci. This is set to increase the likelihood and frequency of such disasters.
Research into the impact of extreme weather conditions on international political systems shows that following sizable natural disasters – tornados, cyclones and hurricanes – governments, particularly in small island nations, become more oppressive. Reviewing data from 1950-2009, measuring each country’s polity score, which evaluates the strength of a nation’s democratic system from autocratic to democratic, we compared each country’s democratic score at the time of natural disasters, and in the years after
Disruption caused by severe storms to communities – breakdown in day-to-day routines and business, and the need for government intervention to support storm recovery – is likely to enable regimes to exploit their citizens’ vulnerability and tighten their control.
This is more common in smaller island nations than larger landlocked states simply because of their size. For larger countries, natural disasters represent a local or regional issue; for small island communities these can have country-wide effects on their social and political system.
Island-wide natural disasters require a macro-level relief effort, alongside macro-level policies, rendering the government the primary source of financial and medical assistance.
Democratic conditions deteriorated significantly following natural disasters, small island countries’ polity scores dropping by an average of 3.26 per cent within a year, and plummeting 10.1 per cent over the subsequent five years. And governments increased their political oppressiveness by around 2.5 per cent within one year of storm-related disasters.
The emergence of oppressive governments in Fiji, Haiti and – notably – the Philippines highlight the clear relationship between extreme weather and the rise of populist-authoritarian governments. Hurricane Haiyan offered the Philippines’ presidential hopeful Rodrigo Duterte an avenue to exploit people’s helplessness to secure their support.
Countries such as the UK may generally have been storm free, but the worsening climate crisis could expose unforeseen vulnerabilities to the more authoritarian tendencies that we see across the globe.
We don’t know yet whether the UK will also be affected by this. What we do know is that climate change brings more frequent and extreme natural disasters, which then make our political systems more uncertain.
Nejat Anbarci is professor of Economics at Durham University Business School and head of the Durham Research in Economic Analysis and Mechanisms centre. He worked with professors from Deakin Business School and Monash School of Business, Malaysia to produce the Storm Autocracies report
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