Authoritarianism Under Environmental Stress

Today Brad Plumer at Wonkblog interviews Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell about the role of climate change in Syria’s civil war.  Basically, Syria has been the worst-afflicted by the Mediterranean drought between 2006 and 2011, which culminated in the beginning of the war in Deraa, Syria.  They don’t think it can be straightforwardly traced to the war, but rather that the disruptions of the drought, and massive resulting internal dislocation, made Syria into a tinderbox.  Huge numbers of farmers and rural citizens were forced to leave their farms and come to cities as internal refugees, food prices were skyrocketing, and the whole situation was extremely volatile.  If climate change is going to be causing more droughts, it might well be causing more situations like Syria.

There is a positive angle to this!  Amartya Sen reshaped the  modern understanding of droughts and famines in Poverty and Faminein which he uncovered the fact that droughts only cause famine in unresponsive and unaccountable governments.  Droughts in the US (or even poor but democratic countries like modern-day India) often do not negatively impact the food supply – but they make demand skyrocket, causing prices to climb out of poor citizens’ reach.  Accountable governments  have systems in place (or can improvise them) to deal with shortages to ensure that supply is distributed somewhat equitably even under severe price shocks.  Authoritarian governments could do the same, but simply don’t care.

The relevance of Sen’s findings to climate change should be clear: climate change makes authoritarian government more brittle.  If drought events are more common, the advantages of responsive governments become even more clear.  Authoritarianism is well-suited to surplus, since when there are no environmental stressors it is easy for the government to not have to worry about everyone getting enough.  However, even the harshest authoritarian governments like Syria can survive repeated events like the 2006-2011 drought.  At the very least, climate change should encourage more benign authoritarianism – enlightened self-interest on the part of dictators will dictate putting in place systems to ensure food and water security lest the citizens revolt.

The other possibility is that dictators fail to see their enlightened self-interest and there are many more Syrias ahead.

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