Alfred Deakin Institute
The Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI) is a leading humanities and social sciences research institute based at Deakin University, Australia. Our researchers aim to understand the complex meanings of citizenship, social inclusion and globalisation, and investigate the imp

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How is climate change fuelling authoritarianism in island nations?

 

The idyllic tropical island life you imagine escaping to in your fantasies may be much further from the truth than you’d expect, new research from the Deakin Business School has uncovered.


 

Professor Mehmet Ulubasoglu, with Dr Muhammad Habibur Rahman from Monash University and Professor Nejat Anbarci from Durham University, has completed a study investigating the link between political oppression by governments and the frequency of storms on island nations.

The island nation of Fiji is considered a ‘hybrid regime’ in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s ‘Democracy Index’ in 2018.

The island nation of Fiji is considered a ‘hybrid regime’ in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s ‘Democracy Index’ in 2018.

Using data from 1950-2009, they found that storms deteriorate democratic conditions in island countries by 3.46 per cent in the following year and 10.1 per cent over the subsequent five years. They additionally found that these governments increase their level of political oppression by around 2.5 per cent per year following storm events such as cyclones, typhoons, hurricanes and tornados.

Neither of these effects were experienced by the landlocked or coastal countries that were also analysed in the study, and the effect was noticeably more pronounced in smaller island countries than compared to their larger counterparts.

 So what is it about storms that can lead to autocracies? Professor Ulubasoglu has some theories.

“Using a dynamic game-theory model, we believe that in the wake of disasters like storms, the government provides their citizens with post-disaster palliative relief, such as aid or financial assistance, and in this window of opportunity they are more able to take steps towards a more autocratic or authoritarian regime.”

“Citizens are less inclined to resort to an insurgency in these circumstances because of the disaster relief they are accepting as well as the perceived efficiency of more autocratic governments in decision-making during crises.”

“Essentially what we are seeing is a form of mutually agreed political oppression brought about by a natural disaster.”

“Essentially what we are seeing is a form of mutually agreed political oppression brought about by a natural disaster.” 

This innovative new research helps to explain why storm-prone small island countries around the globe, such as Haiti, Fiji or the Philippines, remain autocratic over prolonged periods, countries which Professor Ulubasoglu and his colleagues are now coining “storm autocracies”.

Professor Mehmet Ulubasoglu

Professor Mehmet Ulubasoglu

A worldwide phenomenon

The research also taps into other related work looking at how politicians and political agents are able to seize similar windows of opportunity where citizens are united in a common cause to advance authoritarian policies in environment across the globe, and not limited to island nations.

“One argument we have seen raised is that political leaders are able to mobilise citizens’ diverse interests and preference to a single point, and use this point as a leverage to tilt the majority vote in their favour,” said Professor Ulubasoglu.

“To use perhaps an obvious example, President Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric in the 2016 Presidential election unified his constituency far more than any of his other discourses in a hyper-diverse country like the United States. As citizens felt more economically or politically vulnerable, he was able to make autocratic turns by essentially bribing them via populist economic and political means.”

“ … President Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric in the 2016 Presidential election unified his constituency far more than any of his other discourses … ”

“This isn’t exclusive to the United States however, we have also seen this outcome vividly exemplified in cases like Putin in Russia, Edogan in Turkey, Duterte in the Philippines, Modi in India, and Orban in Hungary.”

Using storms in island countries is a highly novel way of deciphering the autocratic turn we have seen in recent years, as it arguably offers rare causal evidence for a phenomenon that is otherwise a highly unique situation in countries caused by a range of historical, economic, cultural or other factors.

A worsening climate emergency? 

The United Nations has declared climate change as the defining issue of our time, and the effects of the changing climate are arguably threatening island nations most urgently and devastatingly. These effects are not just rising sea levels swallowing land or rising sea temperatures decimating marine biodiversity, but also the increasing frequency and severity of climactic events such as storms.

Typhoon Haiyan was one of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever recorded, and devastated the archipelagic nation of the Philippines in 2013.  Source:  BBC .

Typhoon Haiyan was one of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever recorded, and devastated the archipelagic nation of the Philippines in 2013.

Source: BBC.

In light of this new era we find ourselves in, Professor Ulubasoglu explains that the importance of this research may become even more relevant.

“This research on the effects of storms on political conditions is likely to illuminate the increasingly likely changes in the government-citizen relationship where storm autocracies may become even more prevalent than ever,” he said.

“It’s yet another unfortunate consequence of our inactivity on climate change, that autocracies may continue to rise, thrive and endure due to the random nature of the environment in which we live.”