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Climate Kings

How a new generation of authoritarian leaders are using climate change to seize power

President Abdulla Yameen of the Maldives. AFP/Getty

National crises make governments vulnerable to autocracy—a rather obvious assessment, perhaps, but one rarely seen in debates about climate change. Take the Maldives, an atoll nation in the Indian Ocean. Rising seawater is projected to consume most, if not all, of the country this century. In 2008, the Maldives chose its first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed. Almost immediately, he made climate change preparations central to his administration. He announced plans to move 360,000 Maldivian citizens to new homelands in Sri Lanka, India, or Australia, and he promised to make the Maldives the world’s first carbon-neutral country. Nasheed also demonstrated a flair for the dramatic, staging an underwater Cabinet meeting that turned him into a viral climate celebrity. “What we need to do is nothing short of decarbonizing the entire global economy,” he said. “If man can walk on the moon, we can unite to defeat our common carbon enemy.”

In 2012, the military deposed Nasheed, forcing him to flee the country at gunpoint after mass protests over economic stagnation and spikes in commodity prices. His eventual successor, Abdulla Yameen, has since suspended parts of the constitution, giving himself sweeping powers to arrest and detain opponents, including two of the country’s five Supreme Court justices and even his own half-brother. Meanwhile, Yameen has tossed out Nasheed’s climate adaptation plans and rejected renewable energy programs, proposing instead to build new islands and economic free zones attractive to a global elite. “We do not need cabinet meetings underwater,” his environment minister told The Guardian. “We do not need to go anywhere. We need development.”

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. This is perhaps the most overlooked threat of climate change: 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.

Number of the Maldives’ inhabited islands that flood annually:

37 of 185

Number that will eventually need to be abandoned:


The Maldives’ Freedom House Rating:

Dropped 20 percentage points since Nasheed was deposed

Sources: The United Nations; The Guardian; Freedom House

Refugee crises, famine, drought—these are materials strongmen can use to build power. 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. According to a 2016 paper in Science, climate change will increase the risk of armed conflict across Africa by 50 percent by 2030. Eastern Africa is particularly vulnerable. The genocidal strife in Darfur is one of the bloodiest examples, but even countries with robust economies and democracies are susceptible. In Kenya, for example, a crippling drought has led to rapid inflation of food prices, doubling the number of food-insecure people since 2014. That, and disputes over who owns land in the Laikipia region, north of Nairobi, has contributed to violent clashes there, threatening the political stability of the country. This has enabled Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta to tighten his grip on power. In October, amid reports that he’d rigged a recent presidential election, Kenyatta declared the drought a national disaster—this, just weeks before the next round of voting. He was reelected and, amid continued chaos, has cracked down on his opponents in the media.

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.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2015 drew a direct link between the 2007–2010 drought in the greater Fertile Crescent, which “exacerbated existing water and agricultural insecurity and caused massive agricultural failures and livestock mortality,” and Syria’s 2011 civil war, which has forced millions of people to seek refuge in Europe. Their arrival has helped fuel antidemocratic movements throughout the continent. “Even the specter of refugee crises and population movements can impact attitudes toward authoritarianism,” said Jonathan Weiler, co-author of Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. These fears aren’t going away: According to a 2017 study published in The Lancet, extreme weather could displace up to a billion people around the world by the middle of the twenty-first century—an unprecedented human migration will undoubtedly influence the politics of wealthy countries, pushing them to the right.

The best way to counteract this phenomenon is naturally to halt, or at least 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, with the United States threatening to withdraw. 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.