The Role of Cities in Climate Governance under Populist Governments

By Gülşen Doğan, BROAD-ER PhD Researcher, Political Science and International Relations, Koç University, Istanbul

While authoritarian populism and migration crisis dominate the global political debate, an additional challenge, the climate crisis, emerges for the future of democracy. In the current Ukrainian energy crisis, the gap between energy demand and supply will be one of those challenges that would create another tradeoff over democracy as it did for security after 9/11 and populism after the 2008 financial crisis. It will, therefore, add a new dimension to the democratic challenge in the future because it solidifies the inequalities between and within countries. Local governments will be the key actors in responding to these challenges by developing principal policies. But, how can the local governments influence the climate-related policy making under the rule of right-wing populists in power?

Populist countries would recognize the importance of climate change governance in cities and develop policies based on institutional and ideological conditions. Alternative explanations might be the role of civil society over the policy-making on the environment in addition to these institutional and ideological factors. However, although labor unions work in favor of a better environment, it is difficult to talk about “labor environmentalism” in some countries like Brazil as witnessed in countries such as the United Kingdom and Spain (Stevis, et al., 2018). Since the current neoliberal regimes prioritize business interests like in Brazil, one of the main concerns of labor unions has been securing its members’ employment. Consequently, they have not shown much interest in questioning the degradation of nature and readily accept that there could be a trade-off between employment and the environment (Kadirbeyoğlu et al., 2017). Environmental civil society in the form of NGOs and social movements have been active in the political arena of populist countries although their impact has become limited following the democratic backsliding in the last decade with increased polarization of the social sphere. Civil society organizations also politicized with enfeebled freedom of speech and association. Because of the deep ideological and cultural divide in those countries, populist governments tend to view environmental organizations and movements as part of the opposition forces and thereby ignoring their commitment to environmental protection. Accordingly, institutional and ideological factors further help to understand the environmental policies because of the limited effect of environmental policy-oriented civil society on policy dimensions in some countries.

Firstly, state capacity may differ across countries (Atkinson et al., 1989). Based on different policy areas, states can be strong in their economic policy but weak in health policy. Although the concept of state capacity is problematic and debated, state capacity is mostly seen as the ability of state institutions to implement the policies effectively or as a critical element for democratic consolidation, rule of law, provision of essential goods, economic growth, territorial reach, independence from non-state actors, and bureaucratic capability (Mann, 1984; Acemoglu, 2005; Rotberg, 2004; Soifer, 2008; Ziblatt, 2008). Accordingly, populist governments could oppose environmental policies if it causes enormous costs to the national economy. This is especially important considering the growing economic vulnerability in such countries. Hence, increasing costs for the infrastructural transformations would be critical for cities of those countries. On the other hand, territorial reach is the state’s ability to implement environmental policy. For example, the degree of the subnational governments’ ability to implement environmental policy decisions would be more critical in the decentralized country, Brazil compared to city governance in the unitary state like Istanbul in Turkey. Lastly, administrative capacity is important to develop policies and deliver public goods and services. This needs technical competency and a professional bureaucracy, autonomous from political pressure for an effective reach across state territory. Therefore, professionalization and institutionalization of bureaucracy is important in analyzing and implementing environmental policies, raising revenues for sustainable development in states considering the existence of a knowledge infrastructure capable of supporting strategic planning and policy development (Huber et al., 2021; Mazzuca 2010). This factor is also associated with territorial reach. If budget and staffs do not increase or decrease over time, then bureaucratic capacity can be assessed as low. For example, Brazilian state capacity is historically poor. Nonetheless, there are institutional structures for building coordination between the federal government and sub-national governments. This has led to the integration of environment-related policies across ministries, sectoral policies and national strategies. Despite the federal government’s attitude towards climate change mitigation measures, states and cities could increase their commitment to climate action. The state has been raising climate finance from international climate funds and finances its climate projects through its National Fund on Climate Change and the Amazon Fund. However, climate finance channels decreased under right-wing populist Bolsonaro government (Kahlen et al., 2021). Because of these budget cuts and institutional rearrangements, there was very limited opportunity for institutional learning and capacities in the field of climate mitigation and a transition towards a zero emissions economy.

Secondly, the economic dimension of environmental issues is also linked with the electoral impact and thereby the populist rhetoric of representing “the people”.  Voters tend to support political parties that perform well in government. Therefore, incumbent parties bear the political costs of economic crises (Remmer, 1991). Research also finds a significant correlation between climate scepticism and exclusionary attitudes at the level of the voter (Jylhä, K. and Hellmer, 2020). Protecting the environment could also mean an obligation to protect the “nation” for populists. Hence, the opinions of the voter base who will be the ones to bear the costs will play a role in the policies of the populists. On the other hand, the relationship with the business group is also important in the risk perceptions of populist governments. For now, the business community appears to be pleased with the status quo (Kalaycıoğlu et al., 2005). A very few companies are concerned about environmental issues that serve environmentally sensitive customers. The majority do not have any incentives to adopt the environmental costs they have been creating. Although a Western-style green consumption movement is on the rise, the demand for such commodities and services remains insignificant (Adaman et al., 2020). In practice, strong state capacity could lower the risk perceptions of environmental policy for cities because such city governance would use its resources to ensure the business and the voters that future environmental policy will be stable and provide financial assurances to responsible polluters and individuals. If it means the regime’s survival, such regimes are highly likely to adopt environmental-friendly policies in cities.

Thirdly, international politics could push populist countries to support or oppose environmental politics in cities. This variable is also linked with the state capacity and risk perceptions. For example, regimes with low-risk perceptions will be open to global policy adoptions and memberships while state capacity will also affect their participation in international leadership and policymaking for environmental issues. For example, in the last decade, Brazil’s role in environmental policy changed in an adverse way. Between 2012 and 2018, the Rousseff and Temer administrations have weakened environmental policies. With Bolsonaro’s election in 2018, whose election promises included withdrawing Brazil from the Paris Agreement, the situation has worsened (Reuters, 2018). While Brazil is still a party to the Paris Agreement, its environmental regulations have been weakened and deforestation rates in the Amazon increased considerably (Silva Junior et al., 2021). As a result, global funds removed but expected to be given under the new left-wing populist administration. Many Brazilian cities also have connections with international networks working in climate change which supports the protection of Amazon Forest. Considering that Brazil needs international support to implement climate change policies, the role of international institutions is an important factor.

Consequently, the responsibility of states as the most influential actors of global system, is still crucial for the environmental problems and adaptation processes. However, with the increasing city governance, the role of cities has gained great importance. As a result, the environmental policies of cities in populist governments play a role in regional and global climate change governance. The cities’ political, economic, and social forces shape environmental policies in domestic politics.


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