It is well known that democratic backsliding and the climate emergency pose some of the most formidable challenges to human rights today. As authoritarian leaders around the world seek to dismantle the democracies that brought them to power, they advance legal reforms that weaken human rights and persecute organizations that defend them. Meanwhile, the scale and severity of the impacts of global warming—from mass forced displacement to the physical and mental suffering of victims of fires, floods, heat waves, and other extreme weather events—are already calling into question the full range of human rights.
What has been much less analyzed are the connections between the democratic crisis and the climate crisis. While democratic backsliding has emerged as a topic of interest for social scientists and organizations focused on civil and political rights advocacy, the climate crisis tends to concern mostly natural scientists, environmentalists, and organizations that concentrate on collective rights. Isolated in their thematic silos, analysts and advocates often lose sight of the relationship between the health of democracy and the health of the planet.
This disconnect is both an analytical and a strategic blind spot. Inattention to the interconnections between democratic stability and climate stability flies in the face of mounting evidence of their interrelationship. Rising temperatures are linked to the proliferation of armed conflicts, food shortages, and economic recessions; these crises weaken democratic regimes and create conditions conducive to the advance of authoritarian movements and governments. At the same time, without the democratic checks and balances that hold governments accountable and give voice to the most affected citizens and communities, democratic systems run the risk of being captured by the most influential sectors that oppose climate change action—from fossil fuel producers to the agribusiness and mining interests that drive the deforestation of tropical forests.
If all this sounds familiar, it is because it has already happened. In studying the environmental policies and regulations pushed by authoritarians around the world who were elected in the last decade, we have found a clear pattern. Regardless of their right-wing or left-wing political orientation, the reforms pursued by such autocratic legalists often aim not only to undermine the rule of law but also to dilute legal protections for the environment and those who defend it.
The authoritarian anti-environmental script
Perhaps the most explicit and grotesque illustration is the government of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, where anti-democracy and anti-environmentalism were one and the same. The Bolsonaro administration openly and systematically deployed the three types of measures we detected in our study.
First, Bolsonaro’s government methodically weakened environmental regulatory institutions through means that similar governments have used. It subordinated environmental authorities to other state entities with ties to sectors responsible for deforestation or opposed to the energy transition. The administration then co-opted these authorities by diluting citizen participation in their decisions and appointing managers who sabotaged their mission (as did the director of the National Agency for Indigenous Peoples, FUNAI). Finally, the government defunded regulatory agencies and instructed them not to exercise their oversight powers, leading to a notorious drop in monitoring and sanctions against deforesters and illegal miners.
Second, Bolsonaro used his voice and his government to harass environmental defenders, whom he stigmatized with repeated and unfounded accusations of pushing foreign political and economic agendas. Bolsonaro persecuted Indigenous peoples with particular viciousness, to the point of provoking humanitarian crises in territories such as the northern Amazon region inhabited by the Yanomami people.
Third, consistent with the nationalist script of elected autocrats, Bolsonaro obstructed international negotiations and reneged on existing agreements on issues such as climate change and biodiversity protection.
Ultimately, Bolsonaro is not an exception so much as an exaggeration—all three tactics have been used by other elected authoritarian governments, and some have gone even further. For example, Vladimir Putin has been a formidable obstacle to global agreements and action against climate change. In India, the Modi government has been systematically chipping away at environmental laws and protections like the recent amendments to the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. In the Philippines, the government has resorted to the tactic of aggressively harassing environmental defenders as a way to intimidate and criminalize them. A decade ago, the leftist government of Rafael Correa systematically persecuted environmental and Indigenous leaders in Ecuador, whom he dubbed the “infantile left” for opposing his oil and mining projects.
From analysis to action
Given the abundant evidence of connections between anti-democratic and anti-environmental agendas, the paucity of studies on this issue is striking. This analytical gap is conspicuous in the growing literature on the erosion of democracy and the trend toward autocratization around the world. Further, alongside efforts to document the anti-environmental component of this trend, there is a need to theorize and explain its origins and internal logic, as authors of national case studies have begun to demonstrate. A particularly fertile field for this type of work is the politics of climate change. Take, for instance, Michael Lockwood’s analysis of why right-wing authoritarian populism may be linked to anti-climate policies. Lockwood’s hypothesis is that global warming skepticism is part of a right-wing populist worldview that is distrustful of the “cosmopolitan elites” (scientists, technocrats, transnational activists, and members of the mainstream media) advancing the climate action agenda. More research through this lens would allow us to understand these intersecting crises with greater clarity and precision.
The gap in the discussion, however, is not only analytical; it is also strategic. To take the democracy–climate connection seriously would mean prioritizing cases at the intersection of the two fields.
On the one hand, advocates will need to defend the mechanisms of democratic participation in decision-making processes on environmental issues in general and climate issues in particular. Some of these mechanisms, included in treaties like Escazú and Aarhus, facilitate citizen access to relevant information such as environmental impact studies, citizen feedback and recommendations, and the protection of environmental defenders. Others seek to deepen citizen participation in crafting climate policies, as citizen assemblies have done in countries such as France and Ireland.
On the other hand, pro-democracy and pro-climate activism will need to be bridged through reports, campaigns, litigation, and other actions that pay equal attention to environmental rights when discussing civil, political, and social rights.
Democratic backsliding and the climate crisis are intertwined challenges, with authoritarian leaders dismantling human rights and hindering climate action. It’s time to connect the dots and address the dangerous synergy between anti-democratic and anti-environmental agendas.