Climate change fuels dictatorships in island nations

  Last updated September 13, 2019 at 3:13 pm


Researchers suggest that significant storm events corrode the democracy of small island nations, creating ‘storm autocracies’.

storm autocracies_storm_beach

Researchers suggest that substantial storm events such as typhoons and cyclones can create storm autocracies in small island nations.

Researchers have found strong links between the acts of government oppression and the timing and frequency of storms affecting island nations.

Mehmet Ulubasoglu from Deakin Business School and researchers from both Deakin and Monash University used data from the Polity Score, an international political analysis tool that places governing authorities on a scale from full autocracy, such as a dictatorship or absolute monarchy, to consolidated democracy.

Political oppression increases following storm events

The researchers found that on average an island nation’s Polity Score dropped by 3.46 per cent in the year following a significant storm event, and 10.1 per cent over the subsequent five years.

They also found that these governments increased their level of political oppression by around 2.5 per cent per year following storm events such as cyclones, typhoons, hurricanes and tornados.

Ulubasoglu says a comparative analysis showed neither of these effects were experienced by landlocked or coastal countries, while the effect was noticeably more pronounced in smaller island countries, compared to their larger counterparts.

Providing relief gives a window of opportunity for crackdowns

Hurricane Irma devastated island countries in 2017. Credit: Erika Santelices/AFP/Getty Images

The research team had developed some theories about why this was the case, using an economic analysis tool called 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,” Ulubasoglu says.

“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.”

Storm autocracies are another consequence of climate change

Ulubasoglu says the new research helps to explain why storm-prone small island countries around the globe, such as Haiti, Fiji or the Philippines, had remained autocratic over prolonged periods.

“These are countries we’re now dubbing ‘storm autocracies’,” he says.

“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.

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.”

Ulubasoglu says that this research highlights the likelihood of storm autocracies becoming more common.

“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.”


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