Daniel BaerDirector of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
No, democracies don’t downplay human rights in order to engage authoritarians on climate, or at least they shouldn’t. In fact, in Egypt, where I am for COP27 as I write this, a climate diplomacy event has ended up shining a spotlight on Egypt’s poor human rights record, as the sister of Alaa Abd el-Fattah, the British-Egyptian activist, was shouted down by a pro-government member of parliament, who was then removed by UN security.
Authoritarians and would-be authoritarians—including those in democracies—are generally bad on both human rights and climate. Human rights and climate action both serve the interests—and rights—of the many. Authoritarians typically serve the few. Trading off human rights for climate action won’t work; this isn’t the same as when democracies look the other way because of an economic relationship.
Perhaps the most complicated case is China, an authoritarian regime currently carrying out genocide that is also an essential global actor in the fight against climate change. While international pressure is insufficient to improve China’s rights record, Beijing will take action on climate for its own reasons, including its huge environmental challenges domestically and its correct assessment that energy transition is a point of competitive advantage.
In fact, the hard case on downplaying human rights comes after climate agreements are struck: will advanced democracies look the other way when they transfer resources and facilitate investment for climate action and energy transition to less developed countries, many of which have authoritarian leaders?
Reinhard BütikoferForeign Affairs Coordinator of the Greens/European Free Alliance Group in the European Parliament
Battling against run-away climate catastrophe and defending human rights against a wave of authoritarianism are two fundamental political and ethical challenges that my generation and the next two at least can only ignore at our common peril. Both of these struggles are weakened if they are pursued in an either/or way.
There certainly have been attempts to play climate change against human rights. The People’s Republic of China has tried that by threatening to cut climate change cooperation unless European and American critics of Beijing’s atrocious human rights record shut up. But that hasn’t amounted to more than a failing propaganda stunt.
Neither is it credible to imply that an authoritarian regime would reduce CO2 emissions by one single ton if human rights advocacy subsided. Nor can a country like China afford to cage in their own policy options so narrowly. Standing in the way of climate change policy because of the Xi Jinping regime’s opposition to human rights, that would hurt them quite substantially with many countries of the Global South, who are primary victims of climate change, and it would also disrupt their own development needs at home.
Fighting against climate change is a human right. And without defending human rights, climate change policy and activism will be much less impactful.
Marwa DaoudyAssociate professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service
The international community currently faces a dilemma: how to balance the urgency of curbing global warming with accountability for human rights violations. COP26 ended with the Glasgow Climate Pact, urging new pledges toward emission reductions to avoid an increase to 2.4 degrees by the end of the century.
As a host to the COP27, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has positioned himself as a global leader on climate justice, pressing the international community to consider the losses incurred by developing countries. The underlying issue is one of climate injustice, driven by the fundamental historical imbalance in contributions to greenhouse gas emissions between rich and poor countries and regions.
Climate justice implies, however, communal and individual well-being, beyond state security. El-Sisi has made environmental activism and research practically impossible at home. Egypt’s civil society activists continue to be criminalized and the government detains more than 60,000 political prisoners, including Alaa Abd El-Fattah, a symbol of the 2011 revolution on hunger strike for more than six months. By addressing concerns about climate change but doing little to protect or empower vulnerable populations, many countries may “greenwash” their way through the global climate agenda. Such practices bode ill for the future of international climate justice.
Paul HaenleMaurice R. Greenberg Director’s Chair at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
The United States and China have a mixed track record of cooperating on climate change. Despite progress made between the two sides at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, China suspended working-level dialogues on climate change in the wake of renewed tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
China often allows tensions in the broader U.S.-China relationship to impede cooperation on discrete issues like climate change, and Beijing has a particular history of suspending cooperation when disagreements in other areas of the bilateral relationship arise. That said, the two sides have achieved notable successes in the past, in particular by signing the November 2014 Joint Announcement on Climate Change and the September 2015 and March 2016 joint presidential statements on climate change, which paved the way for global action on change and culminated in the Paris Agreement.
Washington and Beijing should build on their past successes by not letting differences on other issues interfere with Sino-American cooperation aimed at mitigating an existential threat that impacts not only the United States and China, but the entirety of the international community.
Olivia LazardFellow at Carnegie Europe
Far from it. Human rights are part and parcel of climate-related discussions on adaptation and justice.
For one, COP27 is an opportune moment to refocus conversations on the dangers of authoritarianism and human rights abuses. The media coverage on the human rights situation in Egypt has not been this high in years. In the first two days of the conference, heads of state took the opportunity to be at COP to engage with Egyptian leaders on specific cases of human rights abuse and unlawful detention.
Second, let’s remember that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II report earlier this year emitted a strong and specific message: climate vulnerability is not just determined by physical impacts of climate change. Such impacts have longer-lasting effects on vulnerability and fragility when societies already suffer from inequality, protracted violence, and structural issues that weaken resilience.
Egypt is a case in point. As conversations at COP progress about adaptation in the next two weeks, the profound connections between physical and societal adaptation will have to be addressed, and these content-heavy conversations will shed an indirect albeit powerful light on the necessity for a country like Egypt to clean up on its human rights regime as part of its road toward better climate resilience.
And lastly: Russia’s war in Ukraine is having deeply negative impacts on food security in countries like Egypt; this naturally tends to heighten anxieties around a repeat of the Arab Spring. Those most prone to food price vulnerability are mostly populations that tend to suffer from structural marginalization, poverty, and inequality. In a country like Egypt, they are the ones most likely to suffer from repression and human rights abuses. This is also some something that will be discussed at COP.
Francesco SiccardiSenior Research Analyst at Carnegie Europe
Yes. In recent years, the rise of climate activism has galvanized global civil society. Across the board, governments have often responded by adopting harsh measures against climate protests.
This dynamic is all the more worrying in authoritarian contexts, where environmental protests stand out because they often relate to more than environmental threats. The case of Turkey is exemplary in this respect. In the creeping authoritarian system created by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, poor environmental policies are functional for maintaining the government’s tight grip on power. But they also provide the green movement with a larger platform around which other social forces can coalesce. By calling out the government’s rent-seeking in its large infrastructure projects and over-exploitation of natural resources, activists point to corruption, bad governance, and the dismantling of the rule of law.
Today, Turkey’s civil society organizations, including environmental ones, operate under enormous pressure. Their repression has been harsher after 2013, when the Gezi Park protests against an urban transformation project galvanized different strands of the Turkish social movements to become one of the largest antigovernment demonstrations in the country’s history.
Since then, the Turkish government has taken control of the green agenda. It has kept promoting its exploitative policies while portraying itself as the only true repository of environmentalism and doubling down on the repression of civil society. This playbook is becoming increasingly popular among authoritarian leaders.
Nick WestcottDirector of the Royal African Society at SOAS University London
Both democracies and autocracies face real challenges in tackling climate change. Both need to persuade their citizens that the short-term costs are worth the long-term gains.
Authoritarian governments are often as concerned as democracies not to impose unnecessary costs on their people for fear of losing legitimacy, even if not at risk of losing elections. Others, such as Russia, simply regard climate consequences as irrelevant compared to the priority of fuelling their war machine.
In dealing with these governments on climate change, democratic leaders have to judge whether their citizens care more about action on climate or on human rights. Obviously, both are desirable, and failure to act on one may weaken the efforts to deal with the other: repressive governments, for example, may be overthrown and their climate commitments abandoned; or because they are unaccountable, the public desire for climate action may have no impact on government policies.
But where both are not simultaneously achievable, a judgement must be made. To get China to take serious action on climate would be good for the whole world; to stop repression in Xinjiang would be good for the Uyghurs. Who gets to choose?