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The chaos factor

  • Written by  Paul F Steinberg
  • Published in Opinions
Soldiers lined up in Bangkok, Thailand Soldiers lined up in Bangkok, Thailand Chris Singshinsuk
08 May
There’s a need to take political instability around the world far more seriously when devising strategies for protecting our planet

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the efforts underway to address the effects of climate change through a global treaty to be signed in Paris in December.

Policymakers have rallied around the idea of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide by paying landowners in poor countries to protect their forests. As a supplement to emissions cuts in industrialised countries, forest-based carbon capture holds great promise. But in the rush to craft an agreement that includes developing countries, there is a question no one is asking: Is sustainable governance of forests even possible within political systems that are themselves unsustainable, experiencing chronic turnover through wars, constitutional crises and coups?

Placing tropical forests under the protective umbrella of the climate treaty makes perfect sense. Forests absorb about a third of the carbon released by burning fossil fuels, but most of that is offset by deforestation in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The UN’s REDD+ program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) can help rebalance the global carbon budget while compensating farmers in the tropics for the environmental services they provide. Environmental treaties, however, are only effective if they change the rules governing behaviour on the ground. Energy and transportation policies, timber company contracts and local land use agreements – these rules decide whether forests survive, who benefits from their use, and whether we can combat global problems while promoting local livelihoods.

Almost half the world’s tropical forests are in countries plagued by violent conflict

To be effective, social rules must have a measure of staying power. It is no coincidence that the only system of payments for forest conservation to last more than a decade is found in Latin America’s most stable democracy – Costa Rica. Costa Ricans created their innovative program, piece by piece, from the 1969 Forestry Law to ongoing policy experimentation today.

In most of the world, political and economic upheaval are the norm, upending efforts to institutionalise sustainability. From 1970 to 2010, one in every six countries eligible for REDD+ funding experienced a complete collapse in central state authority for one or more years. Between 1971 and 2009, 111 successful military coups took place in 36 percent of these countries. Almost half the world’s tropical forests are in countries plagued by violent conflict.

Deeper changes are wrought by turnover in entire constitutional structures, including shifts between democratic and authoritarian regimes. From 1981 to 2010, 329 constitutional replacements occurred in 112 REDD-eligible countries. Over two-thirds of the delegations from developing countries that signed the original climate treaty in 1992 represented political regimes that simply no longer exist.

Even peaceful transitions can produce high staff turnover and the churning of bureaucratic structures. Indonesia, with Asia’s largest tropical forest area, created a cabinet-level REDD+ agency in late 2013; by January of this year it was gone, dissolved by newly elected President.

So what can be done? While it’s not within the power of the international community to halt instability, we can mitigate some of its more pernicious effects. National REDD+ initiatives should be implemented not only by fragile new agencies created for this purpose, but through networks of organisations that will advocate for policy continuity. Managing political uncertainty can be likened to a diversified investment portfolio. Political diversification entails an explicit emphasis on multi-party constituencies, multi-agency collaboration, geographic spread, and the involvement of powerful stakeholders from the governmental, private, and non-profit sectors.

Over two-thirds of the delegations from developing countries that signed the original climate treaty in 1992 represented political regimes that simply no longer exist

Other approaches could include contract provisions requiring extra insurance – in the form of additional forest hectares planted or protected – in countries that have historically experienced high institutional turnover. Countries with credible plans for institutional resilience could command a premium in global carbon markets.

Bureaucracies are supposed to foster policy continuity, but the quality of governance varies widely throughout the tropics. Capacity building efforts should promote system-wide reforms to reduce political patronage and strengthen the civil service. Brazil has shown that watchdog agencies like its Ministério Público can, given sufficient resources, improve public sector accountability and reduce corruption.

In the race to innovate for a greener planet, it’s easy for those of us in stable democracies to take the durability of our institutions for granted. If developing countries are to play a proactive role in protecting the climate, officials must tap the political acumen of those on the ground who understand how to sustain reforms amid chaos.

Paul F Steinberg is Professor of Political Science and Environmental Policy at Harvey Mudd College and author of Who Rules the Earth? How Social Rules Shape Our Planet and Our Lives.

This article was published in the May 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

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