Climate justice and democracy: authoritarianism and justice challenges in sustainable rural development

Senast ändrad: 22 februari 2024

Noémi Gonda.

In my research, I focus on the processes through which rural development and climate change policies and projects can contribute to bolstering undemocratic political regimes. I start from the hypothesis that the crisis of democracy and the multiplication of authoritarian governments across the globe can hamper sustainable rural development, including efforts at coping with climate change in just and equitable ways. Yet, the precise ways through which this happens urgently requires scrutiny. Hence, my aim is to contribute to answering the following question:

How can democracy be integrated in current climate justice debates to allow for more inclusive and just sustainable rural development processes?

Rural areas are key for the fight against climate change while the most marginalized rural populations bear the brunt of climate change effects. For rural areas, climate justice entails the recognition that the impacts of climate change and some of its proposed solutions result from unjust processes such as land grabbing, territorial conflicts, colonial legacies as well as exclusions based on identity factors such ethnicity, gender, class or political affiliation.

Justice aspects are increasingly central to climate change policies. The Paris climate agreement refers to ‘equity, human rights and justice’ while the European Green Deal has the aspiration of ‘leaving no one behind’ in the transition away from fossil fuels. However, these ambitions bring about a set of justice dilemmas that climate justice scholars have so far only partially engaged with. They have called for attention to the uneven distribution of costs and benefits of climate change projects; the marginalization of certain segments of society, and; the absence of remediation mechanisms. In my empirical research, these injustices manifest themselves in how marginalised Hungarian Roma people become trapped in energy poverty despite pro-poor energy transition policies, or in how Indigenous territories in Nicaragua are grabbed for climate change mitigation projects without the consent of residents.

This important research on climate justice is to date overwhelmingly done from economic and policy-making perspectives. In undemocratic states like Hungary and Nicaragua, however, because so much policy is intended to centralise control of both the population and the economy – including through corruption, fraud and the manipulation of public opinion – economic incentives and policy-making are insufficient in and of themselves to ensure desired justice outcomes in efforts to cope with climate change. What the current climate justice scholarship misses in my above examples is that: the historical exclusions of the energy-poor Roma from democratic decision-making spaces reinforce energy injustices, and that; climate change mitigation projects in Nicaragua help greenwash a repressive dictatorship whose stability relies on land grabbing in Indigenous territories.

In my research, I see undemocratic polities being much more than simply ‘the context’ in which rural development and climate change policies need to be implemented. Indeed, in undemocratic countries, such as Hungary and Nicaragua, climate justice debates can only take place with an elephant in the room: ‘green authoritarianism’. Green authoritarianism relates to the processes through which ‘just’ environmental policies and actions are used to consolidate undemocratic political regimes.

In this lecture, based on in-depth qualitative research in Hungary and Nicaragua, I explain some of these processes. I examine not only the disparity between policies and their real-world implementation but also the specific democratic challenges that arise in climate and rural development politics. Building on the resilience, energy, climate and environmental justice scholarship from decolonial, feminist and anti-authoritarian political ecology perspectives, I explore:

  1. the rural pillars of authoritarianism in Hungary, namely: unequal land relations, agricultural subsidies and agricultural commodity sales;
  2. The contradictions through which ‘just’, ‘pro-vulnerable’ policies and projects morph into their opposite. Exclusionary climate change politics that are presented as inclusionary have been instrumental for consolidating the Nicaraguan dictatorship.

My future research agenda includes contributing to new conceptualisations of democracy within climate justice that are cross-scalar, include the rights of nature, and are actionable in the face of the proliferation of authoritarian governments. My efforts are, I argue, urgent to fulfil environmental goals aligned with the Paris Agreement´s and the European Green Deal´s ambitions of transitioning away from fossil fuels while ‘leaving no one behind’.