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The COVID & carbon rights killers – ‘Authoritarianism is said to be the only option’

A new paper in the American Political Science Review raises the prospect of a COVID-like policy response to climate change and carbon emissions. The author, Ross Mittiga, outlines his argument in an introduction to his paper, “Political Legitimacy, Authoritarianism, and Climate Change.”

Mittiga opens with a question.

“Is authoritarian power ever legitimate? The contemporary political theory literature — which largely conceptualizes legitimacy in terms of democracy or basic rights — would seem to suggest not. I argue, however, that there exists another, overlooked aspect of legitimacy concerning a government’s ability to ensure safety and security. While, under normal conditions, maintaining democracy and rights is typically compatible with guaranteeing safety, in emergency situations, conflicts between these two aspects of legitimacy can and often do arise. A salient example of this is the COVID-19 pandemic, during which severe limitations on free movement and association have become legitimate techniques of government. Climate change poses an even graver threat to public safety. Consequently, I argue, legitimacy may require a similarly authoritarian approach. While unsettling, this suggests the political importance of climate action. For if we wish to avoid legitimating authoritarian power, we must act to prevent crises from arising that can only be resolved by such means.”

Mittiga, an assistant professor at the Instituto de Ciencia Política in Chile, raises a vital issue for our times. He seeks to determine “under what conditions authoritarian climate governance may be considered legitimate.”

As a colourful example, Mittiga cites the TV series based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, during which the commander of the authoritarian government of the Republic of Gilead boasts that his government has “reduced carbon emissions by 78 per cent in just three years.” As Mittiga sees it, the state of Gilead’s climate action bestows a level of legitimacy on the totalitarian regime.

Governments operate under two levels of political legitimacy, argues Mittiga. Foundational legitimacy involves the government’s ability and power to ensure the safety and security of its citizens. At the same time, “contingent legitimacy” requires the government to adhere to basic democratic rights, including legal systems that protect individual rights and freedoms.

At what point, asks Mittiga, does the state have a responsibility to prioritize its foundational legitimacy — referred to as FL — over its contingent legitimacy (CL)? His answer: when the limits imposed by the rights associated with CL make it impossible to achieve desired objectives during states of emergency, such as COVID and climate change.

“Prioritizing FL over CL in crisis moments may entail embracing authoritarian governance,” writes Mittiga. “Authoritarian governance is a blunt instrument, only to be wielded in times of great exigency.”

Climate change is one of those times, although Mittiga spends much wordage explaining that the authoritarian approach should be adopted only when all non-authoritarian options have proven to be ineffective. Such is the case with climate change. After “decades of inaction,” a climate emergency has developed that requires “emergency of action.”

Authoritarian climate governance might include prohibitions on eating meat “even if doing so cuts against the wishes of democratic publics or violates individual or group-based rights.”

A “censorship regime” might be necessary to curb climate deniers. Or there may be a need to relax property rights “in order to nationalize, shutter, or re-purpose certain companies, particularly in the energy and agricultural sectors.”

None of this is especially novel or shocking. As U.S. climate skeptic Marc Morano writes in response to Mittiga, the COVID-carbon link has been well-established. Celebrated socialist economist Mariana Mazzucato long ago suggested that unless we do capitalism differently, climate “lockdowns” may be needed to “limit private-vehicle use, ban consumption of red meat, and impose extreme energy-saving measures, while fossil-fuel companies would have to stop drilling.”

And so, as the pandemic crisis eventually recedes, the ideas behind the policy approaches to COVID-19 will not go with it. As we hunker down in solitary under the Omicron lockdown, better now to start thinking about secretly filling the solar-powered freezer with ribeyes.