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  • Writer's pictureEthan Olson

Government and Climate Change

Are certain types, systems, or qualities of government better at promoting exceptional climate change policy than others? The following excerpt — from a broader research project aimed at analyzing the role factor endowments, interests, and institutions play in determining countries’ climate change policies — examines the impact of democracy; the performance of parliamentary vs. presidential systems; the influence of lobbying structures; and the effects of electoral malapportionment on national climate change performance.

Democratic Institutions

Various authors have published papers debating the role democracy and democratic values play in addressing climate change and other environmental problems. Further investigation reveals that generally, researchers find that democracy is beneficial to climate change performance, with a few caveats here and there.

Lachapelle and Paterson found in their study that democratic countries experienced “a significantly lower emissions growth of about 45% (even when controlling for other institutional variables in the model).” They also discovered democracies were more likely to implement mitigation policy across all policy types.

While Roger D. Congleton’s study of air pollution finds that democracies emit large amounts of pollutants, it also finds these countries more inclined to participate in international climate regimes. Authoritarian governments, meanwhile, are less inclined to implement environmental regulations. This is because power-seeking individuals in these types of countries can not count on reliable paths to higher positions in government and, because of their unstable nature, can not often count on long terms in office. As a result, this leads to a regime that values short-term gains over long-term environmental issues. These findings are supported by a similar study that concluded that increases in the size of the selectorate relative to the winning coalition in countries is tied to decreases in SO2 concentrations.

Democratic values may also benefit a country’s climate change performance. Greater political rights, specifically those that protect freedom of speech and information, allow activists and environmental organizations to raise awareness more effectively than in countries with more authoritarian laws. A free press can report on environmental issues that may otherwise be censored by autocrats, and the public is more likely to be informed. In turn, citizens are more likely to engage and voice their concern regarding specific problems, such as climate change.

Political repression is shown to be particularly effective in supporting “pollution regimes” in middle-income, industrializing countries. Namely, the suppression of labor via strong militant presences, restriction of unions, and limits on civil rights play an important role in ensuring the state keeps production costs low. Lowering these expenses is the primary way these countries can be competitive in the world economy, by offering cheap prices for their goods.

Democracies may also be better posed to tackle climate change through their most fundamental characteristic: elections. Activists and concerned members of the public can attain political representation, support environmentally-friendly political parties, and vote for policymakers who will pass climate change legislation. In authoritarian regimes, beneficial climate policy only passes through the approval of a concentrated few, who are much less likely to support public good protections.

Finally, the beneficial effects of democracy for climate change may present themselves through the Kuznets curve. This curve displays the hypothesis that, as national incomes/economic development increases, environmental deterioration first increases, and then decreases past a certain point. One study finds evidence for this relationship in four categories: carbon dioxide emissions per capita, nitrogen oxide emissions per capita, the rate of deforestation, and the level of land degradation. Since national income often increases with democratization, democracy may have this valuable, albeit indirect effect on climate change performance.

Despite all these findings, not everyone believes that democracy is necessarily good for mitigating climate change.

For example, democracies do have the disadvantage of being more vulnerable to the puppet strings of interest groups, thanks to their largely market-oriented economies. Corporate interests can lobby politicians and persuade them to block climate policy, in exchange for funds that will help them get reelected and retain power. The potency of this problem is best seen in the United States, where millions of dollars have been invested into climate lobbying from fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobile and Chevron.

Another dilemma with democracies presents itself when environmentalist and corporate interest groups can push and pull on policymakers to create legislative gridlock. In an attempt to please the highest volume of their constituents, politicians may choose to side with neither side (to avoid creating disapproval with large blocks of voters) or to side with both, proposing weak legislation that creates an illusion of working with both sides, when in reality the contradicting nature of the two interests means this is impossible.

So which side is correct? Are democracies and democractic values good for climate change performance, or harmful? To offer some independent observation on this question, the overall scores of the 56 countries in the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) were compared with their respective scores in several indexes measuring the strength of their democratic values. The higher the CCPI score, the better that country’s performance in mitigating climate change. The results of this analysis are shown here:

These Ordinary Least Squares regressions reveal that as democracy; human rights and rule of law; fiscal freedom; political rights; and voice and accountability increase, climate change performance increases as well. These relationships seem to suggest that democracy is good for climate change policy, at least among the 56 countries observed here.

Government Forms, Structures, & Characteristics

Although most of these 56 countries are democracies, their individual governmental institutions differ remarkably from one another.

Presidential vs. Parliamentary Systems

One institutional question that has been raised by several authors asks whether presidential or parliamentary systems facilitate climate change legislation more efficiently. Presidential systems include a separate executive branch that is occupied by the elected president as the head of state and the head of government. In parliamentary systems, elected parliament members decide on a prime minister to serve as the head of government — unlike presidents, they often work directly with the legislature to write up laws.

According to Hugh Ward, parliamentary systems are better at providing environmental public goods for several reasons. First, votes of confidence in parliamentary systems ensure that coalitions' grips on power are dependent on their ability to please the majority, which often manifests in the distribution of public goods. Second, the presidential system of checks and balances encourages logrolling and “particularistic policies serving powerful minorities.” Finally, since presidents are not members of the legislative branch, the negotiations between the legislature and the executive branch provide favorable circumstances for special interests to wedge themselves into the political conversation.

Lachapelle and Paterson’s study supports this argument, finding that countries with parliamentary systems experienced about 24% smaller emissions growth in the post-Kyoto period than countries with some variation of a presidential system. The study also found parliamentary systems to be more likely to pass mitigation policies, particularly regulations and carbon taxes. One explanation for this disparity argues that, because of the separation of powers in presidential systems, there are more opportunities for climate change bills to be vetoed. For example, in the United States legislation must make it through the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the President before passing into law, which even then is subject to judicial scrutiny from the Supreme Court. There are simply less opportunities for climate change policy to be blocked in parliamentary systems. Another explanation posits that presidential systems in authoritarian states such as China and Saudi Arabia are less influenced by public opinion on climate, since they actively work and succeed at suppressing dissent.

Several other authors, however, claim that parliamentary systems lag behind at providing their citizens with environmental public goods. Bueno de Mesquita argues that since “parliamentary systems behave as if they have smaller winning coalitions than do presidential systems,” they are more likely to provide private goods, while presidential systems are more likely to provide public goods. Bernauer and Koubi build on this, finding statistically significant evidence that, among their reviewed countries, countries with presidential systems emit less air pollutants than countries with parliamentary systems.

Among the 56 countries analyzed in this report, parliamentary systems have, on average, slightly higher overall CCPI scores, as shown here:

The close distance between the two averages may suggest that while each system has its advantages over the other, neither is definitively better or more well-positioned to mitigate climate change.


Lobbying is another political institution that can have dramatic effects on climate change policy. Lobbying allows special interest groups to influence policymakers through persuasion, rewards, and sometimes bribery. The rules and norms that guide the lobbying process, however, differ from country to country. The clearest way in which these differences present themselves can be seen by looking at a study comparing the efforts of lobbyists in the United States and the European Union. In the US, success rates for corporations and trade associations come in at 89% and 53% respectively. 60% of citizen groups and 63% of foundations — which fight for common good issues (such as climate change) — fail. Compare this to the EU, where citizen groups and foundations win at rates of 56% and 67%, ratios about equal to their industrial peers. Election structure is largely to blame for these disparities. Wherein the US legislators are constantly cognizant of upcoming re-elections, most policymakers in the EU are not elected, but appointed. In the US, wealthy corporate lobbies can promise campaign funds to help members of congress stay in power. In the EU, there are often simply no campaigns to run. As such, there are far fewer incentives to make deals with companies worried about carbon prices and energy efficiency standards.


The mere presence of elections are not the only important electoral factor shaping climate change policy: the structure of elections matter too. According to one study, the allocation of representatives to voters is influential in determining certain policy outcomes. Malapportionment is at the heart of this issue. The study finds that in countries with political systems that are malapportioned to give disproportionately large representation to rural voters, lower gasoline taxes are found. On top of this, these countries also lagged behind their more proportionally represented counterparts in their ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. Since rural voters tend to be more reliant on fossil fuels (for things such as farm machinery and transportation) and, on average, more politically conservative, bestowing them with more political power through disproportionate amounts of government representatives naturally leads to more climate policy blockage.

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