Climate crisis: weak rule of law undermines state resilience

Polly BotsfordThursday 9 November 2023

Image caption: Land after recent wildfire, barren of plants mountains with burned trees trunks, Greece. piece_ov_art/

Over the summer, the world witnessed natural disasters such as the devastating wildfires in Greece, which by early August had burnt through 42,900 hectares of forest. Then came Storm Daniel, one of an increasing number of ‘medicanes’ – tropical-like cyclones that typically form over the Mediterranean Sea. In September, with 400mm of rain falling in 24 hours, two dams burst in Libya and flooded the city of Derna, at the cost of 11,000 lives.

Leaders are often quick to blame the climate crisis for these terrible situations. The Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has pledged to fight a ‘war’ against it. But while it’s very likely that the climate crisis is playing its part in the extent, speed and frequency of these fires, this messaging seems increasingly abstract. What both Greece and Libya have in common is not that they’re feeling the effects of the climate crisis where other countries are not, but that, in the views of some commentators, the climate crisis is operating in a place where governance and law enforcement are weak and where institutions and policy frameworks are undermined.

In the case of Libya, it’s estimated that greenhouse gas emissions have caused 50 per cent more rain than would otherwise have fallen, which then led to the dams bursting and the resulting floods. But the ongoing conflict between the country’s two rival authorities, the UN-backed Government of National Unity and General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which operates in Derna, has been widely seen as contributing to the extent of the disaster. Over a decade of war has eroded everything from state institutions to private enterprise. For instance, as rules around the construction of houses haven’t been followed, dwellings have been built on flood plains.

There have also been suggestions that the dams weren’t properly maintained, being neglected both under Muammar Gaddafi’s regime and by subsequent authorities. Juergen Schurr is Head of Law at non-governmental organisation Lawyers for Justice in Libya. ‘Decades of neglect and corruption have led these dams to be weak, and to eventually break’, he explains. ‘In 2021, Libya’s audit bureau reported that nearly €2.3m had previously been appropriated by Libya’s Ministry of Water with a view to maintain these dams. They even contracted a company to carry out the necessary work, but this work never took place. We can at this stage speculate why this was […] The fact is the dams were not maintained.’

Sometimes the problem is not lack of regulation but that the authorities and agencies don’t act

Florencia Heredia
Chair, IBA Section on Energy, Environment, Natural Resources and Infrastructure Law

Schurr adds that while we can’t prevent natural hazards such as Storm Daniel from happening, states need to be able to protect their citizens from loss of life, displacement and damage as much as possible – and that’s not what happened here.

There’s been widespread criticism of the failure to evacuate the Derna population early enough and to the extent necessary. In a statement in September, the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organisation, Professor Petteri Taalas, observed that ‘the tragedy in Libya highlights the devastating and cascading consequences of extreme weather on fragile states and shows the need for […] multi-hazard early warnings which embrace all levels of government and society’.

Schurr agrees. ‘Natural hazards can hit everywhere’, he says. ‘But if you have a rule of law, where people are held to account for a failure to do their job, where corruption is punished, and where people are allowed to scrutinise and question those in power […] you stand a much better chance of preventing and mitigating the consequences of such disasters.’

Greece has some of the largest areas of forest in the EU, making up around 30 per cent of its land – a huge resource that should be protected. Ignacio Navarro, a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Greece, says that the Greek government ‘talks about firefighting and investing in aeroplanes to combat these fires. This has been the focus since the 2000s and it’s the wrong one’.

He highlights that in Greece, there are a significant number of laws protecting biodiversity and the environment, as well as relating to conservation and the climate crisis. ‘All these laws that could properly protect and maintain these areas and prevent – or at least limit – these disasters are not harnessed’, says Navarro. ‘There is a law for everything in Greece but no one pays much attention. There is no culture of enforcement.’

For instance, the country’s forests are part of ‘Natura 2000’, a network of special protected areas within the EU, and the bloc’s Member States are supposed to ensure that any sites that fall within this designation are sustainably managed and meet the objectives of various EU conservation directives such as the Habitats Directive. But it’s up to a Member State to create a legal regime that enforces these obligations. Navarro argues that Greece hasn’t even managed to meet Natura 2000’s data reporting standards. The Greek government didn’t respond to Global Insight’s request for comment.

Florencia Heredia is Chair of the IBA Section on Energy, Environment, Natural Resources and Infrastructure Law and Head of the Natural Resources & Energy practice at Allende & Brea, in Buenos Aires. ‘Sometimes the problem is not lack of regulation but that the authorities and agencies don’t act’, says Heredia. ‘This lack of enforcement could eventually lead to a “crisis of the institutions”.’

Heredia is based in Latin America, where there’s also been a number of devastating wildfires and floods over the last few years. ‘Though each region has its nuances, we need a longer- term strategy, longer-term thinking around our soil, land and forest management’, she says. ‘Relevant agencies should also start prosecution, action needs to be taken to punish any infringements to the laws. However, governments may sometimes have a populistic approach and do not act [as strongly] and [as] fast enough.’