Lessons from the Dictator’s Handbook –
Why politicians universally refuse to act on climate

Based on the universal principles of acquiring and maintaining political power which are described in the “A Dictator’s Handbook” by Bueno de Mesquita and Smith (2011) [1] (aka “selectorate theory” [4]) , I am trying to explain why nearly universally political leaders have not taken the required climate action and how these principles can be used to gain political power to implement sustainable politics:

Rule 1: Keep your winning coalition as small as possible. A small coalition allows a leader to rely on very few people to stay in power. Fewer essentials equals more control and contributes to more discretion over expenditures.

Problem: Climate leaders demand to build a broad coalition across parties and nations to implement climate action (e.g. “Climate action is not a partisan issue!”, “Global problems need global solution!”). This demand would require that a leader serves, controls and rewards a large coalition, which is harder to do than for a small coalition. In addition, this demand ignores that some (mostly right-wing) parties and (fossil fuel-producing) nations are massively benefiting from the current fossil fuel-based, growth-based system and the corresponding societal order, and – independent from their pledges and words – do not have a genuine interest to implement climate action. What is more, even if right-wing leaders would be willing to protect the climate because they understand the problem, they will have to communicate this demand to their supporters and convince them to act against their short-term interests, which is highly unlikely.

Note: This principle may also be the reason that political leaders prefer centralized sources of energy (e.g. fossil fuels, nuclear), which can be controlled economically and politically more easily, over decentralized sources (e.g. wind mills, solar panels), which are often controlled by private citizens and small organisations (e.g. wind farms owned by local communities).

Solution: Climate action is indeed a partisan issue, since the demands of climate science are more consistent with ideas of socio-ecological justice of left-wing parties, and not the neoliberal ideas, which preserve the existing societal order, of right-wing parties. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that these parties can be convinced. In addition, the statement “Global problems need global solutions!” is false, because historically the current global climate crisis has been mostly created by industrialized local world-regions (North America, Europe). (Note: Generally, this means that the level where a problem is created, maybe different from the level where a problem is solved. For example, a local toxic source, e.g. CFCs,  can pollute the global atmosphere, eg ozone layer, and to address the global problem only local action is required. Another example is the demand, that the one who started a war, should stop the war. However, the opponent may have to stop the war and avoid continuous aggression by defeating the aggressor.  The war may also be stopped by natural forces, e.g. onset of winter, hunger, a pandemic). Therefore, climate leaders should not strive for a global coalition to solve the problem, but a minimal winning coalition of parties or nations to tilt the system. Once the system is changing also unwilling parties or nations may join because of rewards by the system.

Rule 2: Keep your nominal selectorate as large as possible. Maintain a large selectorate of interchangeables and you can easily replace any troublemakers in your coalition, influentials and essentials alike. After all, a large selectorate permits a big supply of substitute supporters to put the essentials on notice that they should be loyal and well behaved or else face being replaced.

Problem: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is consensus-based and, therefore, no nation is interchangeable, ie all are required to reach a consensus on climate action. Since no single party or state is willing to pay the price of being first to implement climate action, but dilute responsibility to all parties or states, climate action is stalled.

Solution: The winning coalition on climate action should be “minimal” but include a parties or nations, which are interchangeable, which can be replaced if they are trying to drive their own agendas, harming the process, or block the overall climate action plan (cf UNFCCC process blocked by USA, Russia, Australia, …)

Rule 3: Control the flow of revenue. It’s always better for a ruler to determine who eats than it is to have a larger pie from which the people can feed themselves. The most effective cash flow for leaders is one that makes lots of people poor and redistributes money to keep select people—their supporters—wealthy.

Problem: Climate action, or climate justice, would require to stop the extractive system and redistribute wealth to those who are weaker (e.g. poor citizens or poor nations in Global South, or members of future generations). In addition, fossil fuel producing companies or nations control the flow of energy (revenue) in other countries, which thereby gives them substantial political influence.

Solutions: Climate leaders should strive for autarky (self-reliance) to prevent others from controlling the flow of energy/revenue or other forms of resources. Autarky may relate to energy (eg. solar, wind), food (e.g. home-grown, regional, national),  and finally also finances (e.g. reducing consumption, saving money, reducing production, universal basic income). Autarky may have even the potential to turn the leverage around, for example, if the problem is no longer to find a job to earn money, but to find people, who are willing to give their labour. Autarky needs to be established on all levels, eg individual, regional, and national.

Rule 4: Pay your key supporters just enough to keep them loyal. Remember, your backers would rather be you than be dependent on you. Your big advantage over them is that you know where the money is and they don’t. Give your coalition just enough so that they don’t shop around for someone to replace you and not a penny more.

Problem: Politicians rely on their supporters in their party, district, country or even the current living generation to get support for their politics and gather political power. Therefore, politician have to reward them usually by extracting resources from parties, districts, countries, or future generations, who do not support them. However, climate action would require that resources are not extracted or even re-distributed to non-supporters, e.g. poor citizens, poor countries or future generations, which will have the consequence of harm the loyalty of your supporters and may lead to loss of political power.

Solution: Moral rewards (“doing the right thing”, “helping the poor”, “protecting nature”) are obviously not sufficient for voters or influential parties of interest (e.g. wealthy individuals, corporations). However, as the climate crisis worsens and affects also industrialized countries, the moral rewards will become more material in the future, in the sense of increasing costs, e.g. insurance premiums, food prices, or lower costs, e.g. for sustainable forms of energy, lower negative impact of fossil fuel (e.g. wars, air pollution). Although a change of  the flow of revenue is difficult to achieve as long no shift in power (e.g. to socialist-green groups) has happened, once it has happened, the changed revenue may also “convert” former political opponents towards sustainable climate policies to take advantage of the changed system. However, the “green-socialist” movement will have to continue to control the “flow of revenue”, which may be achieved by installing a universal basic income which is conditional on sustainable behaviour (socio-ecological credits) within the planetary boundaries (e.g. “a soft power control eco-socialism”). Although temporarily more controlling emergency forms of government will be required, this should be balanced against rights of the individual to express themselves freely and make their own decisions.

Rule 5: Don’t take money out of your supporter’s pockets to make the people’s lives better. The flip side of rule 4 is not to be too cheap toward your coalition of supporters. If you’re good to the people at the expense of your coalition, it won’t be long until your “friends” will be gunning for you. Effective policy for the masses doesn’t necessarily produce loyalty among essentials, and it’s darn expensive to boot. Hungry people are not likely to have the energy to overthrow you, so don’t worry about them. Disappointed coalition members, in contrast, can defect, leaving you in deep trouble.

Problem: Climate action including a transformation of the system will have costs and cause inconvenience throughout society in the short- to mid-term, especially regarding a required decrease of consumption, which will corrupt the willingness to support such policies. The burden of system transformation may have to be paid especially by those currently benefiting from the system, because they are rich and they may be the one’s losing on system change because their business model or life style will become out-dated (eg. losers of system transformation).

Solution: A new sustainable form of government will still have to reward their supporters, which may, however, be in green forms of rewards, e.g. instead of car and oil subsidies, this may be subsidies for cargo bikes and electricity, generous vacation, education for children and adults, and general health services, ie free public services to low-eco impact lifestyles.  Following this logic, this will also require extracting resources from those who do not support eco-social policies, e.g. large corporations, very wealthy individuals, or other parts of society, eg right-wing voters.

Note: See thread by Stephen Barlow [2] with similar ideas (adopted in more readable format by Wilmar Igl [3])

[1] Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith (2011). The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics. Public Affairs Publishers

[2] https://twitter.com/SteB777/status/1512235620726452238

[3] Igl, W. (2022-04-09). The False Leadership Narrative, the Elite & Suicide of the Current Generation (adopted from Stephen Barlow), https://biosphere.wilmarigl.de/en/?p=3030

[4] Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson and James D. Morrow (2004). The Logic of Political Survival. MIT press. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/logic-political-survival