Environmental protection in authoritarian regimes: Investigating the role of pluralism.
When and how do authoritarian states secure environmental protection? Answering thisquestion is critical given that over half of the world’s population currently live in suchregimes. Furthermore, the majority of non-democracies are concentrated in the GlobalSouth, which is also home to some of world’s greatest environmental challenges. Muchof what we know is informed by the case of China and understands environmental pro-tection as a strategy for constructing and maintaining regime legitimacy. Much less isknown about why the degree of environmental protection varies within authoritarian set-tings. This is a critical oversight since environmental issues are by their nature local.As such, understanding when and how governments engage in environmental protectionrequires studying the incentives facing local officials. We help fill this knowledge gap withan empirical study of subnational variation in environmental protection in the author-itarian regime of Vietnam. Studying a single country allows us to isolate key featuresof political institutions while holding a number of other factors constant, strengtheningour ability to draw credible inferences. Specifically, we study the role of pluralism at thelocal (district) level, and consider how the degree of pluralism relates to two key environ-mental outcomes: air and water quality. While pluralism has the potential to promoteenvironmental protection by enhancing scrutiny of government actors, pluralism can alsoundermine commitments to pro-environment policies, given their contentious nature. Weanalyze data from Vietnam’s 208 districts and find that greater pluralism, measured bythe extent of civil society activity, electoral competition, and the degree of (corrupt) busi-ness influence is associated with worse environmental outcomes. These finding call intoquestion received wisdom about the benefits of participation for sustainable developmentand highlight the importance of developing contextually appropriate strategies.