Environmentalism without Environmentalists? Climate Change and the State in Turkey

Murat Arsel, Erasmus University Rotterdam & Fikret Adaman, Boğaziçi University


In the wake of dramatic warnings from the IPCC regarding the intensification of human-induced global climate change, it is clear that nation-states will need to transform their relationship with nature in significant ways.[1] In what is now a classic contribution, Karen Litfin had painted an optimistic portrayal of the possibility of achieving this by arguing that while the “traditional goals of the state—‘to defend borders and promote industrial development’—are arguably in friction with the quest of ecological integrity”, there existed “no a priori reason…for saying that environmental protection cannot become one of the state’s primary objectives, and there is evidence that it is doing just that”.[2] Overall progress around the world has been slow enough to cast doubts on Litfin’s optimism, but some states are greener than others. Turkey stands out as a laggard in terms of its national response to climate change, and its record could even be said to be declining in recent years.[3] Which actors could potentially be the drivers of meaningful change in Turkish policy making and implementation towards more green policies?

It could be argued, pace Liftin, that the core objectives of the modern nation-state are intrinsically ill-suited to co-exist with the imperative of ecological sustainability. Environmental protection clashes with the drive for ever increasing economic growth, especially if delivered through unchecked capitalism, in a finite world. Seeing environmental concerns through the lens of national security is more likely to trigger competition than to foster the type of global collaboration necessary to respond to ecological crises.[4] Nevertheless, these challenges cannot be used as an excuse to absolve nation-states from even attempting to construct meaningful environmental policies. The threats posed by climate change are real, and the accumulated evidence suggests that ecological collapse within the current global order is not yet inevitable. As such, drivers of environmental policymaking within individual states require closer scrutiny.

The unique materiality of climate change as an environmental problem is worth highlighting. Four specific dimensions stand out as germane to our analysis. First, there is a temporal disconnect between the socio-economic sacrifices that need to be made and the ecological gains that will be secured. Second, much of these gains will manifest themselves as avoided negative ecological change, rather than observable improvement of already existing deterioration. Third, while environmental change is almost always experienced differently along lines of spatial and socio-economic differences (be it class, race, ethnicity, or gender), there is the possibility that extreme manifestations of climate change will pose a national threat whose impact might transcend existing fault lines of inequality. Finally, meaningful action on climate change would necessarily be holistic in many ways, rather than being concentrated in specific sectors or regions within a nation-state. Taken together, it can be argued that climate change presents a unique challenge to nation-states.

Turkey offers an exceptionally good example of the primacy of Litfin’s two core necessities for the reproduction of state legitimacy. The establishment of the modern republic in 1923 was a defensive move. By retreating from the rapidly eroding borders of the Ottoman Empire, the founders sought to simultaneously create a homogenous nation and to defend it from a future possibility of further territorial loss. To this end, the defense of the integrity of territorial boundaries emerged as a key national ambition, as it can still be seen in the violent response to all—real and perceived—threats. The nation itself, however, was earmarked for fundamental transformation socially and culturally with economic development acting as a driver of change. The ambition was the modernization of the society as the Turkish nation, with a view to making it a member of the Western world.[5]

This still ongoing project has not been without its critics. Most attention has gone towards its two most significant fault lines, which have become impossible to ignore from the 1980s onwards: the Kurdish struggle for autonomy and the Islamist challenge to (cultural) Westernisation. The former has been violently contained if not entirely quashed. The latter has been largely co-opted and neutralised by a combination of capitalist accumulation and cultural conservatism, with political and social liberalism increasingly being abandoned as necessary goals as economic growth is no longer seen as necessarily leading to European Union membership.

Environmental degradation can be seen as the third major fault line of the modern Turkish republic, one that cannot be resolved either by economic growth or state violence. As such, a meaningful response to environmental degradation would require a fundamental rethinking of state-society relationships. The Turkish state, as with many other developing countries, ignored the salience of environmental questions until the late 1980s and early 1990s. While Turkey does have an exceptionally well-developed environmental legislation, these have historically been sidelined in the interest of economic growth. Instead, eco-modernist top-down projects such as reforestation programmes have been presented as a response to environmental degradation. These have been largely ineffective.[6]

A thorough overview of Turkey’s climate change performance is beyond the scope of this paper, but its overall ineffectiveness demonstrates the chasm between official pronouncements and actual policies.[7] For example, during the Paris conference of 2015, President Erdoğan boldly stated that “[t]he international community is on the verge of a new era in combatting climate change” and that Turkey would aim to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 21 percent below the business-as-usual scenario by 2030. Yet, a few months later, at an event celebrating the inauguration of a new coal power plant he spoke as follows: “As you know, you will have many opponents of such projects who will yell ‘Over my dead body!’ But we need to force them to accept that such projects are indeed in the interests of the country.”[8] In other words, climate change policies of the state are performative at best and are unlikely to contribute in a meaningful way to global efforts.

What could change this? The history of Turkish environmental politics is a relatively brief one, dating to the end of 1980s. It was driven almost entirely from the grassroots by countless spontaneous social movements that were formed in the countryside.[9] These have focused almost exclusively on three types of interrelated sectors that have been the driving engine of Turkish economic growth during the past three decades: extraction of precious metals, construction of transport infrastructure, and energy generation projects concerning coal, nuclear and hydropower. Beyond occasionally achieving their stated aims (e.g. the cancellation of the Gerze coal power plant[10]), these movements have also had an impact on the development of Turkish environmental policies. For instance, the Bergama resistance against gold mining was instrumental in the “discovery” of a strong environmentalist bend in the constitution, and the resistance against copper mining in the (neighbouring) Mount Ida helped shaped the legislation concerning the protection of olive groves. Nevertheless, these site-specific movements are unlikely to make a meaningful contribution to advancing Turkey’s response to climate change. There has been little coordination between them and there exists no institutional structure—such as a political party—that can tap into their energies. The Republican People’s Party, which has been the main opposition to Erdoğan’s regime during the past two decades, is wedded to an unquestioning belief in rapid industrializing growth. Efforts of establishing a credible Green Party have so far floundered, due partly to internal squabbles and partly to obstruction from the state itself. Furthermore, to the extent that certain movements, such as those struggling against coal mining or coal power generation, can be seen as contributing to the development of Turkey’s climate change policies, they have a strong not-in-my-backyard component that inhibits their potential to formulate a broader, national vision for climate change mitigation.

If local movements have been one promising driver of environmental change during the 1990s, the European Union seemed like their counterpart acting on the Turkish state from above. To that end, negotiations concerning the harmonisation of Turkish legal framework with the EU’s acquis communitaire did indeed bring some progress. Environmental policies were a particularly productive arena for early engagement between Turkey and the EU since they were perceived by the Turkish state as being relatively apolitical and technical concerns and certainly as far less sensitive as many other issues, be it the Kurdish issue, the Cyprus problem, or women’s rights. Furthermore, the EU itself is increasingly playing a major role in global climate change negotiations and pushing member states towards making deeper cuts to their greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, this influence has faded as Turkey’s membership prospects have severely dimmed during the past decade. Although the revival of Turkey’s European ambition could perhaps be possible, it is unrealistic to expect the EU playing an important role in driving Turkey’s climate change policies forward in the near future.

Although corporate capital has historically been reluctant to recognize the existence or severity of the issue of climate change, there are some limited evidence of change in attitudes and performance around the world. Much of these changes—discussed under various rubrics such as ecological modernisation, cradle-to-grave design, green growth or, most recently, circular economy—have been predicated upon a combination of policy changes that encourage environmental innovations and technological improvements that increase efficiency in production and reduce ecological footprint. There is little evidence that the Turkish industrial sector has made any progress in this regard, due mainly to the nature and composition of its production, which is concentrated in lower value-added sectors where competition in terms of environmental performance is either not viable or necessary. To the extent that Turkish capital has invested in putatively climate-friendly sectors, this has been driven primarily from a predatory rather than environmentalist instinct as demonstrated by the rush of investments into the micro-hydro power plants that caused extensive ecological problems and social conflicts in the countryside.[11]

The Kurdish movement, one of the long-standing challengers to the modernization of the Turkish state, has moved in an environmental direction recently.  The movement’s leader Abdullah Öcalan has called for a change in political and intellectual orientation of the movement away from the establishment of a Kurdish state towards radical new forms of local governance. Drawing on the work of Murray Bookchin, the new strategy is distinguished partly by its focus on its emphasis of ecological sustainability. The clearest concrete manifestation of these gestures can be found in the Rojava canton, which is located within the borders of Syria.[12] Whether such experiments can also be carried within Turkey itself remains to be seen. It is also important to recognize that meaningful action on climate change would necessitate national policies. The ability of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to extend its electoral base beyond the Kurdish community or to make effective alliances with other progressive voices to climate change polices is limited at best and will likely remain so until the current authoritarian turn in Turkey is reversed.

The Islamist challenge to Turkish modernization is less likely to take a green turn. Whether Erdoğan’s party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi—AKP) was from its early days predestined to abandon its social and cultural liberalism and inclusive democratic aspirations or not, it is now undeniable that its leadership and sizeable electoral base are intent on settling scores with the secular modernist project and the institutions they see as central to this project (as demonstrated in the ongoing attacks on the autonomy of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul).[13] With Westernisation (understood historically as Europeanisation) also abandoned, the only meaningful connection the Islamist project has to the foundational ideas of the Republic can be found in its commitment to rapid industrialising economic growth. This growth at any cost posture is buttressed not only by the neo-Ottomanist ambitions of the AKP (as manifested in its foreign policy in Syria and sub-Saharan Africa) but also the electoral necessity of improving the economic standing of its supporters or, absent that, delivering prestige projects such as the world’s largest airport, and longest suspension bridge.[14] National or international leadership in climate change politics does not seem to figure in AKP’s priorities.

For much of the modern Turkish history, the modernisation project was defended and advanced by an alliance between state bureaucracy and military, which were both staunchly secular. Seeing their function as the defence of the Kemalist project, they had responded harshly to all threats and quashed all opposition in the name of staying on course with the modernisation project. Although these forces resisted what they saw as creeping Islamism, AKP has since domesticated both and it could even be said that it is in the process of establishing total control over them. As such, even if elements within either one was to recognize the fundamental threat posed by climate change to the Republic (a questionable proposition since they have never shown any interest in environmental politics beyond perfunctory high-modernist gestures such as reforestation campaigns), they no longer have the power or legitimacy to lead a meaningful transformation in environmental policy making and implementation.

In sum, contemporary Turkish politics is not able to produce the necessary thrust to address the challenge of climate change. This is not the same as arguing that environmentalism in Turkey is dormant or ineffective. Rather, the various actors described above are pursuing a type of environmentalism that is either particularistic (as is the case of with site-specific environmental social movements or with the Kurdish movement) or uninterested in bringing about meaningful transformation politically or economically (as is the case with the state or business interests). The specificities of climate change require a set of solutions that need be holistic, cross-sectoral, transformative of state-society relations and oriented beyond narrow group interests. Unfortunately, there exists no political actor—domestic or external—that has the willingness and ability to take on this mammoth task.




[1] See the IPCC 2022 Report: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Working Group II Contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/.

[2] Karen Litfin, 1997. “Sovereignty in World Ecopolitics,” Merson Review of International Studies 41 (2): 167–204; p. 195. ,51b,t the Tide: The project of oject of “el. 2018. ough analysis of Erdoğan’necessity to                       he Tide: The project of oject of “el. 2018. ough analysis of Erdoğan’necessity to                      

[3] For an overall assessment of the political economy of the environment in Turkey, see Fikret Adaman, Bengi Akbulut and Murat Arsel (eds). 2017. Neoliberal Turkey and its Discontents: Economic Policy and the environment under Erdoğan. London: IB. Taurus; for the political economy of the climate policy in Turkey, see Fikret Adaman and Murat Arsel. 2017. “Climate Policy in Turkey: A paradoxical situation?” L’Europe en Formation 380: 26–38.

[4] For the relationship between economic growth and carbon footprint, see Jason Hickel, Paul Brockway, Giorgos Kallis, Lorenz Keyßer, Manfred Lenzen, Aljoša Slameršak, Julia Steinberger and Diana Ürge-Vorsatz. 2021. “Urgent Need for Post-growth Climate Mitigation Scenarios,” Nature Energy 6 (8); for a discussion on the importance of cooperation on the climate policy, see Philippe Le Billon and Rosaleen Duffy. 2018. “Conflict Ecologies: Connecting political ecology and peace and conflict studies,” Journal of Political Ecology 25(1): 239–60.

[5] See, for example, Fikret Adaman and Murat Arsel. 2012. “Political Economy of the Environment in Turkey,” in Metin Heper and Sabri Sayarı (eds), Handbook of Modern Turkey, 317–26, London: Routledge.

[6] Fikret Adaman and Bengi Akbulut. 2021. “Erdoğan’s Three-Pillared Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism, Populism and Developmentalism,” Geoforum, 124: 279–89.

[7] Fikret Adaman and Murat Arsel. 2017. “Climate Policy…”.

[8] For the sources of the quotations, as well as a thorough analysis of Erdoğan’s position, see Fikret Adaman and Murat Arsel. 2017. “Climate Policy…”.

[9] Murat Arsel, Fikret Adaman and Bengi Akbulut. 2022. “Political Economy of Environmental Conflicts: From Bergama resistance to the Gezi protests,” in Joost Jondergen (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Turkey, 309–21, London: Routledge.

[10] Murat Arsel, Bengi Akbulut and Fikret Adaman. 2015. “Environmentalism of the Malcontent: Anatomy of an anti-coal power plant struggle in Turkey,” Journal of Peasant Studies 42 (2): 1–25.

[11] Bengi Akbulut, Fikret Adaman and Murat Arsel. 2018. “Troubled Waters of Hegemony: Consent and contestation in Turkey’s hydropower landscapes,” in Filippo Menga and Erik Swyngedouw (eds), Water, Technology and the Nation-State, 96–114, London: Routledge.

[12] Bengi Akbulut. 2017. “Commons Against the Tide: The project of democratic economy,” in Fikret Adaman, Bengi Akbulut and Murat Arsel (eds). 2017. Neoliberal Turkey and its Discontents: Economic Policy and the environment under Erdoğan, 231–45, London: IB. Taurus.

[13] Ayşe Gürel. 2022. “Boğaziçi a Year on: A damage report,” Bianet, https://bianet.org/5/27/257321-bogazici-a-year-on-a-damage-report.

[14] Fikret Adaman and Bengi Akbulut. 2021. “Erdoğan’s Three-Pillared Neoliberalism…”.