The Brexit Party’s election campaign launch last year marked a little-noticed shift on the UK’s populist right. The party’s “Contract with the People”—the sparse, corporate-style document of vague pledges that it published in place of a full manifesto—nodded towards climate change, with a promise to plant “millions of trees” to capture CO2 and “promote a global initiative at the UN.”
This was an apparently startling turnaround in the politics of its leader, Nigel Farage. Until then, the veteran Brexiteer had placed himself in the company of climate denialists. Farage has appeared numerous times on the shows of the popular far-right conspiracy website and broadcast network InfoWars. Once—the Guardian reported—he told its host Alex Jones that climate change was part of a “scam” engineered by “globalists” to introduce a form of worldwide government. Throughout his many years leading Ukip, Farage had either ignored or expressed varying degrees of scepticism about climate change. Ukip’s 2015 election manifesto, the last that Farage stood on as leader, vowed to repeal the 2008 Climate Change Act; a 2018 report by Ukip MEP John Stuart Agnew claimed that “human activity played no part whatsoever” in climate change. A Ukip councillor famously claimed in 2014 that flooding across Britain had been caused by God’s anger at gay marriage.
Was Farage’s apparent swerve just a cynical bit of positioning? The Brexit Party, recall, was his attempt to craft a single-issue vehicle to ramp up the pressure on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, and in pragmatic pursuit of that short-term goal he needed to attract a range of opinion. His new outfit tried hard to present itself as cutting across the political spectrum, making much of the fact that a few of its candidates had once been active on the left.
Perhaps the explanation is as simple as that. But could it be that Farage was being carried on a tide beyond his control? For there are other—more profound—shifts underway on the far right, as climate change becomes more difficult to ignore. A series of movements ranging from folksy populism to violent extremism are adapting their thinking, drawing from a wellspring of nationalist ideas about the connections between land and people to catch up with changing environmental realities.
This matters more than ever because far-right politicians now have at least a share in power in several countries, giving them direct influence over climate policy there. Even where they are not in power, they have the potential to reframe the way climate is discussed, turning a fruitful discussion about how to co-operate to contain the rise in temperatures into a bitter battle over who should bear the costs. And they may well succeed unless the rest of us have a convincing response to the way these forces are adapting.
For now, scepticism and denial remain the instinctive—and dangerous—positions for many right-wing populists. They are nationalists first and foremost, hostile to co-operation via international institutions, and economically protectionist. Donald Trump’s announcement that he would withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, the UN emissions framework negotiated by 196 countries, fits with that. So does President Jair Bolsonaro’s enthusiastic promotion of the Brazilian loggers cutting deep into the Amazon. The delicate diplomatic effort of the Paris Agreement could be rolled back by uncooperative governments. And in Europe, where resurgent right-wing populism often incorporates hostility to the EU, ruinous regional rivalry over emissions could easily set in.
But a 2019 report by Adelphi, an independent environmental think tank based in Germany, found a more varied picture across the continent’s right-wing populists, with a range of apparently contradictory climate positions. Some still trade in outright denial, or else—like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands—dismiss the issue as a distraction from their usual targets: his opponents, he said, “worry about climate change but… will soon be experiencing the Islamic winter.” But others have been seeking ways to accommodate environmentalism.
In France, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN)—previously known as the Front National—acknowledges the need for action. Yet it rejects the Paris Agreement as “a communist project,” a line of attack that the movement has frequently used against international co-operation during its decades-long journey from a marginal sect of fascists and resentful ex-colonialists to a major party in French politics. The RN insists that the only effective level for the action required is the nation state. Back in 2017 it set up an activist network, the Collectif Nouvelle Ecologie, to answer liberal and socialist environmental proposals with a “realistic and patriotic” response that would involve reducing emissions by curbing imports. It supports developing renewable energy such as solar power and biogas domestically as “intelligent protectionism.”
By contrast, Poland and Hungary, which have hard right-wing governments, and also Latvia, whose governing coalition includes a far-right party, have all signed up to the Paris Agreement. Poland, however, doggedly defends its coal industry, and criticises EU-wide targets on emissions reduction and renewable energy. Hungary’s president has described climate mitigation as vital for “the future of our civilisation.” That framing sounds hard to disagree with at one level, and yet—at another—dovetails with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s chauvinist argument that Hungary is Christian Europe’s line of defence against non-European immigration.
Even among the more stubborn denialists, there are some signs of a shift. Officially, Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) still rejects climate science, stating that “CO2 is not a pollutant, but an indispensable component of all life.” But after a poor performance in the 2019 European parliamentary elections, the party came under pressure from its youth wing to change its stance on the environment.
From the outside, all of these inconsistencies may look like expediency. Hungary and Latvia, for instance, can be enthusiastic about cross-border co-operation on climate since their domestic emissions are below the EU average, pushing the problem on to other states. And as record-breaking heatwaves, forest fires and extreme floods become a palpable threat, any party serious about attracting voters needs to have something to say about climate change other than blaming God.
But there are also deep connections in far-right thought between concepts of nation, race and land, available for today’s movements to draw on. From the earliest days of environmentalism, there was always a strain of green politics that combined nature conservation with the idea of preserving a national territory and ethnic purity. Austria’s Freedom Party has continued in this vein, with policies that evoke the idea of Heimat, or homeland. In April 2019, Marine Le Pen launched her European election campaign with the proposal that a “Europe of nations” could become the world’s first “ecological civilisation.”
[su_pullquote]“Any party serious about attracting voters needs something to say about climate change other than blaming God”[/su_pullquote]
Le Pen uses the issue of the environment to argue that the individual is “not simply a consumer or producer,” but “someone rooted, someone who wants to live on their land and pass it on to their children.” Those who are “nomadic,” by contrast, “do not care about the environment; they have no homeland.” The intellectual groundwork for this shift was laid by Hervé Juvin, an RN politician and essayist who combines a green “localism” with a focus on preserving national and cultural identity.
This is territory on which the far right converges with more mainstream conservative or “post-liberal” thought. Le Pen’s description might not sound terribly different to Theresa May’s much-discussed “citizens of nowhere” speech. Yet while the centrist version of this discourse aims to accommodate public discontent in order to keep national and international institutions running, the far right aims to subvert them or break them up entirely.
To make its ideas mainstream, and to gain some sort of power, a radical political movement—left or right—has to be good at two things. The first is playing the long game imaginatively; finding ways to build support for its ideas within wider society and change the “common sense” that stands in its way. One non-environmental example is Farage’s 20-year campaign—conducted mainly through TV debate shows, local politics and a European parliamentary system ignored by the British media—to turn Euroscepticism from a fringe issue on the Tory right to an era-defining force. An alternative route is to build institutions that could foster an oppositional culture: Le Pen’s RN (and the FN before it) has put down roots among the French public with a line of clubs and social circles, now including the Collectif Nouvelle Ecologie.
The second thing successful radical movements do is to seize on particular moments that can be used to reframe events much more quickly. In Europe, far-right movements stoked panic after the refugee crisis of 2015, demanding stronger borders and tougher asylum policies. In the shadow of that panic, many on the far right continue to fearmonger about the potentially greater displacement of climate refugees. Austria’s Freedom Party, for instance, has argued that “climate change must never become a recognised justification for asylum,” because it would lead to Europe being “overrun by millions.” Italy’s opposition party Lega and France’s RN have said similar. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally,” was the dubious claim of the RN’s Chief Spokesman Jordan Bardella last year. “It is through them that we will save the planet.”
But if parties that want to win elections are often looking for a crisis to exploit, other kinds of activists seek to create them. The past decade has seen a surge in mass shootings in North America, Europe and Australasia by far-right extremists who share a similar conspiracy theory-driven logic: that a shadowy elite is working to destroy white-majority nations through mass immigration, and that spectacular acts of violence could be needed to ignite a purifying race war. (The anti-semitic nature of this conspiracy theory is sometimes openly expressed, at other times latent.) Last year, however, two of the most prominent shootings were perpetrated by individuals who listed environmental concerns among their justifications.
“Green nationalism is the only true nationalism,” claimed a “manifesto” published by the 28-year-old man who walked into a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019 and shot dead 51 people. He condemned growing urbanisation for “a complete removal of man from nature” and demanded “ethnic autonomy for all peoples with a focus on the preservation of nature, and the natural order.” Last August, the 21-year-old man who murdered 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, claiming it was in response to “the Hispanic invasion” of the US, published a similar document. “Kill the invaders. Kill overpopulation and by doing so save the environment,” he wrote.
An investigation by the anti-fascist charity Hope not Hate found that the online subcultures that foster far-right extremists—both the Christchurch and El Paso shooters published manifestos on the white supremacist message board 8chan—have also nurtured the regrowth of “eco-fascism.” This links the “great replacement” conspiracy theory about the plot to destroy white nations to an imminent sense of environmental collapse.
Online advocates of eco-fascism flood social media and message boards to propagate their ideas, but also advocate “direct action.” Hope not Hate points out that the eco-fascist scene is not an organised movement but more a loose collection of activists who are mainly engaged in disseminating -provocative material. The acronym EFDS, short for “eco-fascist death squads,” has spread among white supremacists online, as a way of encouraging dreams of a violent solution to the environmental problems that they deem to be caused by immigration and overpopulation.
Their methods of communication might be new, but today’s eco-fascists are drawing on very old concepts. The new wave of eco-fascism revives the Nazi cry of “blood and soil,” a phrase that binds race, nation and land together, and resonates in the dark corners of contemporary far-right ecology. Hope not Hate found that an alt-right publisher was the first to distribute an English translation of the Finnish writer Pentti Linkola’s Can Life Prevail?, who argues that human overpopulation has provoked an “imminent ecological holocaust.” This is a radical version of Malthusian theory, the claim that human existence is -threatened by overpopulation, which has been a constant presence in green politics even if many environmentalists oppose it.
Eco-fascists are operating at the very extreme of right-wing thinking on the environment, and the terrorists among them see symbolic acts of violence as a way to achieve political change. Any politician that wants to pursue hard-right goals by winning at the ballot box needs to keep their distance. But apocalyptic fantasies have the potential to spread fear and radicalise debate. Fascist ideology is only the most extreme articulation of a concept present in wider right-wing nationalist thought: that the nation is a body, that its people are a single organism, and that foreign intrusions represent a threat to its life. This claim is often left unspoken, but it can surface or be mobilised at particular moments. The “great replacement” conspiracy theory may have originated on the margins, but it has been echoed by mainstream figures including Trump. The US president has, for example, used his Twitter feed to share material supporting the claim that there is a “white genocide” underway in South Africa.
[su_pullquote]“The new wave of eco-fascism revives the Nazi cry of ‘blood and soil,’ a phrase that binds race, nation and land together”[/su_pullquote]
We had another taste recently of a palpably trans-national crisis being reconceived as a specifically national one, with the spread of Covid-19. In its march around the world, the virus had—as it happens—largely reached Europe through modes of transport favoured by the affluent: international flights, carrying tourists and business travellers. But Italy’s Matteo Salvini, leader of the hard-right Lega party and a skilful media performer, was quick to link it to the boats of migrants rescued from the Mediterranean, accusing the prime minister of failing to “defend Italy and Italians.” If this trick can be pulled with a global pandemic, we should not expect the lack of respect climate change has for borders to be any barrier to nativist agitators exploiting it.
Far-right movements are not all pulling in the same direction on climate. What unites them, however, is the common refrain: “we must look after our own.” This has been at work yet again during the Covid-19 crisis. While some parties, like the Sweden Democrats, have attacked their governments for not locking down hard enough, even those with libertarian inclinations have tempered their “live free and die” machismo to demand the closing of national borders, in ways that have less to do with any consistent concern for public health recommendation than with keeping foreigners out. Farage, for instance, has spent the pandemic criticising the UK’s domestic social-distancing measures for being too severe while trying to encourage a moral panic about asylum seekers crossing the Channel from France.
The “lifeboat ethics” of the late right-wing US ecologist, Garrett Hardin, illuminates how the same spirit plays into the climate debate. In an influential 1974 essay with the revealing subtitle “against helping the poor,” Hardin takes on those colleagues who maintain that since we live on one planet, our solutions to environmental problems must be global. Instead, he argues, it’s better to see the world as a series of nations, which, like crowded lifeboats, will be capsized by immigration and overbreeding.
The dangers posed by climate denial, along with efforts to obstruct the Paris Agreement, are clear enough. Thankfully, there is growing acceptance across the spectrum that we will need to make significant adjustments to the way we live to avert a planetary catastrophe—even Boris Johnson’s government is rhetorically committed to the target of net-zero emissions.
But there is little agreement on who should bear the cost, or how to handle the rapidly gathering climatic disruption. Even the environmental movement has sometimes been susceptible to the dubious—and, in essence, racist—idea of seeing those forced from their homes by climate change as one more symptom of the problem for “us.” The declaration that launched the Extinction Rebellion protest movement in 2018 warns that “flooding and desertification will render vast tracts of land uninhabitable and lead to mass migration.” Is it the displacement, or the migrant, that poses the threat here? With a stronger far right, an outright “let them drown” attitude becomes a terrible danger.
Even when far-right movements don’t hold any share of formal power—as they do now do in many places—they can still change the terms in which everyone else discusses things. Last year, the incoming president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, who was previously the longest-serving member of Angela Merkel’s impeccably moderate Christian Democrat government in Germany, announced the creation of a new “commissioner for protecting the European way of life,” whose responsibilities included border policy. The decision was justified as a defence against populism, but it built on the far right’s basic premise of refugees and migrants as an existential threat.
A similar shift on environmental issues could displace the global debate that we actually need—about how to limit the effects of climate change and best protect its victims—with an ugly and ultimately self-destructive argument about whose lives are worth saving.
From globalist hoax to dangerous threat
Where some of Europe’s far-right and populist parties stand on the climate crisis
“In Hungary, there is a consensus that climate change is real, that it is dangerous and since it is a global phenomenon, requires global action to combat”
Viktor Orbán Fidesz Vote share: 49%
“They worry about climate change. But they will soon be experiencing the Islamic winter”
Geert Wilders Party for Freedom Vote share: 6.53%
“Earth’s climate changes over time, and we know too little about what affects these changes”
Siv Jensen Progress Party Vote Share 16.3%
“It is crazy to exploit a serious subject like climate to legitimise illegal immigration”
Matteo Salvini Lega Vote share: 37%
© Annika Haas (EU2017EE)/Wouter Engler/ ård Gudim, FrPMedia/ Ministero dell’interno/wikimedia