Act: Inspiration

The spectre of climate fascism and how we resist it

March 15, 2021

You know what? The one thing that scares me more than the thought of a not-so-distant future of climate breakdown, is a future where the far-right dominate our society’s response to climate breakdown.

If this happens, we could see something really ugly which one could describe as ‘climate fascism’.

I’ve had this fear lurking in the back of my head for a while, but three things – pieces of media I’ve experienced recently – have brought it to the front: a podcast, a video and a novel.

I’m going to share these three perspectives with you, discuss what this could mean and then – before we all get too depressed – let’s explore some positive things we can do to help prevent this horror. Let’s heed the warnings of dystopian fiction!

3 perspectives on the threat of climate fascism

1. Podcast: The Ezra Klein Show by Vox with David Roberts

This podcast episode, a wide-ranging climate-focused conversation between two of my favourite journalists, was not an easy listen for me. They were not sugar coating anything, they were being very frank with each other about their fears, about the political polarisation in the US around climate and how intractable this problem feels.

At one point, David Roberts said that currently the American hard-right and far-right are mired in climate denial, but he can totally see a scenario where they “quickly flip over into something like ‘climate fascism’”.

He also makes an incredibly insightful point that I hadn’t considered before. He said that because the climate issue entered public consciousness via science, and academics on average skew towards being more liberal than not, there has been this rosy assumption baked into the issue from the start: that if people just understand the science, we will band together and address this global crisis as a global family. That we’ll be guided by UN principles of global cooperation, multilateralism and humanism.

Whereas, there are unfortunately lots of people who wouldn’t take this approach.

I can imagine that people who deeply believe their country or race or religion or whatever is superior to all others may not want to do this at all. They may want to steal or hoard what’s left, put up walls, fuck everyone else to damnation and use deadly force against anyone who doesn’t like their plan, be it desperate climate refugees (“invading hordes”) or conscientious objectors (“traitors”).

It only takes a bit of imagination to picture how horrendous this could be.

2. Video: Naomi Klein with Owen Jones

Naomi Klein has started talking about how the world faces three ‘fires’ at the moment:

  • The fires of climate breakdown (including but not limited to literal deadly blazes like we’ve seen in Australia)
  • The fires of rising fascism (the far-right is on the rise in many parts if the world)
  • The fires of social movements rising up against the other two

She also talks about what she calls ‘climate barbarism’ – a heartless escalation of the trends we’re already seeing. Trump’s Wall and the cage-like detention of children at the border, ‘Fortress Europe’ letting people drown, Australia’s island detention centres… Klein warns of a future where elites focus their efforts on locking out huge numbers of increasingly desperate refugees, by any means necessary.

The Syrian refugee crisis and the callousness surrounding it could seem mild in comparison to what the devastating floods, fires and famines of climate disruption could bring. This is not to mention the wars and civil conflicts sparked by natural disasters and brutal competition over resources.

Klein’s earlier work is also a pertinent warning on this topic. Her seminal book The Shock Doctrine documents a phenomenon where a crisis is used by dominant elites (or insurgent forces) as manufactured consent for a power grab. While people are scared and unstable, they are susceptible to a lurch towards authoritarianism under the promise of security by a ‘strong leader’.

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3. Novel: The Wall by John Lanchester

The Wall is a fantastic novel. It’s also one of the starkest depictions of ‘climate fascism’ I’ve seen. The story is set in a dystopian future Britain, where every young person is conscripted into working for two years as part of a brutal border force on ‘The Wall – an enormous guarded wall around the entire country. Our protagonist and his fellow guards spend 12-hours each day standing on the freezing wall, ready to shoot anyone who tries to breach it.

(Mild spoilers ahead – they’re background rather than the main plot).

The book is not subtle with its terminology – the people from other countries that try to get over the Wall are called ‘the Others’. The people who run the country are called ‘the Elites’. And the environmental catastrophe that caused the Others to leave their homes and swallowed up all the world’s beaches is called ‘the Change’.

If any Others come to the wall, the guards must shoot to kill. If they fail and Others get into the country, an equal number of guards are punished by being ‘put to sea’: stripped of their ID chips (yes, they are all chipped), banished from their country and left to die.

Oh, and this society has even brought slavery back – but of course they don’t call it that. Any Others that manage to evade death and get into the country are rounded up and made to work as domestic ‘Help’, with room and board as their only “pay”. The kind of language used to excuse this is as chilling as you’d expect.

Apart from the dark and fascinating worldbuilding in The Wall, the inter-personal plot is very compelling, and you should definitely read it.

The Wall book about climate fascism future

Climate fascism: Too scary to think about

The Wall is fiction but it’s too believable – if we allow the rise of nationalism to continue unchecked along with climate disruption.

This is all quite terrifying isn’t it? To be honest when I think about this stuff, I sometimes let my imagination run away and scare myself with the awful possibilities.

What I’ve touched on above is only the tip of the iceberg. I can imagine dystopian scenarios that lead towards certain groups advocating for genocide – to allow more planetary capacity for the people they think are superior.

That is not on the horizon and hopefully never will be. But climate fascism is a real threat if we don’t get a handle on this climate crisis soon. It’s scary, but it’s worth talking about so we can take action to prevent it taking root.

How to promote climate justice instead

First of all a note about audiences: we may not be able to convince members of the far-right that they are wrong about everything and should commit to global climate justice instead. (The end of this video by Innuendo Studios has some amazing points about when de-radicalization works and when it doesn’t work).

But that’s okay – because although their numbers are growing in an alarming manner, those die-hards are an incredibly tiny minority of the population. The people we need to speak to and win over are the non-committal or passively compassionate people that make up the majority.

Two major principles I think we should follow:

  • Create compelling narratives that build solidarity and counter the seductive stories of the far-right – people need meaning, identity and community
  • Our climate solutions have to make life tangibly better in the short-term for the majority of people – this is the only way to build a big enough coalition, get mass buy-in and be resilient against push-back

Something like the Green New Deal is the best attempt yet to address these issues, and should be further developed and championed. If successful, a mass popular movement for a Green New Deal could be a preventative medicine against climate fascism.

With that in mind, here’s some ideas for ways you can help support climate justice in your social and political interactions.

Use these messages when talking to people:

  • Avoid using messages of scarcity (let’s expand on this below)
  • Highlight co-benefits of climate action such as jobs, business opportunities and better public health
  • Remind people of global inequality when it comes to carbon footprints, resist the uncritical message that ‘we’re all part of the problem’
  • Say that the big polluters should pay rather than the public
  • Encourage empathy with people around the world, ask “what would you do in their shoes?”
  • Ensure blame for the climate crisis is directed at the perpetrators such as the fossil fuel industry, not the public
  • If the topic of overpopulation comes up, steer the conversation towards inequality instead (this minefield deserves its own post but read this excellent article by David Roberts for a start)
  • Promote the idea of a Green New Deal when people are pessimistic about societal problems

Tell your political representatives:

  • Fight for your government to support the Global South in climate adaptation, sustainable development, ‘loss and damage’ and disaster relief (to mitigate risks of refugee crises)
  • Promote the need for ‘just transition’, re-training and skills investment and guaranteed jobs
  • Defend the 1.5C climate target (as 2C is a complete disaster for African nations and small island states)
  • Promote community ownership models (as alternative to state and corporate ownership) as a healthy form of ‘taking back control’
  • Support the ‘polluter pays’ principle, avoid making the public shoulder the costs (to avoid a ‘Yellow Vests’ style backlash)

Vote for politicians who:

  • Prioritise ambitious climate action, policy and targets
  • Advocate climate action from a ‘just transition’ perspective, rather than a technocratic ‘apolitical’ stance
  • Support a Green New Deal
  • Protect and extend public services and social security
  • Have a humanitarian outlook on foreign affairs (not supporting wars, supporting sustainable development)

The danger of scarcity and the power of abundance

Lastly, I want to dig a bit deeper on that first suggestion to ‘avoid using messages of scarcity’.

Another thing that struck me in that Vox podcast was the (brief) mention of the concept of expanding spheres of empathy. This refers to how (some!) people have learnt to expand their sphere of ‘who they care about’ from their self to immediate family, to tribe or community, to the nation and even to the world.

Expanding spheres of empathy

I have a hypothesis – I think that when there is perceived scarcity, many people draw their spheres of care inward. They become insecure and distrustful and only want to share with those they have social connections with.

Conversely, when there is a sense of abundance, that there is enough for everyone, in my experience people tend to be more generous and trusting of strangers, expanding their sense of empathy outwards.

I think we should be very cognisant of this when it comes to climate communications.

Of course, it can be difficult not to use a scarcity framing because the reality is, we live on a finite planet with environmental limits, which our economy is crashing into. I still think it’s essential to talk about environmental boundaries and limits, but it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t trigger people’s selfish reptile-brain reflexes.

The reality is also that our planet is abundant. Not infinite, but abundant. Scarcity doesn’t mean only that there’s a finite amount of a resource – it means there’s not enough of it.

The reality is we live in a world of extreme inequality. The richest 26 people in the world own as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity combined.  That’s too extreme for me to even get my head around properly, I don’t know about you.

We live in a world where the very richest people consume a ridiculous amount of resources as well as producing an enormous amount of carbon emissions and other pollution. They are taking millions of times more than their fair share of the Earth’s bounty.

There is enough for everyone on the planet to live a decent life, if we were to share it more equitably. (For example, research shows that the world already produces enough food for 10 billion people – there is more than enough food to feed everyone but inequality and poverty keep it out of the hands of the poor).

To build a mass coalition we should emphasise that the richest must share more and that those on average incomes will not lose out.

As the brilliant Kate Raworth says in her book Doughnut Economics, there is a safe and just space for humanity to flourish between the social foundation and the ecological ceiling.

Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut economics’ model.

I think any discussion of environmental limits should be paired with this context – that there would be enough for everyone if we restructure our economy to be fairer.

Whatever happens, climate change is likely to dominate our future. Let’s do everything we can to avoid the spectre of climate fascism and build a world of climate justice instead.


Teaser photo credit: U.S. Forest Service photo.

Tegan Tallulah

I'm a passionate sustainability enthusiast, blogger and digital marketer. I live in Brighton, UK, with my boyfriend and tortoise. Can usually be found reading, writing or eating chickpea burritos.

Tags: building resilient societies, climate justice, far right movements