What Happens When the Alt-Right Believes in Climate Change
A group of migrants approach a US Navy ship in the Mediterranean Sea in July 2016. Photo: US Navy
LAST SEPTEMBER, as record-breaking hurricanes thrashed the Caribbean and southeastern US, the white nationalist magazineAmerican Renaissance asked its readers a question: “What does it mean for whites if climate change is real?”
In its bombastic response, the magazine bucked two decades of conservative dogma to offer an ethno-nationalist take on planetary warning. Conceding that scientists might be right about climate change, it worried that shifting weather patterns could drive more black and brown people to the Global North, where whites will face a choice: stem the migrant tide, or die.
“The population explosion in the global south combined with climate change and liberal attitudes towards migration are the single greatest external threat to Western civilization,” AmRen wrote. “[It’s] more serious than Islamic terrorism or Hispanic illegal immigration.”
The magazine’s editor-in-chief, influential white nationalist Jared Taylor, doubled down on AmRen’s position in an email to Jewish Currents. “If continued global change makes the poor, non-white parts of the world even more unpleasant to live in than they are now, it will certainly drive more non-whites north,” Taylor said. “I make no apology for… urging white nations to muster the will to guard their borders and maintain white majorities.”
These are fringe views. But they’re becoming less so. Hyper-conservative immigration policies have drifted from the populist periphery to the White House in a few short years, and conservatives, from racist reactionaries to Rockefeller Republicans, are starting to talk openly about how planetary warming might affect their agendas. In a world where doubting climate science remains something of an 11th commandment for the American right, this shift is significant. Climate change gets a little harder to deny every day, and it’s only a matter of time before mainstream conservatives are forced, by a growing incongruence between their words and the weather, to abandon hard-core denialism.
Right now, a handful of Congressional Republicans, some libertarian think tanks, and a few on the alt-right are the only ones on the right taking climate change seriously, giving them a head start in shaping conservative climate policy in the coming decades.
Liberal lawmakers, meanwhile, seem ill-prepared to go toe-to-toe with conservatives on climate policy. For two decades, denialism has been climate enemy number one. The Democrats’ strategy has mostly involved trying to convince people that planetary warming is real, pillorying deniers as fools, cynics, and oil company shills. Perhaps this made sense in the mid-2000s, when “merchants of doubt” were seeding skepticism about climate science to protect fossil fuel interests and stave off liberal reforms. It probably still makes sense as part of a broader climate agenda on the left. After all, it’s a huge problem when top lawmakers refuse to acknowledge the existence of the potentially civilization-ending catastrophe sweeping across the planet.
But it’s not the only problem, and a singular focus on combating denialism has left Democrats and their liberal backers unprepared to do battle with a conservative movement armed with real and dangerous policy proposals on climate change.
THE ALT-RIGHT is a contested category, and groups typically arrayed under its banner—fascists, white nationalists, right-wing populists, etc.—lack a unified position on climate change: its existence, causes, and effects. Some self-described members of the alt-right accept that industrial capitalism is largely responsible for spiking greenhouse gas emissions. Others blame growing populations in the Global South for rising global emissions, even though there’s little evidence to support this view. Others still continue to question the science of climate change, or downplay its significance.
What far-right climate realists seem to agree on is this: rising global temperatures and changing regional weather patterns threaten to release a flood of migrants from increasingly inhospitable parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East to the US and Europe, causing what AmRendescribes as a “climate-driven demographic catastrophe.”
“If you believe in global warming, the obvious implications are that global migration must be shut down,” one commenter recently postedon a Reddit forum devoted to discussing the alt-right’s position on climate change. “All the quickly growing populations must be quarantined or ‘encouraged’ to stop having children.”
Taylor put it (only a little) more delicately. “If human activity causes undesirable climate change, we should not promote global population growth,” he told Jewish Currents, arguing that lawmakers should “promote intensive family planning in the south, especially in Africa, because an exploding African population will… drive more Africans north in search of a better life.”
Nothing scares ethno-nationalists more than “demographic change”—the probability that, in a few decades, more Americans will be black and brown than white. They hyperbolize this shift as “white genocide” (a term with a bloody history), and lament what they see as the loss of white structural power. It’s not surprising, then, that climate change—which indeed affects the poor, marginalized, and dispossessed more severely than most white Americans—inspires racists to fear white decline, and to seek control over the bodies and movements of non-white people.
CLIMATE CHANGE IS HERE, and it’s bad. Fossil fuel emissions hit an all-time high last year, which is unfortunate because countless studies have shown that burning fossil fuels spews heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, causing average global temperatures to rise. Indeed, average temperatures have already jumped about one degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and we’re on track to exceed 1.5 degrees of warming by 2040, according to a leaked report from the The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. So far, planetary warming has weakened Antarctica’s ice sheets, worsened flooding in coastal cities like Miami, contributed to deadly heat waves in India, and upped the odds of Sandy-like superstorms smashing major urban centers.Study after study shows such catastrophes worsening and happening faster than previously thought, and they’re mostly hurting people who lack wealth and political power.
Among conservatives, climate realism is still a minority view. Republicans are largely deniers, doubters, or cynical backers of the fossil fuel industry. Only 28 percent of white Christians, who overwhelming voted for Trump in 2016, believe in anthropogenic warming, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Trump himself, who once called climate change a “hoax,” not only continues to deny the existence of global warming, but has also pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, opened huge tracts of ocean to oil and gas exploration, and stuffed his administration with climate deniers and champions of the fossil fuel industry.
Doubting climate change remains a constitutive part of right-wing identity, like pandering to the gun lobby or opposing abortion rights. It telegraphs distrust of the “administrative state”—scientists, bureaucrats and “liberal elites” who tell people what cars to drive and how much soda to drink—and preemptively opposes decarbonization policies that would threaten fossil fuel and related industries, which conservative lawmakers often rely on for campaign contributions. Indeed, the billionaire donors Robert and Rebekah Mercer, known for bankrolling the Trump campaign and sinking millions into Breitbart and other far-right websites, continue to finance climate denial. Maybe this makes business sense: as political theorist and activist Naomi Klein has observed, cutting carbon emissions enough to keep planetary warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius (the more ambitious goal set by the Paris Climate Agreement) would probably require abandoning neoliberal capitalism. This is not something Republicans are likely to do.
But climate change is now, like gravity, indisputable. The most pragmatic conservative institutions, like the Defense Department, have long accepted the reality of climate change, appreciated its seriousness, and begun preparing. Capital, too, understands there’s more money to be made planning for climate change than ignoring it. Insurance companies are “adapting in order to profit from climate risk,” according to a 2017Harvard Business Review analysis, for instance, by charging more to insure houses located in low-lying areas vulnerable to sea-level rise. Tellingly, Exxon Mobil Corp., which conducted some of the earliest studies on the greenhouse effect, has publicly backed the Paris Agreement and called for a carbon tax.
Some Republican lawmakers are starting to flip, too. Congressional Republicans are stacking the House Climate Solutions Caucus (though critics say they’re just “greenwashing” their resumes ahead of the midterms), and The Atlantic reported last year that a group of Republican House members led by Congressman Bob Inglis is promoting free-market responses to greenhouse gas emissions. Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo, who represents a South Florida district that could see sea levels rise between 10 and 30 feet by the century’s close, unveiled a carbon tax bill in July. These members of the “eco-right” argue, contrary to Klein’s hypothesis, that tackling climate change is perfectly compatible with capitalism. They support scrapping emissions regulations in favor of a carbon pricing system—an idea that’s popular with some libertarian groups, like the Niskanen Center.
If denialism is on the way out, can the alt-right influence the nascent conservative climate agenda? It certainly seems possible. Right-wing populists like Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, who rub right up against the ethno-nationalist fringes, have had incredible success smuggling nativist immigration policies from the vanishing edges of conservatism to the Oval Office. Xenophobic populism has taken evenfirmer hold in Europe, where populist governments and vigilantes have met growing numbers of migrants from Africa and the Middle East with tightened immigration controls, harassment and death. If their influence persists, it does not require a great imaginative effort to picture far-right views on climate change leaching into the federal climate agenda.
While the Trump administration has been transforming its “America First” immigration platform from white populist pipe dream to federal policy, shameless racists have been winning airtime and influence. Ethnonationalist influence on the Trump White House is contested, and of course not all Trump supporters are out-and-out white nationalists. But the two groups overlap on immigration, and Trump’s own rhetoric is often a brackish mixture of dog-whistle nativism and more overt forms of racist hate (Trump once retweeted an account called “white genocide,” for example).
It seems plausible, then, that ethno-nationalist climate proposals could go mainstream. While the Congressional “eco-right” is taking on mitigation, pushing for a free-market approach to emissions cuts, alt-right thinkers are some of the only right-wing voices discussing the ways America will adapt to a changing climate. And they’re doing so by framing climate change as an immigration issue, a strategy that’s likely to play well with Trump and his base.
The latter point is crucial. Immigration and climate change were once seen by conservatives as something like conceptual opposites. The idea was that fretting about rising temperatures was either a liberal conspiracy to swell the size of government or pointless hand-wringing by tree-hugging snowflakes, a distraction that obscured truly pressing threats like illegal immigration and Islamic terrorism. Summing up conservative priorities in 2015, Mike Huckabee declared that “a beheading is a far greater threat to an American than a sunburn.” But if conservatives start to believe (wrongly, obviously) that sunburns will lead to more beheadings—or more immigrants taking American jobs—it’s not hard to imagine the right not only ditching denialism, but also using the fact of climate change to whip up support for more draconian immigration measures.
The populist right, in the US and elsewhere, seems primed to accept this kind of thinking. The migrant crisis in Europe, sparked by conflicts in the Middle East and Northern Africa (conflicts rooted in histories of European colonialism, extractive capitalism, and Western military intervention), has been met with a vicious and sometimes deadly xenophobic backlash. There have been good faith efforts to link the Syrian war to climate change. But it’s easy to picture this work getting co-opted by nationalists looking for excuses to halt immigration. Similarly, North Africa from Morocco to Nigeria has been called an “arc of tension”—a band of earth so battered by drought, famine, desertification, internal conflict, and centuries of colonial and neo-imperialist violence that it’s ready to snap, pushing more people north. I doubt it would take much for climatic shifts in North Africa, a region already seen as dangerously other and tarred by the right as a terrorist“breeding ground,” to serve as pretexts for far-right efforts to close borders and boot migrants seeking shelter from the global storm.
The liberal left isn’t prepared for any of this. Emphasizing climate denial has, paradoxically, been a way to depoliticize climate change, framing it as an empirical problem instead of a contest over competing visions of the future. But the odd fantasy, widespread among the #resistance, that getting everyone to acknowledge the existence of climate change would also get them to support the right kinds of climate action has always been just that: fantasy. It reflects a stubborn faith in both the wisdom of technocrats and the tired liberal belief that knowing better leads to doing better.
It rarely does.
The left, from liberals to Leninists, now have an opportunity to look past deniers and skeptics, and study the ideas and actions of climate realists across the conservative spectrum. Some are doing this, of course. Several scholars have flagged “eco-apartheid” as a likely consequence of climate change in a staggeringly unequal world. Naomi Klein, though understandably concerned about climate denial, has argued that capital is agnostic about rhetoric so long as it can turn socio-environmental crises to its advantage. And the climate justice movement, powerfully articulated by activists and intellectuals from Bangladesh to Standing Rock, has emphasized the unevenness of climate impacts and the need to prepare equitable responses to their many horrors.
Progressive cities, states and environmental organizations are basically ignoring conservatives and pushing aggressive mitigation and adaptation measures, while eco-socialist thinkers like Kate Aronoff and John Bellamy Foster are suggesting ways of folding climate action into broader efforts to redistribute wealth and re-democratize the political system. If Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the only American politicians to back plans to keep warming under 1.5 degrees, wins a Congressional seat in November (which she is almost guaranteed to do), proposals for ambitious and equitable climate policy will head to Congress.
In five short years, right-wing populists have marched hardline immigration policies from the periphery of mainstream US conservatism to the Oval Office. Now they’re talking about climate change. If their influence persists, it is not hard to picture rank xenophobia—in the form of stricter immigration quotas, more militarized borders, and tighter restrictions on women’s fertility—taking over the federal climate agenda. The results would be nightmarish. If the left thinks a just response to climate change is still possible, it should take notice of these nativist believers, and prepare to push back.
Casey Williams is a writer based in Durham, North Carolina. His work covers environmental politics and culture, and has appeared in The New York Times, HuffPost, The Nation, and other national and local outlets.