The reality of climate change has a well-known liberal bias.
Once you accept that the (so-called) free market’s price signals have guided humanity to the brink of destruction, laissez-faire conservatism becomes a filthy joke. And once you recognize that industrial policy in India could determine the fate of your grandchildren — just as the past century of industrial policy in the developed world has (literally) shifted the ground beneath Bangladesh’s feet — jingoistic nationalism becomes a childish indulgence. Global carbon emissions can’t be curbed without accepting more government intervention in national economies and more international oversight of nation-state governance. There’s plenty of room for debate about exactly what policies the science demands. But the data can’t be reconciled with any ideology that rejects humanity’s interdependence, or venerates individual accumulation over some conception of the collective good. And this is why the far right has had such a hard time believing what the scientists, wildfires, and floods have been telling them.
Or that’s the story we liberals have been telling ourselves, anyway. Lately, I’ve begun to wonder if this notion — that one can’t reconcile the scientific consensus on climate change with right-wing ideology — isn’t its own form of denial.
In his new book The Uninhabitable Earth, (New York’s own) David Wallace-Wells argues that one implication of contemporary climate science is that, in the not-too-distant future, there might not be enough food for everyone on the planet (unless those in the well-fed West accept a leaner diet):
Climates differ and plants vary, but the basic rule of thumb for staple cereal crops grown at optimal temperature is that for every degree of warming, yields decline by 10 percent. Some estimates run higher. Which means that if the planet is five degrees warmer at the end of the century, when projections suggest we may have as many as 50 percent more people to feed, we may also have 50 percent less grain to give them. Or even less, because yields actually decline faster the warmer things get. And proteins are worse: it takes eight pounds of grain to produce just a single pound of hamburger meat, butchered from a cow that spent its life warming the planet with methane burps.
To a progressive, the science summarized here clearly demonstrates that the Green New Deal (or a decarbonization program on a similar scale) is needed pronto, and that we must make our food systems less wasteful, our agricultural technologies more innovative, and the distribution of resources within countries — and between them — more equitable. But those are hardly the only political conclusions one might draw from Wallace-Wells’s grim prognosis.
For one thing, a central point of The Uninhabitable Earth is that humanity’s best-case scenario is now likely to be a two-degree-Celsius rise in global temperatures. Which means it’s plausible that an increasing scarcity in humanity’s food supply is already inevitable. Technological advances could make that outcome less likely; but various agriculturally destructive feedback loops could make it more so.
Perhaps the widespread recognition of scarcity will be a boon to the left, underscoring the necessity of robust redistribution, vegetarianism, and social solidarity. But the right’s worldview is also — at least superficially — compatible with a world of unavoidable austerity. One reason pundits mock Donald Trump’s zero-sum conception of trade is that, in a context where real resource constraints place no hard limits on growth, China’s prosperity need not come at our expense. And yet one could plausibly interpret the scientific consensus on climate as saying that non-zero-sum conditions aren’t long for this Earth. Eventually, there won’t be enough grain to keep a chicken in every pot, or at least not enough to maintain America’s per-capita hamburger consumption, allow the Chinese middle-class to enjoy a rising standard of eating, and keep those in the most impoverished corners of the globe alive. Malthus may have been less wrong than he was hasty.
This is a distinctly pessimistic reading of our climatic reality. But it is a scientifically defensible perspective that’s been growing more defensible with each passing year. And while this dour version of climate realism is not inherently reactionary in its implications, its progressive implications are contingent on the premise that maximizing the living standards of the global one percent (a category that includes much of the American middle class) is less important than preventing millions in the developing world from dying from starvation. By contrast, if one insists that the U.S. government must put “America first,” then taking the most dire implications of climate science for granted makes Trump’s zero-sum, nationalist worldview appear more coherent, not less.
It is worth remembering that a pillar of Adolf Hitler’s rationalization of conquest and genocide was an assertion of ecological scarcity. “The annual increase of population in Germany amounts to almost 900,000 souls,” Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf. “The difficulties of providing for this army of new citizens must grow from year to year and must finally lead to a catastrophe, unless ways and means are found which will forestall the danger of misery and hunger.” This premise informed the Nazi regime’s attempts to secure “living space” for the German people through both the extermination of the Jews, and the deliberate starvation of 30 million Eastern Europeans. Hitler’s genocidal Malthusianism was, of course, completely divorced from agricultural reality. The next fascistic tyrant’s may not be.
Regardless, the far right need not wait for future food shortages to cast climate science as a rationale for ultranationalism. Even in our present era of indefensibly ill-distributed abundance, one can credibly claim that the Third World’s growing affluence poses an existential threat to our own. After all, China’s share of global carbon emissions is twice that of the U.S. and rapidly rising. And while India’s carbon footprint is currently relatively small, it’s poised to explode in the coming decades, as the Earth’s second-most populous country continues to industrialize. If you accept the consensus projections for carbon emissions over the next half-century — but reject the idea that all human lives have inherent value (as, by all appearances, many of our current leaders do) — you can argue somewhat coherently that sustaining the American “way of life” requires keeping the Global South down. In fact, the conservative commentator Ben Shapiro made this very observation late last month.
To be sure, no amount of climate fatalism could render Shapiro’s sarcastic proposal coherent. In all circumstances, initiating a nuclear war creates more problems than it solves. But the world’s wealthiest nations may not need to drop bombs on India to stunt its development. It is quite possible that merely refusing to help that country cope with its metastasizing water crisis (which our carbon emissions helped create) will be enough to achieve that evil end.
None of this is to say that Trumpian nationalism is not, in the final analysis, an irrational response to climate change, even on its own terms. Making massive investments in renewable technology — and giving the innovations away to developing nations — seems far more likely to preserve the ecological basis of American prosperity than any attempt to suffocate industrialization in the Global South. Our species’s greatest asset has always been its singular capacity for large-scale cooperation on complex, novel problems. If there is way to sustain a decent civilization for another few centuries anywhere on Earth, I believe it will involve expanding our capacity for solidarity, not contracting it.
But climate models won’t make that argument for progressives. And raw data on carbon emissions certainly won’t tell American voters why they have a moral obligation to the people of the Maldives. It seems possible, however, that in the not-too-distant future, far-right demagogues will be telling us why we don’t. Today, the Trumpists deride those who insist that America can afford to take in more refugees — and pay out more foreign aid — as “globalists.” Tomorrow, they may call us “climate deniers.”
For now, much of the global far right does not believe in the dire effects of climate change. But there’s reason to think those effects are already making people believe in the far right. Some scholars argue that climate played a pivotal role in triggering the Syrian civil war — and thus, much of the migrant crisis that fueled the resurgence of right-wing nationalism in much of Europe. Even if that thesis is wrong, there is no question that climate change will condemn far more people to statelessness than events in Syria have. It isn’t hard to imagine how the climate migrants’ losses could become the nationalist right’s gains.
Hungarian president János Áder, an ally of far-right prime minister Viktor Orbán, recently called for more aggressive efforts to combat climate change because worsening ecological conditions will “trigger migration.” Given the Orbán government’s fundamental opposition to mass immigration — and the ostensible popularity of such opposition within Hungary — Áder’s acceptance of the link between the climate and migratory pressures doesn’t just function as an argument for reducing carbon emissions. It also serves as one for empowering border enforcement hardliners. After all, if you accept the climate science, then this migration problem is only going to get worse — which means that only unsentimental nationalists can be trusted to protect our people from the huddled masses to come.
Beyond the issue of immigration, there is a significant amount of political science research positing a correlation between material abundance and liberal pluralism. Such research suggests that in circumstances of scarcity, people might naturally gravitate toward more conformist and authoritarian attitudes and social structures. A nasty, brutish, and hot world — routinely upended by massive storms and agricultural failures — may be one in which mass publics are less tolerant of social difference, and more eager to submit to a political leviathan.
All of this underscores the necessity of minimizing temperature rise. But it also suggests that revitalizing faith in liberal, universalist ideals is an indispensable component of “climate readiness.” In 2019, it is banal to say that the environmental movement’s primary challenge is political. By now, advocates are well aware that IPCC reports can’t force governments to mount an aggressive response to the crisis. But there is another, less appreciated dimension of difficulty: Persuading governments to mount an aggressive response to the crisis won’t force them to mount a just response. Some critics of the Green New Deal — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s inchoate plan for achieving fully renewable social democracy — have lambasted the proposal for wedding action on climate to an explicitly egalitarian moral and ideological vision.
They should consider the hazards of the alternative.