The Rising Tides of Climate Fascism

ICE agents standing in front of a border wall.

Climate change is too often imagined as religious rapture — instant, just, and painless. Though we understand that sea levels will rise, storms will become more intense, and forest fires more common, we rarely conceive of those tragedies in human terms. Some are brave enough to describe the death toll of climate disaster — but even those who do fail to communicate who will die, and how they will perish. Climate change is not a God. None of its victims will vanish painlessly. They will die painful deaths, and they will do so along racial and economic lines.

Some, perhaps most, will be killed by fascists.

Before his murderous spree, the Christchurch fascist terrorist made exactly such a promise:

The environment is being destroyed by over population, we Europeans are one of the groups that are not over populating the world. The invaders are the ones over populating the world. Kill the invaders, kill the over population and by doing so save the environment.

Any moderately informed person could describe in detail why this screed is wrong — both in terms of ethics and basic science. There is no overpopulation crisis; our world is dying because of how our economy is structured, not because of how many people rely upon it. Compared to Americans and Europeans, the average Bengali has virtually no ecological footprint. Migrants are human beings, not invaders. But none of that matters, does it?

The fascists have already decided who they will blame for climate disaster, and they have already decided how to punish them. If climate apocalypse comes, the genocides will not only be committed by hurricanes in the Atlantic, nor by fires in California. They will also be committed by armed border police in El Paso and Hungary. When billions of men, women, and children are dislocated by climate change, they will flee to the imperial core. And they will be met with concentration camps.

It is not enough to fight climate change. It’s too late to stop its destabilizing effects even by the best estimates. As leftists — as decent human beings — we must recognize that radical change to national borders will be necessary to prevent genocide.

Ecosystems are already failing. ICE is already armed. The wall is already being built. If we are to reverse course and prevent the greatest tragedy in human history, we need to understand that fascism and climate change are inextricably linked. And we need to fight like hell.

It doesn’t require any high-level analysis to know the genocidal horrors that could follow the climate crisis. Taken as an example, the 2018 IPCC report on Central and South America outlines dozens of vulnerabilities, stressors, and near certain impacts that climate change will have on the region, not least of which include sea level rise, the loss of freshwater sources, and possibly the wholesale destruction of the Amazon. To quote the report directly:

Various models are projecting a risk of reduced rainfall and higher temperatures and water stress, which may lead to an abrupt and irreversible replacement of Amazon forests by savannalike vegetation, under a high emission scenario… The possible “savannization” or “die-back” of the Amazon region would potentially have large-scale impacts on climate, biodiversity, and people in the region. The possibility of this die-back scenario occurring, however, is still an open issue and the uncertainties are still very high (Rammig et al., 2010; Shiogama et al., 2011).

It is difficult to comprehend what changes on this scale would mean. Entire ecosystems, as well as the economies which rely on them, could collapse. Regions of South America could become outright uninhabitable — without a self-regulating rainforest climate much of South America’s agriculture would be disrupted at best and decimated at worst.

And though the global North has the resources for large scale desalination, genetic modification, sea walls, and all manner of temporary tech-fixes, the chronic and intentional underdevelopment of the global South will leave those governments without the tools to combat climate catastrophe. People will suffer, flee, and perish — and because nonwhite nations are systematically impoverished, the imperial core could commit racial genocides without building a single death camp. In the world of climate catastrophe, tomorrow’s Trumps need only build walls, close borders, and allow climate change to be the executioner.

This September, a series of delegates from across the Carribean petitioned Trump to address climate change in anticipation of exactly such a crisis. The President of Chile has expressed his concerns over Trump’s climate inaction repeatedly over the last two years. Half a dozen Carribean states have committed to reaching zero emissions by 2030. Without the advantages of imperial wealth, these states have no choice but to do what they can to lessen the crisis while begging the benefactors of climate change for help.

In keeping with Trump’s xenophobic attitude towards nonwhite nations, these petitions have fallen on deaf ears. The “shithole countries” Trump and his allies hate will be among the first to suffer climate apocalypse. Whether inspired by incompetence or malice, the material consequence of Trump’s inaction is the increasing likelihood of genocide and collapse.

However, I fear climate change itself will be only partially responsible for those genocides. The scale of displacement and migration that will be caused by climate change is unprecedented. One Cornell study placed its estimate at 2 billion climate refugees by 2100. Keeping population growth in mind, climate change will displace one out of every five human beings on Earth. By the end of the century, South America, Latin America, and the Caribean will have a combined population of ~1.3 billion. Climate change could force hundreds of millions to flee their homelands in that region alone. Millions of those would end up on America’s southern border. And if they find that border closed, refugee camps will form, and suffering will follow.

The Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya shows that the international community is unwilling or unable to meet the humanitarian needs of refugees in a time of unprecedented prosperity. By the end of this century, unhindered climate change would throw even the wealthy north into disarray. The failures in past refugee crises would be nothing more than footnotes in the prelude of this century’s disasters.

Without international support, those encamped on the border would face disease, crime, hunger, and thirst. Mexico would lack the resources (and perhaps even the desire) to aid these camps alone, leaving cartels and traffickers to provide “services.” Some would attempt to enter the United States, legally or otherwise, and some would make it in.

ICE’s behavior today, in a time of low migration and relative stability, demonstrates how quickly they would further their fascism under worse circumstances. ICE already habitually destroys humanitarian supplies on the border, already prosecutes activists for attempting to feed refugees, and already runs concentration camps. Even under Obama’s liberal government, migrants were killed and buried in mass graves. Those climate migrants who do cross the border may be forced into labor camps, death camps, or even murdered by pogroms of American racists spurred into action by fascist claims of a migrant “invasion.”

It would seem that, whether governed by the center left or the far right, the current world order is incapable of treating refugees with dignity — and that is before climate apocalypse.

This fascist agenda will not only be felt outside the West’s borders, however. The humanitarian catastrophe following Katrina, for example, shows that the United States is far more concerned with protecting some lives than others. 93% of those who died in Katrina were black. 25% were suffering from chronic disease. 12% were disabled. A Seattle Times article published in September of 2005 describes the horrors of a climate refugee camp in the wealthiest country on Earth:

The Louisiana Superdome, once a mighty testament to architecture and ingenuity, became the biggest storm shelter in New Orleans the day before Katrina’s arrival Monday. About 16,000 people eventually settled in. Within two days, it had degenerated into unspeakable horror. A few hundred were evacuated from the arena yesterday, and buses will take away the remaining people today … Baby supplies are running low; one mother said she was given two diapers and told to scrape them off when they got dirty and use them again.

At least two people, including a child, have been raped as the arena darkened at night. At least three people have died, including one man who jumped 50 feet to his death, saying he had nothing left to live for.

These were not victims of a natural disaster, but of a system which forces already marginalized people into vulnerable areas — a system which prioritizes the safety of the white, wealthy, and able-bodied.

In Houston and Puerto Rico we saw the same story retold, with the impoverished being left to suffer, all while the wealthiest country in history sat idly by. As natural disasters become more frequent and more intense, this fascistic hierarchy-of-life will only expand. Natural disasters do not discriminate. Humans do. We need to understand inaction in the face of climate change and natural disaster as fascistic. Intentionality is beside the point. When flood, fire, or famine comes, minorities perish first.

Throughout this piece, I have chosen to use the word “genocide” when describing the mass deaths that climate-exacerbated natural disasters could cause. This is not done accidentally, or for the sake of emphasis. I call these disasters genocides because genocide is the most accurate term to use. We’ve known the consequences of inaction on climate change for at least a generation. We’ve known that minority populations will be the first to die in a climate apocalypse for just as long. The climate is no more of a murderer than a gun or knife. Billionaires, fascists, and complacent politicians actively wield climate change as a weapon of genocide.

Inaction is genocidal. Incompetence is genocidal. The prioritization of private property, national borders, and American hegemony above climate action is genocidal. In the world of climate change, antifascism requires radical climate action.

Though antifascist action against actual white nationalists is and will remain critical as temperatures rise, an equally dedicated antifascist movement must seek to soften the edge of climate change and disempower those using it as a weapon. In order to prevent climate genocide, we must pursue a radical agenda to reform our economy and our conception of borders. Though both of these causes are necessary and important in their own right, only their synthesis can successfully prevent the coming tragedy.

Much ink has been spilled on the subject of our oil-driven economy. It should go without saying in leftist circles that a rapid and just transition away from such an economy is necessary to halting climate change. What is less often confronted, however, is the reality that capitalism as an infinite growth system is incapable of preventing itself from killing a finite earth.

Since 1972, Danielle H. Meadows and her various teams of researchers have been constructing computational models to predict when our economy will “overshoot” Earth’s resources. Entitled Limits to Growth this series of more than a dozen reports has continuously shown that capitalism is unsustainable, and has pleaded with those in power to change course. To date, they’ve inspired very little action.

Meadows is just one of dozens of such researchers calling to pull the emergency break on economic growth. Climate change or no climate change, our current economic model has already irreversibly damaged fish stocks, forests, and estuaries. Simply put, we are already consuming more than the globe can replenish — and our rate of consumption is only accelerating.

Returning to the topic at hand, there is little doubt which populations will feel the first shortages when they inevitably arrive. Even if climate change were not a factor, the poorest nations, and the poorest people would still be crushed by ecological collapse. Today, 9 million people starve to death every year even as we produce enough food to feed 10 billion. The vast majority of those who starve are nonwhite. In a world with global food shortages, once fisheries empty and well run dry, there is little doubt that the existing vulnerability of nonwhite groups will be exacerbated to the point of genocide.

Capitalism’s need for infinite growth, in combination with its inability to fairly distribute resources and its unjust prioritization of wealthy lives, means that its abolition is necessary to prevent genocide. Only a more democratic system which fairly distributes resources will have the desire and ability to protect all peoples. If we fail to build such a system before the climate apocalypse begins, we will fail to prevent genocide.

However, the impending threat of climate genocide cannot be fought through economic transition alone. As much as capitalism is a forcing factor of climate change, the more proximate cause for many climate deaths has been, and will be, national borders. As regions of our planet become uninhabitable, the free movement of people must be upheld universally. If our current system of national border enforcement continues, the inevitable result of climate instability will be the refugee camps and fascist migrant detention we discussed earlier.

Since 2014, nearly 15,000 refugees have died crossing the Mediterranean to Europe. Without legal migration routes, those fleeing the Syrian civil war were forced to pay exorbitant fees to climb aboard shanty vessels owned by human traffickers. A 2016 report by Human Rights First described the Syrian refugee crisis as a “greenhouse for human trafficking.” The article details why refugees are so vulnerable, and the fates they frequently endure:

As vulnerabilities compound, certain individuals, such as those applying for short term or seasonal work, runaway or homeless youth, and communities in crisis, experience heightened susceptibility to modern day slavery. The TIP report includes refugees among these most vulnerable groups.

Once the implications and causes of this crisis are understood, it is impossible to deny Europe’s closed-border policy as anything less than nascent fascism. In Syria, people driven from their homes by a civil war were denied safe passage to Europe on account of their nationality, thus forcing them to risk death, and even face slavery. Put simply, the maintenance of national borders is killing and enslaving people on the basis of national origin.

However, the Syrian refugee crisis was not an unavoidable tragedy — growing evidence suggests it was exacerbated, or perhaps even caused, by regional shifts in climate. A 2015 study found that climate change was a significant causal factor in the food shortages and general unrest which precipitated the civil war. Syria relied on heavy food subsidies to maintain its popularity. These subsidies were effective because they ensured both the financial stability of rural agricultural communities, and kept the costs of living in urban centers low. Climate change disrupted that system.

This strategy — of lowering cost of living to stabilize your country — is not unique to Syria. One paper published by the Miami International Law Review argues that food subsidies are a primary strategy for maintaining order and economic prosperity in the global South. Central Asia and Africa are particularly reliant on such programs because of the relative uncertainty in crop yields — subsidies guarantee that farmers will not starve after a single bad harvest. This means that the global South is not only more vulnerable to the agricultural disruption caused by climate change, but indeed, that the regions facing the worst impacts of climate change will become more reliant on subsidies over time, and therefore, even more vulnerable to climate impacts in the long term.

Taking this together, the conflict in Syria seems to be little more than a prelude of things to come. The continued maintenance of international borders guarantees that the refugees who flee tomorrow’s civil wars will find themselves drowning in the Meditarranean, starving in the Sahara, or sold into slavery by human traffickers.

Liberals use a myriad of ideological arguments to defend the existence of national borders. Whether or not these ideals are valid in principle, however, is irrelevant. Their actual, material impact is genocidal. Be they liberal defenses of national self-determination or fascist calls for national purity, all defenses of borders in the world of climate cataclysm mean defending and allowing genocide. Only the abolition of borders and the guarantee of free movement will allow refugees to flee their demise. Anything less amounts to fascism.

Returning to the chilling words of the Christchurch terrorist, the current trajectory of climate-driven migration, slavery, and genocide is the fascist’s dream. Whether or not one believes in climate change, or calls themselves an “ecofascist,” continuing to emit greenhouse gasses, and refusing to open borders, will condemn masses of nonwhite, atypical, and differently abled people to death.

We saw this foreshadowed by the aftermaths of Katrina and Syria. We see it in the current rhetoric around refugees. We know that capitalism will cause ecosystems to collapse in majority nonwhite regions. We know that our current border system already actively condemns human beings to suffering on account of their nationality. We must recognize that the issues of climate change and rising fascism are inseparably linked, and we must strive to prevent them both.

Climate fascism is coming. Billions may die. And only a radical change to our economic system and the hegemony of borders can prevent that disaster.

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