Earth Under Siege I: The Existential Threat

After decades of inertia, it felt like a new era of climate action had dawned. When 175 parties signed the Paris Agreement in April 2016, pledging to limit global temperature increase this century to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the move was widely hailed as a historic turning point in the fight against climate change. One year later, however, President Donald Trump stood in the White House Rose Garden and declared his intent to withdraw the United States from the agreement. In a flash, it seemed as if one man had undercut the most significant collective effort at climate action to date.

Riding the wave of populist fervor that led to Trump’s election, far-right leaders have come into power around the world not only by stoking nationalist fears but also by playing to corporate interests with environmental destruction ingrained in their political agendas. From Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s support for the beef industry to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s attacks on scientists, the planet has fallen under siege by the far-right. Meanwhile, the likelihood of climate catastrophe is increasing. The 12-year window given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to limit severe warming is lapsing while global GHG emissions increase. Just as the need for collective efforts to cut emissions has become clearest, the rise of the far-right has put humanity at an unparalleled level of environmental risk. 

Incidental Fuel for Far-Right Rhetoric

While their political agendas may not appear explicitly anti-environmental, demonizing climate action has provided a natural proxy for far-right leaders like Trump, Bolsonaro, and Orban looking to deregulate industry and consolidate their own political power. Representing the greater far-right project to dismantle conventional governance and diplomacy in favor of hardcore nationalism, impeding climate action has become virtually ingrained in far-right leaders’ rhetoric and political practice. 

The idea of a bold intergovernmental campaign against climate change like the Paris Agreement provides an easy flame for far-right leaders to fan nativist fears. Preying on voters’ social and economic anxiety, far-right leaders have painted collective efforts to cut emissions as unfair constraints on domestic industry that undermine national sovereignty and citizens’ livelihoods for foreign countries’ and peoples’ benefit. David Miller, City Diplomacy and Regional Director of North America for the C40 Cities coalition, told the HPR that this association of serious climate action with disrupting people’s daily lives has led some people to “look for … somebody who appears to be strong,” making them “fertile recipients of the idea of blaming the other”often, immigrants  — that serves as “the current propaganda technique of the right” in its “search for power unalloyed by any sense of conscience.” 

Compounding fears around immigration, Alden Meyer, Director of Strategy and Policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the HPR that economic inequality has factored heavily into right-wing trends. Among voters in the U.S. Rust Belt, for instance, where the once flourishing coal industry has seen vast declines, Trump appealed to a “feeling that ordinary people are being left out of economic progress” and “that the elites in both parties aren’t responding to growing economic inequality.” By “using that anger to stoke their political rise,” as Meyer puts it, right-wing populists like Trump have ascended to positions of power despite lacking any intent to actually address the issues underpinning their electoral support. 

Implicit in this nativist populism is a threat to prospects for climate action and science. While mainstream conservatives often prioritize the concerns of industry over the environment, the far-right agenda is unique in its disdain for the planet; it combines a concerted willingness to manipulate the truth with one to thwart collective efforts at curbing emissions. Far-right leaders’ dismissal of the international community in favor of nationalist policies not only rules out acknowledging and acting on the collective action problem posed by the climate crisis, but effectively demands resistance to doing so. Their deep allegiance to industry also fuels environmental destruction as they remove major regulatory barriers to carbon-intensive business practices. This strong pro-industry slant underpins their appeal to the working class, as they promise security for dirty energy jobs seen as integral to local culture. Against this backdrop, climate action poses a clear enemy. Attacking climate science, moreover, helps delegitimize calls for policy change that contradict this far-right agenda and fuel public skepticism of credible experts who might speak out against far-right projects.  

For Meyer, it is the time-sensitive nature of the climate crisis that makes such attacks so dangerous: “Science is 100 percent clear. We need to act immediately. In that context, the rise of the right-wing populism … allied to a science-denying global movement is extremely worrying.”

Anti-Climate Power Plays  

Under the Trump Administration, environmental and climate policy has become a critical battleground in the campaign to put “America first.” Raising global alarm, Trump announced plans to withdraw the United States, the largest historical carbon emitter and the nation with the highest per capita carbon dioxide emissions, from the Paris Agreement. This move has not only undermined the potential for significant cuts in global GHG emissions but also created a critical vacuum in climate leadership. For Trump, the move has signaled willingness to buck diplomatic conventions, reflecting one among many strategies he is employing to cater to a protectionist electoral base at the expense of the environment. 

Beyond retreating from collective efforts on climate change, Trump has fueled climate skepticism, calling climate change a “hoax” that was “created by and for the Chinese” to weaken U.S. manufacturing, and worked to limit public information on the climate crisis. After the EPA scrubbed references to climate change from its website, the Trump Administration directed it to remove its climate change page entirely and has since sought to cut funding for climate research. Such concerted efforts to erase climate change from the public agenda have provided cover for major environmental regulatory rollback. This systematic environmental degradation has prompted over 1600 workers, including climate scientists and engineers, to leave the EPA. Meyer believes the resulting “brain drain” could have a lasting impact on the agency, as “rebuilding that capacity and scientific talent is not going to be easy or immediate” after Trump’s tenure. 

While Trump has fomented climate skepticism, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has directly attacked the scientific community and supported displacing independent research with nationalist and pseudoscientific studies. He has put the nation’s prominent Academy of Sciences under largely state control and evicted the independently-funded Central European University, founded by philanthropist George Soros — whom Orban continues to paint as a public enemy — from Budapest. According to CEU Pro-Rector of Hungarian Affairs and Political Science Professor Zsolt Enyedi, CEU practices precisely the kind of academic freedom that Orban perceives as a threat. “He wants to destroy any autonomous establishment … in Hungary,” Enyedi told the HPR, describing how the Fidesz government has worked to defund research that does not support its pro-industry agenda. 

Anyone pursuing research contrary to the Fidesz agenda, or who even has an association with CEU, and might speak out as an expert against administrative policy — as Enyedi put it, part of the “intellectual establishment that gives voice to critical decisions about government decisions” — is seen as an enemy of the state. Only last year, over 200 people, including CEU professor and renowned environmental scientist Diana Urge-Vorsatz, were listed as Soros “mercenaries.” The move signaled the government’s willingness to target even highly-respected individuals, which Enyedi said has created a palpable culture of fear and self-censorship within academia, as well as led many to leave the country in order to work freely abroad. Enyedi believes that the election of far-right leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro has emboldened Orban in his efforts to control academia, as he “senses these changes in the international mood and jumps on it.” While Fidesz initially supported strengthening international agreements and environmental conservation, Orban now broadly attacks the United Nations, EU, and international NGOs for trampling upon Hungarian sovereignty. 

For these leaders, it is not only a desire to silence their opposition but also a deep allegiance to industry that motivates efforts to undermine and ignore expert opinion. In addition to initially appointing ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, Trump has continuously worked to support the coal industry despite its adverse environmental impacts and economic decline. In Brazil, President Bolsonaro’s support for the mining, farming, logging, and beef industries have become a focal point of environmental concern. Already, Chain Reaction Research reports that “cattle is the main driver of forest loss in Brazil,” with pastureland comprising about 80 percent of deforested areas in the country. With Bolsonaro loosening regulation of forest conservation, deforestation of the Amazon — the world’s largest rainforest and a major carbon sink — has reached a record high. Much like Trump, Bolsonaro has also undercut the efficacy of his government’s core environmental agency through questionable appointments. He named Ricardo Salles, a climate change skeptic who was convicted of “administrative impropriety” when running a state environmental agency, as Brazil’s environmental minister. Salles has challenged the management of the Amazon Fund meant to mitigate against deforestation.

For Sarah Lunnon, External Coordinator of the Political Circle at Extinction Rebellion, this far-right resistance to climate action reflects a deeply individualist conservative ideology. The reality that tackling climate change demands big government and citizen-led action conflicts with neoliberal and capitalist principles, Lunnon told the HPR. To right-wing leaders, accepting climate science often “means you have to act against your underlying philosophical basis,” which makes climate action a deep-seated threat. 

Collective Efforts Needed to ‘Have Any Chance’

Yet, the reality remains that limiting global warming requires serious action by carbon-intensive nations like the United States and Brazil. The IPCC has reported that limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius will require cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent compared to 2010 levels by 2030 and achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Already, studies show that the world is not on track to meet these goals; the top carbon-emitting nations have yet to commit to emissions reductions anywhere near the scale necessary to limit warming in this way and even if they strengthened their commitments, the rest of the world would still need to effectively reach net zero emissions by 2030 to keep warming to 1.5 degrees. Moreover, a recent UN report showed that even limiting warming to 1.5 degrees would not prevent severe temperature extremes and warned of a “climate apartheid scenario” whereby the wealthy pay to avoid facing the worst effects of climate change as it hits disadvantaged communities the hardest. 

And with a new wave of far-right governments, achieving coordinated efforts to curb emissions within international bodies has become uniquely challenging, if not impossible. These bodies’ dependency on reaching a unanimous consensus among member states in order to implement political agendas has allowed for a minority of far-right leaders to block meaningful climate action with broad support. Only last June, for instance, three Eastern European states blocked the EU from adopting a decarbonization target for 2050. All three — Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic — have far-right leaders. 

Rather than disincentivizing nations from meeting current emissions reduction targets, Meyer’s greater concern is that the anti-climate campaign waged by these far-right leaders will “have an impact on the ability of countries to increase the ambition of their commitments as is clearly needed to have any chance of meeting the temperature limitation goals that world leaders agreed to in Paris in 2015.” Without change on the international stage, it seems that the world may veer straight toward climate catastrophe. 

Image Credit: Flickr/BalticSDGs