Beware the Rise of Far-Right Environmentalism

Our climate crisis may provide a powerful new set of justifications for the far right's agenda.

Nils Gilman

Nils Gilman is the vice president of programs at the Berggruen Institute.

(Getty Images)

For years, a standard line in liberal circles was that the American right engaged in climate change denial because to admit to the reality of anthropogenic climate change would necessarily imply some sort of intervention that only “big government” could provide. As the New Jersey senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker put it about a month ago, for example, “The people who need to be vilified are the Republicans in Congress — the only major political party … on the planet Earth that denies the science of climate change.”

For liberals, the reality of global warming flies in the face of the central ideological plank of the post-Reagan conservative movement. The converse conclusion is implicit — if only the liberals could convince conservatives of the reality of global warming, then naturally it would follow that these converts would embrace the kinds of solutions that liberals had long been proposing for dealing with it: mandatory emissions curbs, carbon taxes, fuel-efficiency standards, green-tech investments and maybe even a Green New Deal.

Unfortunately, this line of reasoning about the right’s post-denial climate politics overlooks the possibility that there is a very different and distinctly illiberal set of policy proposals available to right-wingers filled with the same urgency about climate change as Greta Thunberg. It is these “alternative” policies that I believe we are about to see the new right embrace — and what it will produce is what I call “avocado politics.”

“There is a very different and distinctly illiberal set of policy proposals available to right-wingers filled with the same urgency about climate change as Greta Thunberg.”

The term avocado politics is an ironic nod to a line that was used back in the 1970s and 80s to describe the green parties in Western Europe: “Watermelon Politics” — green on the outside, red on the inside. This moniker referenced the fact that many European Green Party leaders, like Daniel Cohn-Bendit, had been prominent members of the New Left student movements, and it suggested that green and environmentalist themes were little more than a reworking of the justifications for the same old leftist policies that these politicians and their followers had favored earlier for other, more explicitly socialistic reasons. The right levels similar charges today against the proponents of the Green New Deal.

Avocado politics is the parallel phenomenon of the right: Green on the outside, but brown(shirt) on the inside. Just as watermelon politics repackaged the political wish list of the left on the basis of the environmental crisis, so avocado politics reiterates the policy agenda of the far right, but now justified on the basis of the environmental crisis. Far from forcing the right to embrace the left’s prescriptions for anthropogenic global warming, our climate crisis may provide a powerful new set of justifications for the far-right policy program.

What might the incipient movement of far-right avocado politics look like if its primary commitment is to maintain the lifestyle and relative social position of the North Atlantic middle class, while at the same time addressing the reality of anthropogenic climate change?

Highly anti-immigrant. After all, the single fastest way to increase anyone’s carbon footprint is to move him or her from the global south to the global north. That’s one reason why the Sierra Club was one of the fiercest anti-immigrant organizations in America until the 1990s. Likewise, in the face of the inevitable rising tide of climate refugees, the response will be to harden and even militarize the border, if necessary shooting refugees (only in the legs, at least at first) or building a crocodile-filled moat.

Militaristic. It will be explicitly focused on controlling scarce natural resources and ensuring that they are conserved for the use of the incumbent North Atlantic middle and upper classes.

Highly antagonistic to Chinese and African development. The prospect of a billion Chinese trying to consume like North Americans or Europeans is clearly unsustainable. African developmental ambitions will also have to be suppressed. Some of this is likely to be justified with neo-eugenicist rhetoric about the supposed cognitive inferiority of black people.

All of these policy proposals are already in place on the far right. The environmental crisis will simply provide a new set of justifications for them and a new way to do political outreach.

“Avocado politics: Green on the outside, brown(shirt) on the inside.”

The connections between environmentalism and what we would today describe as far-right politics has venerable intellectual and political roots on both sides of the Atlantic. Madison Grant, often considered the father of the American conservation movement, was also an arch-eugenicist who fretted that the “Nordic stock” was facing a great replacement by genetically inferior Eastern and Southern Europeans. As the author of “The Passing of the Great Race” (no prize for guessing which race he considered the “great” one), he served as the chief intellectual architects of the 1920s anti-immigration laws.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Ernst Haeckel, the late 19th-century biologist who invented the term “ecology” to describe the scientific study of an organism in relationship to its “home” environment, was also a virulent anti-Semite who considered Jews an alien, polluting element in the German Heimat. The Nazis would appropriate Haeckel’s concept of “Lebensraum” as a justification for the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the populations of Eastern Europe. Though little remarked upon, the Nazis also had arguably the most sophisticated environmental protection and sustainable agriculture policies of any government during the first half of the 20th century.

Avocado politics are again making significant headway in Europe, where right-wing climate denialism has never had the same purchase as it has in America. Consider that the Alternative for Germany’s youth league has recently proposed a mandatory “one child” policy for countries in the global south that wish to receive development assistance, or that intellectuals like Renaud Camus in France or Pentti Linkola in Finland specifically justify their virulent anti-immigrant politics in terms of the need to protect the natural ecology of their respective countries.

“The rhetoric about the urgency of the climate crisis — ‘We only have 11 years!!’ — can just as easily be used to justify the necessity of avocado policies.”

Much of this will of course be horrifying to climate liberals, but this underscores three basic points. First, they should not assume that convincing the right of the reality of anthropogenic climate change is in any way likely to make the right embrace the preferred policies of climate liberals.

Second, ratcheting up the rhetoric about the urgency of the climate crisis — “We only have 11 years!!” — can just as easily be used to justify the necessity of avocado policies. Indeed, what seems more politically achievable: creating a globally coordinated and democratically inclusive set of new institutions that will enable the resolution of all the difficult trade-offs associated with a “socially just” approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or shooting brown and Asian people?

And finally, climate liberals need to prepare now to counter these arguments. As the reality of climate change becomes increasingly undeniable, the political battle lines aren’t going away. But the nature and stakes of the combat operations are going to transform and grow. Strap on your helmet.