Thriving on Catastrophe

Why the climate crisis and the global rise of fascism are inextricable.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 15th June 2023

Round the cycle turns. As millions are driven from their homes by climate disasters, the extreme right exploits their misery to extend its reach. As the extreme right gains power, climate programmes are shut down, heating accelerates and more people are driven from their homes. If we don’t break this cycle soon, it will become the dominant story of our times.

A recent paper in Nature identifies the “human climate niche”: the range of temperatures and rainfall within which human societies thrive. We have clustered in the parts of the world with a climate that supports our flourishing, but in many of these places the niche is shrinking. Already, around 600 million people have been stranded in inhospitable conditions by global heating. Current global policies are likely to result in about 2.7C of heating by 2100. On this trajectory, some 2 billion people may be left outside the niche by 2030, and 3.7 billion by 2090. If governments limited heating to their agreed goal of 1.5C, the numbers exposed to extreme heat would be reduced fivefold. But if they abandon their climate policies, this would lead to around 4.4C of heating. In this case, by the end of the century around 5.3 billion people would face conditions that ranged from dangerous to impossible.

These conditions include extreme disruption, morbidity and death through heat-shock, water stress, crop failure and the spread of infectious disease. The figures do not take into account the effect of rising sea levels, which could displace hundreds of millions more.

Already, weather stations in the Persian Gulf have recorded wetbulb measurements – a combination of heat and humidity – beyond the point (35C at 100% humidity) at which most human beings can survive. At other stations, on the shores of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Oman, the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of California and the western side of south Asia, measurements have come close. In large parts of Africa there is almost no monitoring of extreme heat events. People are likely to have been dying of heat stress in high numbers already, but their cause of death has not been registered.

India, Nigeria, Indonesia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, Sudan, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and central America face extreme risk. Weather events such as massive floods and intensified cyclones and hurricanes will keep hammering countries such as Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Haiti and Myanmar. Many people will have to move or die.

In the rich world we still have choices: we can greatly limit the damage caused by environmental breakdown, for which our nations and citizens are primarily responsible. But these choices are being deliberately and systematically shut down. Culture war entrepreneurs, often funded by billionaires and commercial enterprises, cast even the most innocent attempts to reduce our impacts as a conspiracy to curtail our freedoms. Everything becomes contested: low-traffic neighbourhoods, 15-minute cities, heat pumps, even induction hobs. You cannot propose even the mildest change without a hundred professionally outraged influencers leaping up to announce: “They’re coming for your …” It’s becoming ever harder, by design, to discuss crucial issues such as SUVs, meat-eating and aviation calmly and rationally.

Climate science denial, which had almost vanished a few years ago, has now returned with a vengeance. Environmental scientists and campaigners are bombarded with claims that they are stooges, shills, communists, murderers and paedophiles.

As the impacts of our consumption kick in thousands of miles away, and people come to our borders desperate for refuge from a crisis they played almost no role in causing – a crisis that might involve real floods and real droughts – the same political forces announce, without a trace of irony, that we are being “flooded” or “sucked dry” by refugees, and millions rally to their call to seal our borders. Sometimes it seems the fascists can’t lose.

As governments turn rightwards, they shut down policies designed to limit climate breakdown. There’s no mystery about why: hard-right and far-right politics are the defensive wall erected by oligarchs to protect their economic interests. On behalf of their funders, legislators in Texas are waging war on renewable energy, while a proposed law in Ohio lists climate policies as a “controversial belief or policy” in which universities are forbidden to “inculcate” their students.

In some cases, the cycle plays out in one place. Florida, for example, is one of the US states most prone to climate disaster, especially rising seas and hurricanes. But its governor, Ron DeSantis, is building his bid for the presidency on the back of climate denial. On Fox News, he denounced climate science as “politicisation of the weather”. At home, he has passed a law forcing cities to continue using fossil fuels. He has slashed taxes, including the disaster preparedness sales tax, undermining Florida’s capacity to respond to environmental crises. But the far right thrives on catastrophe, and again you get the sense that it can scarcely lose.

If you want to know what one possible future – a future in which this cycle is allowed to accelerate – looks like, think of the treatment of current refugees, amplified by several orders of magnitude. Already, at Europe’s borders, displaced people are pushed back into the sea. They are imprisoned, assaulted and used as scapegoats by the far right, which widens its appeal by blaming them for the ills that in reality are caused by austerity, inequality and the rising power of money in politics. European nations pay governments beyond their borders to stop the refugees who might be heading their way. In Libya, Turkey, Sudan and elsewhere, displaced people are kidnapped, enslaved, tortured, raped and murdered. Walls rise and desperate people are repelled with ever greater violence and impunity.

Already, the manufactured hatred of refugees has helped the far right to gain or share power in Italy, Sweden and Hungary, and has greatly enhanced its prospects in Spain, Austria, France and even Germany. In every case, we can expect success by this faction to be followed by the curtailment of climate policies, with the result that more people will have no choice but to seek refuge in the diminishing zones in which the human climate niche remains open: often the very nations whose policies have driven them from their homes.

It is easy to whip up fascism. It’s the default result of political ignorance and its exploitation. Containing it is much harder, and never-ending. The two tasks – preventing Earth systems collapse and preventing the rise of the far right – are not divisible. We have no choice but to fight both forces at once.