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The far right is weaponizing climate change to argue against immigration

The right-wing solution to environmental problems: more borders and exclusion.

Arizona Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich is suing the Biden administration, stating that its immigration policies are adversely impacting the state’s environment.
Ross D. Franklin/AP

As the impacts of human-induced climate change become harder and harder to ignore, some on the right have moved away from denying it exists and toward a new strategy: blaming immigrants for contributing to the problem.

An April 12 lawsuit brought by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich against the Department of Homeland Security alleges that the Biden administration’s policies on immigration have impacted the state’s environment by increasing demand for “housing, infrastructure, hospitals, and schools.”

The lawsuit alleges that immigrants “drive cars, purchase goods, and use public parks and other facilities. Their actions also directly result in the release of pollutants, carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which directly affects air quality.”

Some advocates are worried that the Arizona case, which uses climate change as a weapon against immigrants, communities of color, and poor people, could become a more common means of attack for the right.

This idea has deep roots in right-wing environmentalism. But it also has disturbing echoes of a far-right ideology known as “ecofascism.”

Ecofascism refers to “groups and ideologies that offer authoritarian, hierarchical, and racist analyses and solutions to environmental problems,” Blair Taylor, program director at the Institute for Social Ecology, told me.

The solution to those problems, ecofascists believe, is “the same as the right’s answers to many other issues: more walls, more borders, more exclusion, and more justification of hierarchy and elite rule,” said Taylor, author of “Alt-Right Ecology: Ecofascism and far-right environmentalism in the United States.”

Two mass shootings brought ecofascism into the mainstream. In March 2019, an assailant targeted two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, leaving more than 50 Muslim worshippers dead and at least another 50 injured. The shooter left behind a nearly 80-page manifesto detailing a white nationalist ideology and blaming immigrants and overpopulation for environmental problems.

Then in August of that year, a shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, left 23 dead. The shooter told reporters that he intentionally targeted Hispanics in the attack and made a statement blaming them for plastic and water pollution.

On August 2, 2020, people embrace at a one-year commemoration of the victims of the 2019 Walmart shooting that left 23 people dead in a racist attack targeting Latinos in El Paso, Texas.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

But although these far-right environmentalists blame immigrants for environmental problems, the science indicates otherwise. It’s the world’s richest who are driving the climate emergency.

A September 2020 report by Oxfam found that from 1990 to 2015 — a critical 25-year period during which humans doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — the wealthiest 1 percent of the world’s population accounted for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the 3.1 billion people who made up the poorest half of humanity.

To find out more about the roots of right-wing environmentalism and ecofascism, I called Blair Taylor. He explained why the motivation behind the Arizona case fits more closely with right-wing environmentalism than it does with ecofascist ideology.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Jariel Arvin

How can readers identify ecofascism?

Blair Taylor

A basic definition is the groups and ideologies that offer authoritarian, hierarchical, and racist analyses and solutions to environmental problems. Ecofascists think modern life is too complicated and declining culturally, environmentally, intellectually. So they argue for a big reset. “We need to reject modernity,” as one of their slogans goes.

Jariel Arvin

What do ecofascists hope to achieve through the return to nature?

Blair Taylor

Many ecofascists are preparing for a violent collapse and arguing for a kind of racialized tribalism in what they view as an effort to restore the natural balance. This imminent collapse is nature “getting revenge” for human hubris, essentially weeding out the weak. Ecofascists want this all to happen in line with the current rules of the game, meaning the poor and people of color will suffer while the wealthy are far better positioned to survive.

When ecofascism takes an explicitly racialized form, it overlaps with the general far-right discourse of the “Great Replacement” or white genocide. According to this thinking, white people are a persecuted minority that’s on its way out unless they defend themselves. They use the view of whites as an endangered species to justify the need for separate communities.

For ecofascists, the answer to environmental problems is the same as the right’s answers to many other issues: more walls, more borders, more exclusion, and more justification of hierarchy and elite rule.

Jariel Arvin

Was the media correct in linking the 2019 Christchurch shooting to ecofascism?

Blair Taylor

Absolutely. The Christchurch shooting was a mobilizing and popularizing force for ecofascist ideology. It then inspired the El Paso shooting. Although the former targeted Muslims and the latter targeted Latinos, both the Christchurch and El Paso shooters provided very similar arguments for what they did: white replacement theory.

It’s tough to identify the danger level or how much of a threat it is because right-wing environmentalism is primarily a set of ideas rather than a set of organizations. Organizations might get infiltrated and taken down, but the ideas are still out there.

When events like the Christchurch or El Paso shootings happen, they bring right-wing ideas out of the ether. This reflects the decentralized nature of social movements where now it’s a hashtag. It’s a few websites. It’s a Signal chat. It’s very decentralized, so it’s hard to cut off the head.

The right can’t deny environmental problems as quickly as they once could. And you have a younger generation who’s grown up in a world that takes environmentalism for granted, so they have to give that a right-wing slant or analysis. The other factor that they like is the environmental movement is very white and historically has been. It’s starting to change now.

Jariel Arvin

How big of a threat would you say ecofascism is? Is there any way of knowing how widespread the movement is or whether it’s currently gaining momentum?

Blair Taylor

It’s hard to say because, especially now, I think a lot of this far-right activism has gone underground. The glory days of the alt-right — the Charlottesville event — caused much internal strife and fractionalization and the fallout over Trump. Then now, with the pandemic especially, it’s been tough to track.

The danger is that their views of modern life as alienating or stressful have a critical orientation that in many ways can be true. But the answers ecofascists offer — a simplistic “great reset” — overlook the complexity of the problems to blame humanity or people of color instead of looking at more targeted, reasonable explanations for those problems.

Jariel Arvin

That makes me think of the case where the state of Arizona is suing the Department of Homeland Security and other US government entities, blaming climate change on immigrants. A few media reports have suggested that the case has echoes of ecofascism. Is it ecofascist?

Blair Taylor

I wouldn’t say this is an ecofascist case, partly because I don’t think these people care about the environment. It seems pretty clear that it’s an anti-immigrant argument justified in environmental terms. I would say this is a case of right-wing environmentalism.

They want to offer “environmental solutions” that are right-wing answers to environmental problems. The science shows that immigration is not driving environmental degradation and is not driving climate change. So these aren’t very scientifically serious arguments, but they can have a popular allure.

That’s the perennial allure of overpopulation — it obliterates all the social issues and makes everything a pure numbers game. It’s a convenient way to let wealthy, primarily white people off the hook and redirect blame.

This issue has not just been restricted to the right either. Much of the older guard of environmentalism tended not to be humanists. They were naturalists, and they were scientists. They were very concerned with preserving capital in nature but they created a strong dichotomy between nature and humanity. They tended to view humanity not as a part of nature — it was a threat to nature.

When we created some of the amazing national parks we have in the United States, we kicked out the Indigenous inhabitants seen as a threat. That’s a dynamic that we’ve seen over and over in environmental movements, pitting humanity and nature against one another.

Jariel Arvin

So how did the far right become associated with environmentalism? It’s not the first association that I think comes to mind for most people.

Blair Taylor

A colleague of mine, Peter Staudenmaier, co-wrote a book with Janet Biehl called Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience. It described the very strong ecological dimension to National Socialism previously unknown by many people outside of Germany.

Ernst Haeckel, a German naturalist, coined the word “ecology” itself. Haeckel was also a nationalist cited as a precursor to National Socialism. The idea of nature as a hierarchical place bound by natural laws, and which therefore must be protected, has a long history. And the right has a reasonably strong claim to this history. It wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s that environmentalism became understood as an issue of the left.

The classic conservation movement was a very patrician movement of mostly upper-class white European and American males who wanted to defend their hunting lands and their pristine landscapes from all kinds of things. In many cases, this was very explicitly worded to protect the wild from the poor, migrants, or the “savages” who were not properly utilizing it. So it is a very recent and modern development to think of environmentalism as a left or liberal issue.

Murray Bookchin was central to helping that change come about. He wrote a piece called Ecology and Revolutionary Thought in 1964, one of the first texts arguing that left-wing politics should incorporate ecology. It just took time for the ideas to take root.

Jariel Arvin

Do you think there are any traces of environmentalism in Donald Trump’s politics?

Blair Taylor

No. That’s precisely one of those lines between Trump and far-right environmentalists — these far-right actors do actually believe in protecting the environment. But they have a very racist, authoritarian, hierarchical analysis of the nature of those environmental problems. In contrast, Trump strikes me as an old-school plutocrat. The goal is to get his buddies in the oil and other industries rich.

Jariel Arvin

What does ecofascism look like in Europe versus in the United States?

Blair Taylor

In Europe, you see examples like France’s Marine Le Pen of the National Rally, starting to have this almost blood and soil ideology, the idea of “France for the French” and that white French people are custodians of nature.

In general, European political parties have taken on more of the ecofascist discourse. It might be because, in Europe, there’s been perhaps more openness to climate change as a reality rather than climate denialism. Although that’s changing on the American right, too, partly just because of demographic factors and because it’s just increasingly impossible to ignore that climate change is happening.

So rather than deny it (which many still do), the American right seeks to blame the usual enemies: immigrants, people of color, and the poor.

Jariel Arvin

So how do you think the openness to accepting climate change in Europe as opposed to denialism that we see in America creates more favorable conditions for ecofascism?

Blair Taylor

On the one hand, the openness of the parliamentary political systems allows more entry to fringe groups. On the other, there’s arguably also less of an anti-science perspective. There seems to be more of a general acceptance that climate change is happening in Europe, so they’re able to channel that into a kind of right-wing worldview. This Arizona bill shows that this is happening in the US, but they’ve been doing similar things more successfully in Europe for 10 to 15 years.

Jariel Arvin

So what’s the solution? How do we counter ecofascist thinking and ideology? Is the Justice Department responsible for monitoring ecofascism? Who’s responsible?

Blair Taylor

There’s a joke inside the far right that if you swing a cat, you’ll hit an undercover FBI agent. So the FBI, finally, after years of ignoring it and focusing on left-wing and Muslim domestic terrorism, they’re taking far-right terrorism seriously. So, the FBI is paying attention. I’m sure the Justice Department is as well.

Then, of course, there’s a network of far-right monitoring groups from the Anti-Defamation League to the Western States’ center with Eric Ward. There’s a network of anti-fascist researchers, people like Spencer Sunshine and Shane Burley, and others closely monitoring these groups.

And, of course, the rise of antifa is another thing. People focus on antifa as a street organization that’s countering far-right movements in the streets. But much of it is behind-the-scenes research work where they infiltrate their local Proud Boys and identify which Proud Boys are police or army or teachers. This is all happening. The state is usually behind the curve and forced to intervene by events. In contrast, these monitoring groups often are equally embedded and typically have a better analysis.

To recognize [and counter] ecofascism requires understanding the tropes and the longer history of environmentalism’s racist, classist, and sexist components. The environmental movement must offer an articulation of environmental concerns that is emancipatory and social and doesn’t fall into the traps it has fallen into in the past. Avoiding those mistakes means having a bit of sensitivity and understanding that ideas can point us in better and worse directions politically.

This is why I’ve argued for a social ecology — not just looking at numbers and population growth but looking at how different groups and systems are disproportionately to blame and face disproportionate impacts. This is largely the kind of work we do at the Institute for Social Ecology, offering democratic and emancipatory answers to environmental and social problems.

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