Climate Crisis, Fascism and the End of Neoliberalism

Unchecked climate change will, almost inevitably, galvanize fascism and bring an end to capitalism as we know it.
Although the far right today comprises climate-change deniers, its leaders will see in the unfolding of climate change an unparalleled opportunity. Mass migrations, panic and economic crisis will spur a xenophobic and authoritarian populist movement in the industrial countries. Growing state fragility and collapse will be the lot of many poor countries in the global south, accelerating population displacements. These trends will not happen immediately. The prevailing order will be increasingly threatened as average global temperatures exceed 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. That will happen, under current projections, in as little as 12 years.

No one any longer can claim not to know what will happen if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, written by 133 climate scientists and based on more than 6,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers, contends that 1.5°C of warming is dangerous but tolerable, while 2.0 degrees (the target of the Paris Climate Agreement) is disastrous. Yet a catastrophic 3 or 4 degrees of warming by 2100 is our more likely fate, unless we act decisively to cut emissions.

Six processes in the climate crisis are combining to generate destabilizing population movements:

  • Heat and prolonged droughts are undercutting agricultural production and destroying livelihoods in vulnerable habitats.
  • The melting of glaciers as a result of increasing heat eventually reduces the water flow of rivers, again undermining agriculture and rendering some areas unlivable.
  • Storms and floods are growing in number and destructiveness.
  • Rising sea levels are eroding shorelines, engulfing farms, towns and cities, and submerging low-lying islands.
  • Overfishing together with the warming of oceans and their acidification are rapidly depleting fisheries, divesting coastal communities of their livelihoods and major source of protein.
  • The consequent destruction of livelihoods is fostering criminality and gang activity in poor countries, and this trend, in combination with growing corruption and endemic conflict, breeds state collapse and warlordism.

Although projections of numbers vary, it’s probable that 143 million people will soon become climate migrants (World Bank).

The climate crisis will also lead to a shrinking of economies in the industrial countries as well as in the “developing” world. It is costly to repair and adjust to the destruction wrought by global warming – by stronger and more frequent hurricanes, unprecedented floods and droughts, falling crop yields, endemic diseases, and sea levels that will rise about a meter by 2100.The US government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment, just issued, estimates that US GDP, as a result, will drop by 10 percent this century. Thus, economic crisis and the ensuing social turmoil will accompany the climate crisis and mass migrations.

You don’t need uncanny powers of prediction to foretell the probable political dynamics of this unfolding emergency. Stagnant and declining economies, in conjunction with public panic about the climatic shift and growing streams of refugees from the global south, will play into the hands of fascists. In North America, Europe and Australia, they’ll proclaim themselves the defenders of white Christian civilization. The reigning insecurity and precarity of employment will, today as in the 1930s, incline many of the dispossessed to turn to strongmen promising salvation. Even today’s level of immigration has provided a stimulus to the far right. Yet the climate crisis is generating vastly larger northward movements of populations. Fascist dictatorships will promise stability by closing borders, abandoning liberal freedoms, repressing dissent, excluding “aliens,” and regulating economies while safeguarding existing property rights. Neoliberalism will give way to fascism

Of course, this dark scenario is not inevitable. Two things could usher in a more positive – inclusive, sustainable, democratic – future.
First, our societies might take transformative measures to hold global warming to the 1.5-degree threshold. What would be required? According to the recent IPCC report, we would need to cut carbon emissions by almost half by 2030 and attain a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. Yet GHG emissions continue their relentless upward trajectory despite global environmental accords. Even global coal consumption is rising again. It is possible that a technological breakthrough, perhaps a carbon-sucking machine, might save us. But we can’t count on that.

What is needed is a mobilization on the scale of World War II to handle the emergency. That won’t happen, however, in the absence of a powerful political-ecological movement that is disruptive enough to have their demands taken seriously.

Second, the left might find a way to counter the fascist appeal to raw ethnic nationalism in the context of panic and disruption. How likely is that to happen?

Not very likely, it appears, given the current debilitation of the left. While the radical left is largely irrelevant to contemporary politics, the moderate left has alienated its following in many countries. Collaboration with neoliberalism and its austerity measures is the major reason for the latter. In other words, the left has lacked a credible alternative to neoliberal doctrine. We need a resonant story about a just and fulfilling world that may feasibly be attained.

The far right proffers a powerful, though reactionary, story, which it can sum up in a few words. Consider the UK’s “Leave” campaign before the Brexit vote: “Take Back Control”. These three words promise a liberating new world to those left behind by, or resentful of, globalization (especially cultural change, immigration and lousy jobs). Similarly, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” conjures a nostalgia among whites for a mythical Golden Age of white, male, heterosexual, and US dominance. This reactionary imagery appeals to a substantial minority in the US even today, when the economy is booming.

As for the left, neither the utopian radical message nor the “neoliberalism plus” message resonates. What is required is an ‘in-between’ strategy — in between utopian socialism and social-democratic collaboration. Saving the commons — and our future — is the left’s story. Climate crisis poses the ultimate struggle. Our economic system – the capitalist system – is deeply implicated in the climate crisis. The commodification of nature and labour in pursuit of profit is dividing and killing us. The struggle for social justice and ecological sustainability are now conjoined. Civil society, not state or market, must become the main steering mechanism to move beyond the current deadlock.

So how can that story be elaborated and repackaged in three or four words?

A habitable future rests on the answer. Responding to climate crisis, we need to make a heaven of our hell. But whether fascism or socialism prevails, neoliberal capitalism is through.

Richard Sandbrook
Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Toronto
President, Science for Peace