Why would we care what the far right thinks about climate change? Especially in the throes of a climate emergency, the opinions of swivel-eyed climate denialist loons should be the least of our concerns. A Chinese “hoax,” former US President Donald Trump called it; “the biggest scam in history,” claimed Spanish Vox party leader Santiago Abascal.
For now, at least, the green movement is largely the preserve of the Left, evidenced by the Left’s effective conjoinment of climate action with economic and social justice issues. Ecological reactionaries, firmly on the margins, recognize this reality. “Today’s environmentalism?” reactionary ecologist writer Paul Kingsnorth asked sardonically in 2017. A “consolation prize for a gaggle of washed-up Trots.”
Nevertheless, what the far right thinks about climate change is of importance because globally far right parties occupy the very state apparatuses required to mitigate it, Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective argue in their new book White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism. In seats of power across the world, from Berlin to Brasília, the far right has stormed into office — at precisely the historical juncture when we must slash greenhouse gas emissions.
The authors uncover a subtle yet fundamental error in our climate political modelling; we have assumed the public is rational. Climate scientists pass on knowledge of how things are unfolding, and the public fixes it. This assumption of rationality has underpinned the expectation that the global economy will shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy when the price of the latter has decreased.
This climatically Whiggish conjecture has not factored in the rise of the far right alongside rising temperatures, the authors argue. “No [United Nations] IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] scenario has counted on the possibility,” Malm and his coauthors point out, “that deep into the early stages of global warming, just as the urgency of slashing emissions ought to be at its most overwhelming, state apparatuses in Europe and the Americas would be increasingly occupied by parties and presidents professionally clad and white of skin and eager to show the whole issue the door.”
Anti-racists and antifascists cannot ignore this context. “Rather, their old struggle against the far right is taking on a novel aspect,” they argue. “It is increasingly difficult to tell it apart from the struggle to preserve the conditions in which humans and other life can thrive on this planet.” Put simply, the struggle against the far right and the effort to mitigate climate breakdown are now coterminous.
The Zetkin Collective’s contribution to this struggle is to enable readers to know their enemy. In 1923, Clara Zetkin was the first writer to engage with fascism from within the workers’ movement. Months before Mussolini’s march on Rome, she was tasked with drafting a resolution on the topic for the Comintern. She called for a “special structure to lead the struggle against fascism” — item number one for doing so was “collecting facts on the fascist movement in every country.”
It is in this spirit that the Zetkin Collective submits this empirically rich, systematic study into the political ecology of the far right, the Collective’s first book. Malm and company investigate what the far right has said, written, and done on climate and energy in 13 European countries and 2 countries in the Americas (Brazil and the United States); Europe because it “gifted the world the fossil economy and fascism” (perhaps a dubious claim to which we will return), Brazil and the US because they have an outsized impact on climate and because climate denialist far-right presidents rule(d) over them.
This is not to say that the rise of the Reactionary International has not been extensively commented upon already. However, as Malm et al. observe, such commentary has focused on the far right’s views on issues ranging from religion, gender, violence, euroscepticism, globalization — but nothing on ecology.This needs addressing because, as Alyssa Battistoni points out, “[f]rom now on, every issue is a climate issue,” the biosphere a primary lens through which all political issues are understood. “Far right politics in the 1930s or 1980s could perhaps be studied outside of the natural environment,” the authors argue. “In the 2010s or 2040s, one cannot understand what it is doing in and to the world if that context is bracketed out.”
The book is divided into 2 parts. Part I provides a history of the conjuncture of climate change and nationalist politics. The authors trace the evolution of a set of ideas around climate and nation, energy and race — from the earliest organization of denial, to the stances of the party family that has shaken up American, Brazilian, and European politics this last decade. Part II of the book makes sense of all this. How is it possible for the anti-climate politics of the far right to come to prominence at such a late hour? What would it mean to live in a hotter world which is also further to the right?
In chapter 1, the authors provide an overview of the fortunes of denial, charting its rise from the 1970s onwards. Deploying Louis Althusser’s idea of the ideological state apparatus (ISA) — a “system of defined institutions, organisations and the corresponding practices”1Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, pg. 77. enabling the reproduction of the relations of capitalist production — they conceive of a system of institutions to launder climate denialist opinion. Set up by corporations like Exxon and Shell, the climate denialist ISA takes the form of think tanks like the Heartland Institute in the US and the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) in the UK; lobbying groups like the Global Climate Coalition; and mainstream media outlets like the Wall Street Journal and the Spectator; before finally seeping into political parties themselves.