How Climate Change Fueled The Far-Right’s Rise And Why We Need To Stop Both

Climate change may be playing an indirect role in the resurgence of the far-right in the West

Newly arrived Somali refugees wait outside a UNHCR processing center at the Ifo refugee camp outside Dadaab, eastern Kenya, 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the Somali border. Human-induced climate change contributed to low rain levels in East Africa in 2011, making global warming one of the causes of Somalia’s famine and the tens of thousands of deaths that followed, a new study has found — Aug. 5, 2011 (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Newly arrived Somali refugees wait outside a UNHCR processing center at the Ifo refugee camp outside Dadaab, eastern Kenya, 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the Somali border. Human-induced climate change contributed to low rain levels in East Africa in 2011, making global warming one of the causes of Somalia’s famine and the tens of thousands of deaths that followed, a new study has found — Aug. 5, 2011 (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

The notion of changing climates influencing politics in nations that have barely felt the effects of it and have the advanced technology and basic infrastructure to weather its worst effects may seem absurd at first glance. In every discussion of rising global temperatures, we’re talking about diseases and food shortages in the developing world, or political unrest in fragile and failing states while wealthy nations adapt and overcome, and isn’t that what has been happening? Yes, it has. All those assumptions are right. But because those assumptions are correct, the West is being indirectly, but very deeply affected by the effects of all this turmoil, and things are bound to get worse unless we do something serious about climate change.

You see, borders are not supernatural boundaries that allow nations to live in a vacuum and pretend that what happens in another country will always stay there. A painful transition to a post-industrial knowledge economy marked by wild inequalities and disparity in opportunities taking place in the West has created a lot of toxic strain between rural and exurban communities and their urban counterparts in the developed world. It’s arguably the defining struggle of these societies right now. Tens of millions began to feel as if the world was leaving them behind and changing into something they didn’t understand or really want to learn much about because it was too new, too scary.

There’s no right time for dealing with a terrorist regime turning a civil war in a nation state into a bloody quest for a new caliphate and creating millions of refugees, but this was particularly bad timing. As we discussed before, what climate change does to developing and unstable countries is a boon for many terrorist groups and ISIS was no exception. In fact, it may be the first terrorist group that capitalized on a drought caused by it and many more will follow in its footsteps after it’s finally driven out of its former territory.

The result? Yet another flood of refugees into the West, which is straining to accommodate all the arrivals and process them in an orderly manner. And this will give the populist right another major boost at the polls. They can now claim that far from responding to global events and helping people, the refugee crisis of 2016 was just a warmup to repopulating Europe or a dry run for a sinister globalist conspiracy to a growing, sympathetic base worried about how much money is being spent to take in more refugees.

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How Populists’ Empty Promises Catch On

As bad as it may sound, it’s this flood of refugees and migrants coupled with the tensions of a post-industrial transition that finally made the extreme right resonate with so many voters. It’s hard to argue that your country was being stolen from you while you have a job and a few thousand migrants a year are being integrated and finding work alongside you. But as your job disappears, handed over to invisible machines, and every news outlet starts the day by talking about another ten thousand refugees and migrants settling down in your country, getting guaranteed welfare benefits, and being trained for work, the nationalist right’s histrionics suddenly sound plausible.

Couple that with lower and lower birth rates in the developed world and the initially higher fertility of migrants, and the populists suddenly sound very reasonable, more like concerned citizens than the white supremacists they’re trying to pretend they’re not. Of course, to make sense their arguments must assume that the migrants will refuse to assimilate (they almost always can if given the chance, especially in the U.S.), maintain their fertility rates (their fertility rates will plummet within two generations), and that there’s no way to manage the risks they pose (there are, and Americans are actually great at implementing them on a massive scale).

Furthermore, we know exactly where anti-immigration populist policies lead by looking at a nation that’s tried them, Japan. Its birth rates continue to fall, its citizens are overwhelmed and disengaged, and its economy is stalled. The soothing idea that the forward march of time can be reversed by policy, or at least frozen, and the laziness of xenophobic scapegoating of immigrants and minorities are a noxious mix that succeeds only in giving certain people public outlets for their frustrations. Yet, the more migrants to states with generous welfare benefits there are, the more frustrations fester, and the more those populist fallacies seem appealing to certain voters.

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Harassment and Intimidation in the Aftermath of the Election,” Southern Poverty Law Center” class=”aligncenter size-full” />“Harassment and Intimidation in the Aftermath of the Election,” Southern Poverty Law Center

For now, the initial flood of refugees is settling down and Europe is trying to deal with economic migrants from Africa by trying to develop factories and industries in nations from which people are trying to flee to make a living for their families abroad. But the effects of climate change makes another killer storm, another drought that leads to civil unrest, the spoliation of a critical food source, and another collapse of a fragile government resulting in another tsunami of migrants to the West a question of when, not if. And the very brief pause we’re getting right now with an uneasy standoff with angry populists is bound to end badly when that happens.

Why You Can’t Give ‘Till It Hurts

The position of the center and left in Western countries isn’t easy. They want to help people in need rather than close their doors and have blood on their hands if they do nothing. But no one’s resources are unlimited and no nation on Earth has infinite housing, infinite jobs, and infinite safety net benefits for infinite refugees and economic immigrants. There’s only so much that even the wealthiest, most open-minded country could possibly do and hundreds of millions of people around the world who need help. This is why the emphasis in Europe has been on trying to invest in countries most affected by poverty, war, and weak governance instead.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been going well. Minders of the projects started under this developmental umbrella have been far too hands off, results have been wildly inconsistent, and in countries where GDP and personal income have been ticking upwards, more people are trying to migrate because they now have the money to pay smugglers to make the risky passage north and know they won’t make more at home. And if they don’t succeed, overcrowded prison camps, indentured servitude, and a whole lot of abuse, both physical and sexual, can await them until they pay what is essentially a ransom on their own heads and finally get sent home to try again another day.

All of this will get a lot worse as creeping deserts, failing harvests, and the spread of disease-carrying insects and animals with the warming climate hit those already looking to escape their dire predicaments. Certain factories to harvest nuts or process fruits will become impossible to operate at all, much less at a profit, creating new jobs. Just look what happened to Somalia as its green fields turned into barren rock and sand. Unless we address the effects of global warming on the most vulnerable and fragile states, we’re bound to see even more endless civil wars. In fact, they’re already happening. Dwindling resources will only make them more brutal and severe.

This leads us to the following crazy thought. What if instead of investing in the odd factory or farm in the developing world, we invested in education, green energy, and the basic infrastructure they currently lack? And what if it was a comprehensive plan that was actually followed over the long term to create new, vibrant economies, perfect for future foreign investment, not an improvised effort to do something, anything at all, to deter migration while not thinking too hard about the outcome or how it’s achieved?

Why The Future Of Development Is Green

Concept for a green city of the future (<a href=

LAVA/Malaysia)” class=”aligncenter size-full” />Concept for a green city of the future (LAVA/Malaysia)

Consider that the world’s most fragile states are usually plagued by two key problems: poor leadership and resource insecurity. While they might have a valuable mine or rare agricultural products, they too often lack the proper infrastructure to make the most of it, and many development projects aimed to bolster it are plagued with corruption and mismanagement. While there’s no panacea for either, focusing on sustainable development and renewables means there’s opportunity for new jobs and creating new markets which will force the local governments to at least try to be more responsible, or forgo the economic benefits and incur the wrath of the people.

This also doesn’t have to be a grant to local workers with nominal oversight by a few foreign officials. Just like Tesla is mulling a total rethink of Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure in the wake of the island’s devastating hurricane season, other energy startups can compete to test out new ideas for green energy and transportation in the developing world that could be scaled up in the West if they prove successful. Companies would win, would-be migrants would have jobs and the promise of a future, and we’d be getting on the ground floors of brand new markets with new consumers, creating even more opportunities for those who invested, both freelance and permanent.

Right now, China seems to be executing a similar strategy in Africa, however, it tends to be focused on building project-specific infrastructure with a few frills to expedite local approval. This would be a more holistic approach meant for long-term transformation and gain, and focus on innovation rather than old-fashioned metrics. Instead of stabilizing largely agrarian economies with several promising industrial and knowledge hubs, the focus needs to be on a rapid transition to a modern economic landscape. And this will be a major job creator for the countries that choose to participate as well, as consultants are bound to be in high demand.

Of course, there’s no guarantee of success in any developing country as local politics can very quickly become hostile and unpredictable, putting projects in danger. But consider that the alternative — ignoring green development and the effects of climate change, hoping that enough scary border guards and a few grants here and there will keep migrants out — is not working. And worse yet, it forces advanced economies slowing down because they have few places left to ramp up, to deal with waves of economic and humanitarian refugees to the horror of right-wing populists and those sympathetic to their message. We would, in effect, be helping the developing world to help ourselves.

Planning For The Short Term Is Planning For Failure

One of the reasons the far-right seems to be fine with authoritarianism is that modern authoritarian states seem to be getting things done while democratic, liberal nations are mired in endless talks and paralyzing gridlock. In part, it’s because autocrats don’t need to care that much about the people’s views, but also because their political longevity and stability let them plan beyond the next election. Instead of worrying about the constant horse racing and media needling about every tweet, fidget, or potential burp caught on a hot mic after lunch, they can turn their minds to the future.

But liberal democracies can plan for the long-term as well, so long as they can sell their citizens on why their grand plans matter and how they’ll benefit the people. It’s a question of their societies’ culture and ability to think beyond the next vote and the next fiscal quarter. And unlike autocracies, they can solicit more diverse ideas and make sure their visions don’t become expensive white elephants that provided little to no benefit past national pride and fodder for propaganda pieces. When we look at the West today, that capability to take on big projects and dream about the future seems gone, with no one interested in what happens when they’re no longer in office.

Short term avarice has resulted in massive income inequality and economic boom and bust cycles that are objectively leaving the world worse off than it was before the boomer generation took the reigns. To fix it, we don’t need to abandon the good that capitalism can do, shut down stock markets, or give stipends for merely existing to compensate for the lack of available work. We just need to start doing what older generations tell us to do while refusing to follow their own advice; practice some delayed gratification. Instead of just pillaging what you can now to buy a second home or just boost your balance, wait, build, work, develop, then reap the long-term benefits for decades.

Now, when it can help the planet cope with what we’ve done to it, and solve the refugee and migration crises emboldening the extreme right at the same time, we need to stop thinking about modernizing the developing world as aid or an act of charity. We need to think of it as an investment in our future over the long haul, a way to grow stagnant post-industrial economies in need of a radical rethink, and creating opportunities across the world for generations in dire need of a future currently being stolen from them by the willful ignorance and greed of their elders.

I’m sure critics might call this idea “a form of economic colonialism” on the far-left side of the spectrum, and “globalist handouts” on the far-right. But we’ve tried both leaving the developing world completely alone and interfering with both guns and money. Our track record is decidedly mixed and the problems we created or exacerbated by swinging between extremes have come back to haunt us again and again over the last two decades. Maybe it’s time to take an approach that recognizes borders as political delineations rather than magic constructs that can shut us off from the world’s problems on a leader’s whim, and consider mutually beneficial partnerships that will tackle First World and Third World problems with real resources and vision behind them.

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Politech // Climate Change / Politics / Science / Tech