ORGANIZERS ARE EXPECTING huge numbers to turn out for the Global Climate Strike, beginning on September 20 and continuing through September 27. It builds on the first global climate strike, which took place on March 15, and attracted an estimated 1.6 million young people, who walked out of class at schools on every continent.
But this week’s strike will be different. This time, young organizers have called on adults from all walks of life to join them in the streets. So in addition to schools in over 150 countries, almost 1,000 workers at Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle have pledged to walk out, as have some faculty unions, Britain’s Trades Union Congress, and many others. There is a plan to shut down Washington, D.C. on September 23.
This diversity of the groups involved may well prove to be a new stage in the climate movement, with many more movements and constituencies seeing themselves in the struggle against climate breakdown—as well as in the emerging vision for an intersectional justice-based Green New Deal.
And it’s a good thing too, because as Donald Trump spews racist hate at Bahamian refugees fleeing the wreckage of Hurricane Dorian and growing numbers of far-right killers cite environmental damage as a justification for their rampages, there is a pressing need to confront the ways in which the fires of climate breakdown are already intersecting with the fires of white supremacy and surging xenophobia globally.
These are themes I explore in-depth in my new book, “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal,” from which this essay is excerpted.
An Eco-Fascist Massacre
In Christchurch, New Zealand, the March 15 School Strike for Climate started in much the same way as in so many other cities and towns: Rowdy students poured out of their schools in the middle of the day, holding up signs demanding a new era of climate action. Some were sweet and earnest (I STAND 4 WHAT I STAND ON), some less so (KEEP EARTH CLEAN. IT’S NOT URANUS!).
By 1 p.m., about 2,000 kids had made their way into Cathedral Square, at the city center, where they gathered around a makeshift stage and donated sound system to listen to speeches and music.
There were students of all ages there, and an entire Maori school had walked out together. “I was so proud of the whole of Christchurch,” one of the organizers, 17-year-old Mia Sutherland, told me. “All of these people had been so brave. It isn’t easy to walk out.”
Just as Sutherland was psyching herself up to deliver the final testimony of the day, one of her friends gave her a tug and told her, “You have to shut it down. Now!” Sutherland was confused—had they been too loud? Surely that was their right! Just then, a police officer walked onto the stage and took the mic away from her. Everyone needs to leave the square, the officer said over the sound system. Go home. Go back to school. But stay away from Hagley Park.
A couple hundred students decided to march together to City Hall to keep the protest going. Sutherland, still confused, went to catch a bus—and that’s when she saw a headline on her phone about a shooting 10 minutes away from where she was standing.
It would be several hours before the young strikers grasped the full horror of what had transpired that day—and why they had been told to stay away from a park near the Al Noor Mosque. We now know that at the very same time as the students’ climate strike, a 28-year-old Australian man living in New Zealand drove to that mosque, walked inside, and, during Friday prayers, opened fire. After six minutes of carnage, he calmly left Al Noor, drove to another mosque, and continued his rampage. By the end, 50 people were dead, including a 3-year-old child. Another would die in the hospital weeks later. An additional 49 were seriously injured. It was the largest massacre in modern New Zealand history.
In his manifesto (posted to multiple social media sites) and in inscriptions on his weapon, the killer expressed admiration for the men responsible for other, similar massacres: in downtown Oslo and at a Norwegian summer camp in 2011 (77 people killed); at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 (nine people murdered); at a Quebec City mosque in 2017 (six people dead); and at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in 2018 (11 people murdered). Like all these other terrorists, the Christchurch shooter was obsessed with the concept of “white genocide,” a supposed threat posed by the growing presence of nonwhite populations in majority-white nations, which he blamed on immigrant “invaders.”
The horror in Christchurch was part of this clear and escalating pattern of far-right hate crimes, but it was also distinct in a couple of ways. One was the extent to which the killer planned and executed his massacre as a made-for-the-internet spectacle. Before beginning his rampage, he announced on the message board 8chan that “it’s time to stop shitposting and time to make a real life effort post,” as if a mass killing were merely a particularly shocking meme waiting to be shared.
The hypermediated nature of the Christchurch massacre, with the killer’s obvious bid to game-ify his “real life effort post,” made for an unbearable contrast with the searing reality of his horrific crime—of bullets tearing through flesh, of families stricken by grief, and of a global Muslim community sent a terrorizing message that its members were safe nowhere, not even in the sanctity of prayer.
It also made for a wrenching contrast with the youth climate strikers who had gathered at the exact same time for such a different purpose. Where the killer gleefully toyed with the lines between fact, fiction, and conspiracy, as if the very idea of truth were #FakeNews, the strikers painstakingly insisted that hard realities like accumulated greenhouse gases and carbon footprints and spiraling extinctions really did matter, and demanded that politicians close the yawning gap between their words and their actions.
When I spoke to her six weeks after that terrible day, Mia Sutherland was still having trouble prying the strike and the massacre apart; they had somehow fused together in her memory. “In no one’s mind are they separate,” she told me, her voice just above a whisper.
When intense events happen in close proximity to one another, the human mind often tries to draw connections that are not there, a phenomenon known as apophenia. But in this case, there were connections. In fact, the strike and the massacre can be understood as mirror opposite reactions to some of the same historical forces. And this relates to the other way that the Christchurch killer is distinct from the white supremacist mass murderers from whom he openly drew inspiration. Unlike them, he identifies explicitly as an “ethno-nationalist eco-fascist.” In his rambling manifesto, he framed his actions as a twisted kind of environmentalism, railing against population growth and asserting that “Continued immigration into Europe is environmental warfare.”
To be clear, the killer was not driven by environmental concern—his motivation was unadulterated racist hate—but ecological breakdown was one of the forces that seemed to be stoking that hatred, much as we are seeing it act as an accelerant for hatred and violence in armed conflicts around the world. My fear is that, unless something significant changes in how our societies rise to the ecological crisis, we are going to see this kind of white power eco-fascism emerge with much greater frequency, as a ferocious rationalization for refusing to live up to our collective climate responsibilities.
Much of this is due to the hard calculus of global warming. This is a crisis overwhelmingly created by the wealthiest strata of society: Almost 50 percent of global emissions are produced by the richest 10 percent of the world’s population; the wealthiest 20 percent are responsible for 70 percent. But the impacts of those emissions are hurting the poorest first and worst, forcing growing numbers of people to move, with many more on the way. A 2018 World Bank study estimates that by 2050, more than 140 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America will be displaced because of climate stresses, an estimate many consider conservative. Most will stay in their own countries, crowding into already overstressed cities and slums; many will try for a better life elsewhere.
In any moral universe, guided by basic human rights principles, these victims of a crisis of other people’s making would be owed justice. That justice would and should take many forms. First and foremost, justice requires that the wealthiest 10-20 percent stop the underlying cause of this deepening crisis by lowering emissions as rapidly as technology allows (the premise of the Green New Deal). Justice also demands that we heed the call for a “Marshall Plan for the Earth” that Bolivia’s climate negotiator called for a decade ago: to roll out resources in the global south so communities can fortify themselves against extreme weather, pull themselves out of poverty with clean tech, and protect their ways of life wherever possible.
When protection is not possible—when the land is simply too parched to grow crops and when the seas are rising too fast to hold them back—then justice demands that we clearly recognize that all people have the human right to move and seek safety. That means they are owed asylum and status on arrival. In truth, amid so much loss and suffering, they are owed much more than that: They are owed kindness, compensation, and a heartfelt apology.
In other words, climate disruption demands a reckoning on the terrain most repellent to conservative minds: wealth redistribution, resource sharing, and reparations. And a growing number of people on the hard right realize this all too well, which is why they are developing various twisted rationales for why none of this can take place.
The first phase is to scream “socialist conspiracy” and flat out deny reality. We’ve been in that phase for quite some time now. That was the tack taken by Anders Breivik, the sociopath who opened fire at the Norwegian summer camp in 2011. Breivik was convinced that in addition to immigration, one of the ways that white Western culture was being weakened was through calls for Europe and the Anglosphere to pay its “climate debt.” In a section of his manifesto titled “Green Is the New Red—Stop EnviroCommunism!,” in which he cites several prominent climate change deniers, he casts demands for climate financing as an attempt to “‘punish’ European countries (US included) for capitalism and success.” Climate action, he asserts, “is the new Redistribution of Wealth.”
But if straight-up denial seemed a viable strategy then, nine years later (with six of those years among the 10 hottest ever recorded) it is less so today. That does not mean, however, that onetime deniers are suddenly going to embrace a response to the climate crisis based on agreed-upon international frameworks. It is far more likely that many who currently claim to deny climate change will simply switch abruptly to the sinister worldview espoused by the Christchurch killer, a recognition that we are indeed facing a convulsive future and that is all the more reason for wealthy, majority-white countries to fortress their borders, as well as their identities as white Christians, and wage war on any and all “invaders.”
The climate science will no longer be denied; what will be denied is the idea that the nations that are the largest historical emitters of carbon owe anything to the black and brown people impacted by that pollution. This will be denied based on the only rationale possible: that those non-white and non-Christian people are lesser than, are the other, are dangerous invaders.
In much of Europe and the Anglosphere, this hardening is already well under way. The European Union, Australia, and the United States have all embraced immigration policies that are variations on “prevention through deterrence.” The brutal logic is to treat migrants with so much callousness and cruelty that desperate people will be deterred from seeking safety by crossing borders.
With this in mind, migrants are left to drown in the Mediterranean, or to die of dehydration in the rugged Arizona desert. And if they survive, they are put in conditions tantamount to torture: in the Libyan camps where European countries now send the migrants who try to reach their shores; in Australia’s offshore island detention camps; in a cavernous Walmart turned child jail in Texas. In Italy, if migrants do make it to a port, they are now regularly prevented from disembarking, held captive in rescue boats under conditions a court has ruled to be tantamount to kidnapping.
Canada’s prime minister, meanwhile, tweets pictures of himself welcoming refugees and visiting mosques—even as his government makes massive new investments in militarizing the border and tightening the noose of the Safe Third Country Agreement, which bars asylum-seekers from requesting protection at official Canadian border crossings if they are coming from the supposedly “safe” country of Trump’s United States.
The goal of this fortification around Europe and the Anglosphere is all too clear: Convince people to stay where they are, no matter how miserable it is, no matter how deadly. In this worldview, the emergency is not people’s suffering; it is their inconvenient desire to escape that suffering.
That is why, just hours after the Christchurch massacre, Trump could shrug off the surge of far-right violence and immediately change the subject to the “invasion” of migrants at the United States’s southern border and his recent declaration of a “national emergency,” a move meant to free up billions for a border wall. Three weeks later, Trump tweeted, “Our Country is FULL!” This followed Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, responding to the arrival of a small group of migrants rescued at sea by tweeting, “Our ports were and remain CLOSED.”
Murtaza Hussain, an investigative reporter who studied the Christchurch killer’s manifesto closely, stresses that it is filled with ideas that are anything but marginal. His words, Hussain writes, are,
Both lucid and chillingly familiar. His references to immigrants as invaders find echoes in the language used by the president of the United States and far-right leaders across Europe. For those wondering where [he] was radicalized, the answer is right out in the open. It is in our media and politics, where minorities, Muslims or otherwise, are vilified as a matter of course.
The drivers of mass migration are complex: war, gang violence, sexual violence, deepening poverty. What is clear is that climate disruption is intensifying all these other crises, and it’s only going to get worse as it gets hotter. But rather than helping, the wealthiest countries on the planet seem determined to deepen the crisis on every front.
They are failing to provide meaningful new aid so poorer nations can better protect themselves from weather extremes. When impoverished and debt-ridden Mozambique was pummeled by Cyclone Idai, the International Monetary Fund offered the country $118 million, a loan (not a grant) it would somehow have to pay back; the Jubilee Debt Campaign described the move as “a shocking indictment of the international community.” Worse, in March 2019, Trump announced that he intended to cut $700 million in current aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, some of which was earmarked for programs that help farmers cope with drought. In an equally explicit expression of its priorities, in June 2018, at the start of hurricane season, the Department of Homeland Security diverted $10 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is tasked with responding to natural disasters at home, and moved it over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to pay for migrant detention.
Let there be no mistake: This is the dawn of climate barbarism. And unless there is a radical change not only in politics but in the underlying values that govern our politics, this is how the wealthy world is going to “adapt” to more climate disruption: by fully unleashing the toxic ideologies that rank the relative value of human lives in order to justify the monstrous discarding of huge swaths of humanity. And what starts as brutality at the border will most certainly infect societies as a whole.
These supremacist ideas are not new; nor have they ever gone away. For those of us in North America, they are deeply embedded in the legal basis for our nations’ very existence (from the Doctrine of Christian Discovery to terra nullius). Their power has ebbed and flowed throughout our histories, depending on what immoral behaviors demanded ideological justification. And just as these toxic ideas surged when they were required to rationalize slavery, land theft, and segregation, they are surging once more now that they are needed to justify climate recalcitrance and the barbarism at our borders.
The rapidly escalating cruelty of our present moment cannot be overstated; nor can the long-term damage to the collective psyche should this go unchallenged. Beneath the theater of some governments denying climate change and others claiming to be doing something about it while they fortress their borders from its effects, there is one overarching question facing us. In the rough and rocky future that has already begun, what kind of people are we going to be? Will we share what’s left and try to look after one another? Or are we instead going to attempt to hoard what’s left, look after “our own,” and lock everyone else out?
In this time of rising seas and rising fascism, these are the stark choices before us. There are options besides full-blown climate barbarism, but given how far down that road we are, there is no point pretending that they are easy. It’s going to take a lot more than a carbon tax or cap-and-trade. It’s going to take an all-out war on pollution and poverty and racism and colonialism and despair all at the same time.
The message coming from the school strikes is that a great many young people are ready for this kind of deep change. They know all too well that the sixth mass extinction is not the only crisis they have inherited. They are also growing up in the rubble of market euphoria, in which the dreams of endlessly rising living standards have given way to rampant austerity and economic insecurity. And techno-utopianism, which imagined a frictionless future of limitless connection and community, has morphed into addiction to the algorithms of envy, relentless corporate surveillance, and spiraling online misogyny and white supremacy.
“Once you have done your homework,” the young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg says,
You realize that we need new politics. We need a new economics, where everything is based on our rapidly declining and extremely limited carbon budget. But that is not enough. We need a whole new way of thinking.… We must stop competing with each other. We need to start cooperating and sharing the remaining resources of this planet in a fair way.
Because our house is on fire, and this should come as no surprise. Built on false promises, discounted futures, and sacrificial people, it was rigged to blow from the start. It’s too late to save all our stuff, but we can still save each other and a great many other species, too. Let’s put out the flames and build something different in its place. Something a little less ornate, but with room for all those who need shelter and care.
Adapted from “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal,” published by Simon and Schuster.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets that aims to strengthen coverage of the climate crisis.