It has become abundantly clear that the far right’s ideology is not just about the exclusion and demonisation of certain groups of people but is also closely intertwined with the denial of scientific knowledge, whether it be about climate change or the Covid-19 pandemic. In this review of White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism (Verso Books, 2021), Konrad Bleyer-Simon examines the authors’ contention that far-right populists from Viktor Orbán to Donald Trump share a fundamental disregard for reality and their predictions about where this may lead in future.
White Skin, Black Fuel is closely connected to the landmark event, Political Ecologies of the Far Right, which took place in Lund in November 2019. This small Swedish town is home to some of the best researchers working at the intersection of environmental and social sciences. These academics, together with their brightest students, founded the Zetkin Collective to study the connections between “rapidly rising temperatures and rapid advances of the far right.” This detailed study is the collective’s first publication. Building on the conference, academic research, and discussions at Lund University, it provides some of the missing links in our knowledge about the far right’s environmental positions, the shared history of racism and fossil fuel extraction, as well as the ideological connections between US flat earthers and Europe’s right-wing radicals.
The European far right’s denial of climate change has remained under the radar for the past decade. The vast scholarship on both populism and the far right has barely touched on this aspect. Probably because politicians of the far right, both in its low-key and more explicit manifestations, have often been mistaken for nature lovers. The longing for tradition and an idyllic homeland, the emphasis on an organic connection between the land and its people, fraternities’ tendency to camp out in untouched nature, the asinine argument that conservatives are best at “conservation”, and the German National Socialists’ 1935 Reich Conversation Act all successfully distracted scholars and the general public from their actual environmental stance. Of course, there were some notable exceptions, such as those featured in Bernhard Forchtner’s 2019 volume The Far Right and the Environment. Here, the authors show that the most extreme far right figures are indeed attracted by some kind of “organic ethnonationalism” but that this ideology is often suppressed by other goals (as exemplified by the Nazis in the 1930s who, despite all the praise for nature, opted for building speedways and executing the mass destruction of both humans and the environment).
We should also remember that the main author, Andreas Malm, has already shown in his ground-breaking book Fossil Capital that fossil fuels throughout history are tied to white supremacy and racism. There is indeed a continuity. The key message of the book is that rising temperatures and the rise of the far-right come hand in hand. So those who want to fight one cannot forget about the other.
Far right objections – not a healthy scepticism
Malm and the Zetkin Collective argue that there are clearly identifiable patterns that help us understand what different far-right actors – especially the most established among them – think of the environment. In fact, the far right takes issue with three very well supported statements: first, the average temperature is rising from decade to decade, or even from year to year, second, human emissions of greenhouse gasses (and especially carbon dioxide) play a key role in the process, and third, this process has catastrophic consequences. As such, we are not talking about climate scepticism (which might mislead us into thinking that the far right might use doubt in its pursuit for truth), but about outright denial of obvious, verifiable, and scientifically proven facts.
It is against this background that the arguments used by the far right can often come across as a form of satire that was pushed too far. Many of us would find it hard to keep a straight face when hearing statements that, for example, emphasise how good it will be when we can finally enjoy Iceland’s vineyards, celebrate the fact that the beaches in Sweden will be more like those of Mallorca, and urge us to stop worrying about carbon dioxide as it is God’s creation, and as such cannot be bad for mankind.
In light of these ludicrous assertions, it is not surprising that the far right tries to make the well-reasoned arguments of progressives and scientists look like an inquisition. Not so long ago, the Spanish VOX party lashed out against the “totalitarian” tendencies of the climate movement, which allegedly rides roughshod over everyone else’s opinion. The party’s leader, Santiago Abascal, claims to accept the “evidence” of climate change, but has concerns about “the rise of a climate religion with which one is not allowed to disagree.” A strange statement, given the realities of constantly increasing pollution in our societies. In this endeavour, it does not seem to bother them that these “inquisitors” (i.e. people who in fact acknowledge that climate change is a clear and present danger) are not in the business of burning those who think differently (and not just due to the high carbon footprint of such an activity), but would rather try to engage in discussion, and convince deniers with arguments.
We are not talking about climate scepticism but about outright denial of obvious, verifiable, and scientifically proven facts.
The fear of Eurabia
Immigration is the “funnel issue” of the far right in that it is at the centre of all of its ideologies. And in the European context, Muslims and Arabs are the main target of far-right narratives, seen as the “quintessentially non-white body”. The authors see the fear of a “Muslim Planet” as a key issue, the belief that Arab (the far right tends to use the terms interchangeably) immigrants do not come to the West in hope of a better life but rather to implement the mission of the global jihad. In recent years, the idea was championed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his far-right allies all over Europe, but its origins go back to the turn of the millennium.
An amateur historian with the pen name Bat Ye’or has championed the term “Eurabia”, a reference to the continent where white westerners are allegedly enslaved by invading Arabs. She believes that contemporary history is mainly shaped by the oil embargo of 1973, when the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) punished Israel’s Western allies with a cut in production and in the sales of oil, thereby triggering a global recession. According to Bat Ye’or, the embargo has shown that Arabs control not just the oil reserves of the world, but also the whole financial system.
Not much later, the French far-right thinker Renaud Camus complemented this idea with the “Great Replacement Theory”, according to which the left-wing elites are complicit in the gradual replacement of white populations with non-Europeans. The theme was later picked up by prominent members of European far-right parties including Greece’s Golden Dawn, Italy’s Lega Nord, and the Freedom Party of Austria.
While this initial conspiracy theory could potentially have become an argument for far-right environmentalism – in the form of a call for greening Europe’s economies to preserve national purity – in practice such an effort would have required too much sacrifice from voters who prefer to stick to their comfortable daily routines. And apparently, what the far right values most of all is gaining supporters. Thus, inspired by the entanglements between ultraconservatives and polluting industries on the other side of the Atlantic, the European far right started listening to US political and industrial marketing messages. After all, if Republicans could get away with (and even profit from) lying to their voters about climate change, the European far right could safely tell voters: “go back to sleep, the house is not burning”.
In the European context, Muslims and Arabs are the main target of far-right narratives, seen as the “quintessentially non-white body”.
The ideological state apparatus
This leads us to an interesting section of the book that shows how large businesses created lobbies with the aim of protecting the goose that lays their golden eggs (as perfectly illustrated in the book and film Merchants of Doubt) to the detriment of the rest of us.
According to the authors, far-right and corporate interests have gradually snuggled closer to one another. With hindsight, this is probably no wonder. The fossil fuel lobby has a decades-long affection for established conservatives – many of whom have turned increasingly racist and authoritarian – while the ever more populist (and socially accepted) far right resists even slightly inconvenient changes to business as usual. The authors distinguish four major phases of this development: the early corporate phase from 1989 to 2001 when industries first developed their messages, the corporate phase from 2001-2007 when advertising messages were further refined, the conservative phase that ended with the election of Trump (2007-2016) when denialism made it into mainstream right-wing discourse, and a new far-right phase whose path is still unknown.
Ever since the discussion about climate change became mainstream (especially since NASA scientist James Hansen’s 1988 testimony before the United States Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources), the political right has been active in the building and operating of a so-called ideological state apparatus. This is, after Althusser, a “system of defined institutions, organisations, and the corresponding practices” that reinforces dominant ideologies. Even if this apparatus cannot be equated with the state per se – and might even be in conflict with some elected governments – its messages are deeply rooted in the logic and interests of the companies that have driven our economies in the past decades. Dubious organisations including the Global Climate Coalition, the George Marshall Institute, and the Greening Earth Society in the US or their European counterparts such as Dutch Climate Intelligence Foundation (CLINTEL) work hard to convince populations that their fears about global warming are unfounded, and constantly urge policymakers to water down their proposals. In the background, we find conservative donors like the Koch Brothers, and later a number of anonymous (but, in terms of money, easily identifiable) foundations.
The fossil fuel lobby has a decades-long affection for established conservatives, many of whom have turned increasingly racist and authoritarian.
Their campaign slogans – such as “Carbon dioxide – they call it pollution. We call it life.” – have effectively counterbalanced the warnings of scientists and had a chilling effect on measures to tackle climate change. International agreements like the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 fell short of providing a comprehensive solution, in part because the ideological state apparatus convinced the political mainstream that climate change could be fought with the integration of market mechanisms.
The ideology of what the authors call “capitalist climate governance” was built on the premise that markets know best and technology would always provide a solution. It created a platform on which different political ideologies seemed to have found common ground. But in fact what it led to was the spread of refined greenwashing techniques: companies were taking spectacular measures to look environmentally friendly in their public relations materials, but only rarely did they ever take any meaningful action.
With time, even this feel-good environmentalism turned out to be too much for some US conservatives. Both George W. Bush and Donald Trump left crucial global climate agreements, thereby signalling not just their indifference, but also outright hostility to multilateral efforts to save the planet. In this sense, previous incarnations of US conservativism and the far-right anti-democratic entity, which the Republicans have become today, are in full alignment. Their denialism turned into a zero-tolerance strategy, a call for unlimited destruction. This attitude in turn earned them the admiration of European extremists, for whom they became role models.
The ideology of “capitalist climate governance” was built on the premise that markets know best and technology would always provide a solution.
But why deny the obvious?
This is the question that closing sections of the book ask. Building on the work of sociologist Stanley Cohen, the authors differentiate between three forms of denial: literal, interpretive, and implicatory. The first completely disregards reality, the second acknowledges it but downplays its meaning by “rewriting the event, obfuscating the effect, exculpating the perpetrator”, while the third is fully aware but decides to stay idle.
Most of the far right falls into the first two categories. Following the American example, literal denial becomes more and more popular, in part because of its ease. It only requires the politician to say, “Nothing to see here!” The strategy is used by the Alternative for Germany party which tries to complement its anti-immigrant messages with this component of relief. The overwhelming majority of European far right parties are still in the interpretive camp: in an act of “collective narcissism”, this stance subordinates climate change to humanity’s wish to dominate nature, or simply blames migrants for the problems, pointing out (rightly) that the most destructive effects will be felt in the Global South – although wildfires, floods and extreme temperatures have had devastating effects in western Europe and North America as well.
After the manuscript of the book was finished, the far right’s tendencies for denialism were once again on full display, this time in the context of Covid-19. The virus has claimed millions of lives all over the world. Despite the high numbers of those dying or suffering severe and long-term effects of the disease across society, several populist and far-right politicians opted to downplay the problem, with some even going so far as to deny the existence of the pandemic itself. This downplaying and denial followed the same formula previously described in the case of climate change denialism. But the feel-good strategy might not work for them this time. The authors of the book argue that the far right will experience a significant decline in support. Having to stay at home to avoid the rapid spread of a deadly virus is in fact not the kind of condition that favours arguments for doing nothing. The carelessness of Bolsonaro, Trump, and Orbán left their countries with death tolls significantly higher than in most countries run by moderates.
While rationally this argument makes a great deal of sense, the developments of the last year raise several red flags: despite losing the election, Trump gained over 10 million votes in 2020, Italy fears a “fascist revival”, and even countries with the highest Covid-19 casualties, such as Bulgaria and Ukraine, experience a significant proportion of virus deniers and anti-vaxxers in their societies. Apparently, literal and interpretive denial can be more irrational than we previously though: they work even in situations where the danger is imminent and the solution is widely known and readily available. This phenomenon will puzzle many of those who try to understand (collective) human behaviour.
With the global pandemic, the climate movement has almost disappeared from view. But hopefully this fading is just temporary; the climate discourse and politics has already started to return both on the national and the supranational levels, and COP26 helped accelerate this. Let us hope the revival of activism will follow. In 2018 and 2019, the Fridays for Future movement forced the climate issue onto the political agenda. Despite being in the bonds of the foremost ideological state apparatus – the school system – these young activists were out on the streets protesting the negligence of older generations. Contrary to the far-right lunatics discussed previously, environmentalists are not tilting at windmills but are demanding real action in the face of one of the greatest challenges for all of humankind.