Joe Mulhall, senior researcher at European anti-extremism NGO HOPE not hate, explores how the international far-right is leveraging the current climate crisis, with a special focus on networked disinformation and exclusive new polling research conducted across six countries around the world.
Our planet is warming, our seas are rising, and while the human cost of this will be massive, the human cause of it is undeniable. Or at least, it should be. Rising sea levels and the desertification of already dry areas could see millions across our world being displaced. The climate crisis is a massive threat to quality of life, but for some people, it’s also an opportunity. Across Europe, the 2015 migrant crisis destabilized civil society, leading to the rise of the AfD in Germany, the Lega party in Italy, and allowed Viktor Orban to whip up anti-migrant rhetoric in Hungary. These conditions are a petri dish for conspiracy theorists, politicians, corporate interests, and especially, a boon for the rhetoric of extreme anti-migration factions pushing online disinformation.
This event is moderated by Data & Society founder danah boyd.
Recorded on December 4, 2019.
About the Speaker
Dr. Joe Mulhall is Senior Researcher at HOPE not hate, the UK’s largest anti-fascism and anti-racism organisation. He is a historian of postwar and contemporary fascism and completed his PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London. He sits on the Board of the UK Government funded Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. He has published extensively, both academically and journalistically, and appears regularly in the international news media and gives talks around the world about his research. He has two forthcoming academic books with Routledge in 2020 including The Alt-Right: Fascism for the 21st Century.
For more information, visit datasociety.net.
danah boyd: So I’d like to take a moment now to introduce Joe Mulhall. He is a senior researcher at Hope Not Hate, which is the UK’s largest anti-fascism and anti-racism organization. He is a historian of postwar and contemporary fascism. He completed his PhD at Royal Holloway and the University of London. He sits on the board of the UK Government-funded Holocaust Memorial Day Trust in the UK, and he is published extensively both academically and journalistically. And he has two forthcoming books, right, because you can’t just do one. You have to do two. That’s an overachiever problem, but we’re really excited in particular about one that’s coming out in February called “The Alt-Right: Fascism for the 21st Century” Today he is going to share some of his new research with us so please, let’s welcome, Joe.
Joe Mullhall: Hello. Thank you for having me. I should start by thanking danah and Data & Society for putting this all on and hosting it. It’s very exciting. I also need to thank Melissa who is the editor of Ctrl Alt-Right Delete, the newsletter who has put a lot of work into this as well. I’m very excited to be here. As danah said, I’m from London. I’m from an organization called Hope Not Hate and we’re the United Kingdom’s largest anti-racism, anti-fascism organization. And we do research on both domestic but also the international far- right and hate groups more generally.
I’m here to talk about something that we’ve become remarkably passionate about and interested in in the last few years, and that’s the kind of nexus where we see the crossover between the international far-right and the issue of climate change and more specifically, climate denial and environmentalism. I remember a few years ago we were in a pub in Westminster, next to the Houses of Parliament in London and there was a group of researchers from Hope Not Hate, some scholars of the far-right, some publishers, and we were sitting around just having a chat saying what’s the big threat going forward as a movement for us. And everybody pointed out the usual things, the rise of the radical right in Europe, terrorism, you name it.
The sorts of things that we always talk about. And then someone piped up and said, I think it’s clearly climate change. Then there was a bit of laughter through the room. Not that we didn’t think climate change was important, but we didn’t necessary instantly see what it had to do with us as anti-racism or anti-fascist researchers. It soon became clear after a brief conversation that we were hugely behind on this issue and then speaking to lots of my colleagues and researchers looking at similar things as I was around the world, we were all having the same realization about how far behind we were at looking at the importance of these two issues coming together.
So what I’m going to talk a little bit about today is what I see as the threats on this linking between the radical right and the far-right around the world and white supremacist and the issue of climate change, climate denial. I’ll essentially break into three, which I’ll briefly run through and then kind of talk about some of the challenges. And then I want to finish with some polling we’ve done across eight countries around the world on the issue of climate change, climate denial, misinformation, conspiracy theories more generally, which I think is a nice place to wrap up. If a touch depressing.
So I think the first of these three things I think that we need to be looking at in terms of the radical right and climate change and environmentalism. The first of course the threat of the radical right in power. That sounds very obvious but specifically in this issue. If we look at Bolsonaro in Brazil, one might argue Trump in North America, if we look at Modi in India, if we look across the continent of Europe, we’re facing all sorts of problems, whether or not that’s the Alternative for Deutschland in Germany. Whether or not that’s the Front National, or formerly called the Front National, in France, the Swedish Democrats in Sweden, Law and Justice in Poland, Lega in Italy, Vox in Spain, Orbán in Hungary. The list goes on. In the United Kingdom, we have of course now the Brexit Party formerly or led by Nigel Farage, formerly of UKIP that won the largest number of votes in the last European election in terms of seats. We are going through an epoch of a rising radical right across the international scene and this causes a large number of issues when it comes to the issue of climate change and climate denial.
So what are they? There’s a couple of issues to this. Firstly, it’s not quite as simple as one might think at first, the idea that the radical right or the far-right deny climate change. It’s far more complex than this. In fact, actually most of them don’t or many of them don’t. There’s a huge range of perspectives that we have to look at here. So the success of radical right parties and leaders around the globe ranges from what you can talk is outright climate change denial, all the way through to kind of localism, or through to actually accepting climate change is very, very important and seeking to exploit that issue. But what there is a commonality is a sense that the liberal left political mainstream and populists, they are railing against these globalist elites. What Cas Mudde talks about is the kind of “pure people” and the “corrupt elite.”
And this is something that we see across many of these parties. And climate change often fits in for many of these as part of that kind of elitist metropolitan politics. Some ways, you’ve seen changes within the radical right on this issue. Trump is an interesting example. If you look at how he’s changed in recent years from outright denial to some sort of weaponized ambiguity, if you might. In 2012, he tweeted “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” which was an interesting take considering most of what people say. But by 2008, that changed to, he says, “I will not deny climate change but it could very well go back.” Whatever that means.
So what we’re talking about here is a range of different perspectives from the radical right on the issue of climate change. Some accept political consensus or scientific consensus. However, one thing that we do see, generally across the movements, is that even if they do accept it, they often step in the way of political change on the issue. Often based for various reasons around economic political reasons. So even the ones that do accept manmade climate change will often stand in the way which becomes increasingly important for this notion of the far-right and the radical right in power.
When we look at the European Parliament elections this year, we have radical right parties or far-right parties with huge numbers of votes, seats for about 25 percent one might argue. This causes huge problems when attempting to cause change on the issue. Not least because radical right parties oppose transnational collaboration often and multinational agreements which they can consider to impede national sovereignty. These are the things we’re going to need to deal with climate change on a transnational and global scale and these are the parties that are going to stand in the way of them. So I see that as kind of being two problems with the radical right in power on this issue. One is we have active climate deniers in power, and the second part is, we have people in parties which will stop change even if they do believe in it.
So just to run through a few. The AFD is a good example of this. The AFD in Germany has become growing in success over the last few years, five years or so. In many of the German parliaments now, unprecedented votes that we would not have expected to see a breakthrough like that in Germany. Their election in the European Parliament this year ran on a position of “save diesel,” which is generally an unpopular position in Europe and it wasn’t particularly successful for them in some ways. But it became a huge issue for them. Partly because climate change was a huge issue in Germany. AFD Facebook posts mention climate change 930 times in the last 12 months, compared to 75 times in the year from April to 2016. Of course we have Trump, climate denial quite often or at least pulling out the Paris Agreement. In Brazil, we’ve seen statements regarding the unfounded alarm over climate change was threatening Brazil’s sovereignty.
In France, however, we’ve seen something slightly different under Le Pen. Le Pen has talked about Eco-Nationalist responses to climate change, promoting green policies, but on the basis of nationalist and conservative interest. I think that’s just to tease out a few issues about how the far-right do deny climate change because sometimes it seems quite change to normal people that you could just outright deny it. But it is of course slightly more nuanced than that. I think we can look at possibly about three ways in which they deny climate change. You of course you have denialists who reject the scientific consensus. You have denialist parties and those that express some skepticism to climate change, and then you have those who are supportive of mainstream science. However, if you take that down, you can become more nuanced. You have trend skeptics who doubt the evidence for climate change. You have attribute skeptics who doubt the human cause for climate change. You have impact skeptics who doubt that climate change will be serious. And you have policy skepticswho question the solutions to climate change. The tactics they use are multi-faceted to do these things. I won’t run through them all now.
Of course you have to look at things like links to agri-business in Bolsonaro’s case, the Koch brothers in North America funding these sorts of things, traditional misinformation campaigns. One thing I wanted to highlight though in this area, one thing that we’re increasingly seeing, as societal consensus is, especially in the general West, becoming ever clearer around the issue of climate change in terms of accepting it as being man made. We’re seeing a tactical shift by the radical right, moving from outright denial of the science, which is deeply unpopular and hard to win, to what we might call in England “attacking the man, not the ball” in a football sense–going after the scientist or, the perfect example of this, is going after Greta. In the AFD for example, she was mentioned 384 posts by AFD accounts in March and 243 last month, in April, sorry, according to research by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. This allows parties, by going after these individuals rather than science, they try to use it to paint climate change as irrational, hysterical, panic, cult-like and even the replacement religion. So that’s part one is the dangers and problems of having the far- right in power and the effects they can have. But I actually think there’s a couple more. The second one I think is how the far-right will have an ability to exploit the issue of climate change, not just deny it. Here, we might talk about resource nationalism, but we’ll also talk about the effects of increased climate migration. The last few years in Europe have been quite difficult in terms of the far-right, partly because of their exploitation of the migrant crisis. There’s many, many causes for the rise of the radical right, but one of them has been their response and the societal response to the migrant goal or so-called migrant crisis.
Right now, the push factors for migration across the Mediterranean for example, the climate change is not anywhere near the top of that list. We talk about economics; we talk about war and conflict. Climate-induced migration still remains down the list and when it does happen, it primarily remains kind of regional rather than transcontinental. However, that might not continue to be the case moving forward. We’re likely to see an increase in trans-border and transcontinental migration caused by the issue of climate change. One person we spoke to was a guy called Steven Trent who runs the Environmental Justice Foundation and he argues that it’s absolutely clear that the numbers involved, even if you went to net zero emissions tomorrow, are going to be in the order of tens of millions and possibly hundreds of millions. These people are not going to head south. They’re going to head north.
So the radical right are in the perfect position to exploit this increased migration from the global south to the west. The dangers that rather denying climate change, they will spread fear about climate-induced migration and push xenophobic and reactionary policies such as closing borders and building walls. Here, there is a very difficult position for us and that conversation before I answer, I do not have to this question is how we tackle this issue? How do we discuss large scale migration, especially across the Mediterranean, without feeding directly into the hands of those individuals on the far-right who will seek to weaponize it? I don’t have the answer to this question but it’s certainly one we need to be having, we need to be discussing.
And then the third thing in terms of the far-right and climate change, what’s the third threat? I think this one is dangerous is of course eco-fascism. Something that we’ve seen a kind of raft of newspaper articles ranging from the awful to the okay (and some very good ones). In both the Christchurch shooter in New Zealand, of course in El Paso in Texas voiced concerns from environmental issues and framed their murderous hate crimes as solutions. The marriage of racist reactionary politics, and environmentalism stretches back to the genesis of the study of ecology itself, of course.
Online white nationalist forums nowadays, those of you who spend time on them unfortunately will see propaganda produced by things like the so-called “eco gang,” referencing a mystical connection to the land, the violent enforcement of animal rights, the dangers of overpopulation and looming ecological collapse. While this propagandizing remains niche at present, eco-fascist ideas have roots in the dogma of course of the Third Reich and notions of land, etcetera and have been brought into sharp contrast by things like Christchurch–just how dangerous they are. For self-identifying eco-fascists, blood and soil remains the key tenant and is discernible when the gunman from Christchurch claimed “the natural environment of our land shaped us just as we shaped it. We were born from our lands and our own culture was molded by these same lands.” His vision of rescuing Europe from perceived decline was also couched and really interesting in anti-urban terms. He talked about the Europe of the future is not of concrete and steel, smoke and wires, but of a place of forests, lakes, mountains and meadows.
The doctrine frames the urban and industrial aspects of modernity as an attack on the white race, presents Jews and immigrants as parasites and invaders, and elevating the gut of prejudice and violence, impulses of eco-fascist with sacred mission to defend one’s spiritual home. And turning mass murders into martyrs for the higher purpose. So now I think we have the kind of core elements in terms of dangers of the far-right offer when it comes to the issue of climate change, but there’s a huge amount of challenges that we face as researchers on this issue. Some of them are very obvious.
We can’t just look at the far-right because it’s easy and say climate change denial is caused by this small niche group of faraway activists and if we deal with them, we’ll be fine. We’ve seen time and time again mainstream political activists around the world have been often the ones really stopping change on this issue. Maybe that’s another conversation. It’s also important we don’t conflate environmentalism and climate change. Many of the individuals we monitor on the far-right have very strong environmental platforms. Their solutions might somewhat differ to mine, but they might still might also deny climate change. These things are complex. We’ve seen some examples in Europe of campaigns like anti-wind farm campaigns by the far-right couched in environmental terms, talking about protecting birds, protecting this scenery, protecting the lands and the hills. And of course, traditional kind of blood and soil notions. However, I think there’s a more important challenge that we have to really look at. I was in Lunde, Sweden a couple of weeks ago at a conference, Ecologies of the Far-Right and it was brilliant. It has researchers from all over the world there talking about this issue. And one of the things I noticed was a lot of the researchers were people who spent their time looking at environmentalism and it started to look at the effect of the far-right, or people like myself who were looking at the far-right and kind of racist politics were starting to look more environmentalism. And both of us were making mistakes that within our own field we tried to deal with over many years.
So, the first thing I would say is we need to go beyond the political manifestos of these political parties. Quite often when we say what do these actors believe on climate change, we as researchers look at their manifestos. The far-right doesn’t often operate like this. There’s often a huge divergence between what they’re saying in their manifesto and what they call activist actually believe. So we have to get beyond that. That involves huge amounts of monitoring and research. Kind of esoteric-exoteric, front of house, back of house– getting beyond the public declarations.
This is especially important on this issue. Polling is relatively clear about climate change and being a major issue for most people in society and therefore for a far-right political party, continuing with climate change denial is not a vote winner. But just because they might change it in their manifesto doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to do anything in power, as we’ve seen. But I think we also need to go beyond political parties. We need to look at movements. We need to look at far-right and racist movements, whether or not that’s things like the Identitarians, we’ve seen causing waves over the last decade in Europe, their campaign against the U.N. Migration Compact is a good example of not a political party not engaging in voting or elections, but still effecting change. Eco-terrorists would be another example of this. So going beyond political parties and looking at political movements. But we also need to go I think actually beyond political organizations altogether. I think if we look at the nature and the makeup of the contemporary far right around the world, we’re increasingly seeing a de-centralized, not formally organized, massive activist. Sometimes thousands, hundreds of thousands around the world engaging in politics. But not through organizations, not through membership.
They’re offering microdonations of time, energy, effort, money. And they could be anywhere in the world. If we’re going to understand how these things are affecting climate change policies, it’s not just looking at what the Front National says and what the AFD says. We have to look at what these thousands of activists are saying because they have impact. And finally tied into this we have to go beyond the nation. We can’t just look at our individual country or what does this country say or what does that country say? One of the fundamental nature of the contemporary far-right is a transnational movement. Which means that someone sitting in London can be looking at content denying climate change in North America. Or someone in Australia could be sitting there looking at content produced in Germany.
If we all just look at our own national context, we’re going to miss a huge chunk of this picture. Two of the biggest climate change deniers or far-right figures in the United Kingdom, Paul Joseph Watson and a guy called Collin Robertson, or Millennial Woes, have both denied climate change in the U.K. but of course their videos are only 20 percent viewed in the U.K. So this is something we need to come on, we need to go beyond the nation. So how do we kind of deal with some of these things? So this kind of brings us onto some of this polling we’ve been doing. We were attempting to take a more international perspective on this phenomenon. We wanted to look at how it is that both the far right deny climate change, but how these climate change denial works. In short, what do people who deny climate change believe other than climate change denial? So we polled at least over 1,500 people in eight separate countries, Brazil, the U.S., Canada, Poland, Germany, Italy, France, and the United Kingdom. We sought to gauge opinion on climate change as well climate denial ahead of the U.N. Climate Summit in New York during late September.
So what did we find? I’m going to briefly run through some of the key findings. Seven of the eight countries polled, said that climate change was seen as the most important issue facing the world today. So I would say that it was the United States was the exception there. That said though, terrorism was viewed as the biggest issue here or affordable healthcare which, you know, is fair enough on the second. The overwhelming majority of people thought that the world is facing a climate emergency. Three quarters, 74 percent, believe that in the United Kingdom, 89 percent in Italy. The U.S. had the lowest number, but even here over 2/3, 67 percent felt that was the case. Few people anywhere felt that governments were doing enough to tackle climate change. Over half, 54 percent in Britain felt this compared to 23 percent who believed it. And the gap was even larger in Italy where 68 believe their government was not doing enough and just eight percent thought it was. In Germany, Poland, France, and Brazil, over 60 percent of people felt their governments were not doing enough, and opinion was more divided in Canada with 48 percent believing that.
So there’s some good news in all of this. You know, I usually get to go over and depress everyone but listen, there’s some good news here. However, interestingly kind of tying back into what I was talking about earlier, awareness that climate change could cause increased migration. So half of Britain’s believed that migration into Europe and North America will increase. And as a result of climate change, just to compare it to 13 percent who didn’t think it would, in Italy and France, this figure rises to 66 percent with just 10 percent disagreeing. Some interesting things popped out. There was surprisingly little difference in attitudes across age boundaries, which is maybe me being ageist. I’d kind of presumed it would be the case but it didn’t. At most, young people in a few of the countries polled were marginally more concerned about climate change than those who were over 65, but this was not the case everywhere.
In Germany, for example, slightly more over 65s felt strongly that Europe was facing a climate emergency than young people. But while age wasn’t a major factor in kind of differentiating it, income and economic insecurity was. Generally, people in lower incomes were slightly less convinced about the dangers of climate change and certainly more resistant to the idea that economic growth needed to be curbed to reduce carbon emissions. I guess this isn’t particularly surprising. But it also shows some interesting things when we talk about the policy platforms of the far right and their successes. Of course, quite often they’re targeting these same economically deprived communities.
Another element of the poll we wanted to understand was who was skeptical. This is the really juicy bit. And who was unconvinced by climate change and of course why. So over a quarter of Brazilians, 26 percent, and more than a fifth of Americans, 22 percent, did not believe that global warming was happening at all. I think these numbers are pretty staggering. I don’t know if people agree. I just kind of presumed that that didn’t happen anymore, but it does. Roughly the same number of people in Germany, Canada, France, and Poland agreed with the British that climate change was happening though not because of humans. Put together, of the third of people who believed that the threat of climate change was being exaggerated, 45 percent believed some form of climate denial conspiracy. And this is the really interesting bit if we’re looking at the links here and the crossovers with the radical right. Climate change deniers believe in all sorts of other conspiracies as well. Some of which of course chime with wider far-right politics.
Our polling confirmed the clear correlation between those who did not believe in climate change or that humans were not responsible for it and a belief in other conspiracy theories and anti-establishment ideas. Those with the most strident views on denying the human involvement in climate change had very unorthodox views on a range of controversial issues. Two thirds of Italians who denied that humans were responsible for climate change believed that Jewish people had an unhealthy control over the worlds banking system. It’s kind of traditional far-right anti-sematic conspiracy theory. A staggering 85 percent of British climate change deniers think that the threat of climate change is being exaggerated by governments in order to control how we live our lives.
This again feeds into traditional populist radical right rhetoric around corrupt elites not looking out for the people, conspiracy theories about – they’re not always conspiracy theories, there are some corrupt elites. Over 45 percent of climate deniers in Britain, Germany, Italy, and Brazil think that the 1969 moon landing was staged. One of the more–sometimes I kind of think that’s quite funny, but some of these conspiracies of course are not funny. One of the more alarming views is that the CIA and the Israeli intelligence service Mossad help setup ISIS. Over 60 percent of German climate change deniers believe this. As do 55 percent of British and Italian climate deniers and even 42 percent of American deniers.
We also saw a strange correlation or a strong correlation in some countries with islamophobia in these communities. British climate deniers have the most negative attitude to Muslims in Islam amongst all eight countries. Three quarters of those who deny climate change in Britain that we polled felt that there were Sharia Law and no-go zones across large parts of Europe. Again, a traditional far-right talking point about no go zones where police can’t go, Sharia Law rules, and these are quite popular positions in large parts of Europe.
So where do we conclude here? I think there’s a number of things to wrap up just to make sure I’m exactly on the 20 minutes. There appears to be a correlation between climate denial and other conspiracy theories. This includes racist and xenophobic conspiracies. The rise of the radical and the far right around the world poses huge challenges to dealing with the issues of climate change. They sometimes deny it, which is one problem, but they often stop effective change in legislation which is another. The one thing I think is various different movements, whether or not we’re anti-racist movements, climate change movements, migration movements, one thing we have to be extraordinarily vigilant about is the co-option of this issue by the international far right. Perhaps it’s more important than just fighting climate denial. Whether or not that is things like eco-terrorism, whether or not that is legitimizing xenophobic policies, whether or not it is resource nationalism. And as researchers, I say we must go beyond the political parties, beyond the manifestos, beyond the movements, beyond the organizations and go beyond the nations.
So society is faced with economic insecurity, real or perceived competition for resources, pressurized public services and rapid social and cultural change can rapidly become disenfranchised, especially if faced by unresponsive politicians who offer no hope. In these situations, diversity can stop merely being different and instead become division. A situation that provides fertile ground for those who wish to break apart our shared identities, scapegoat and replace them with an “us” and “them” siege mentality. We have found that these groups are already capitalizing on the issue of climate change with climate denial and climate conspiracies having found a welcome home in the ideology of both the populist and far-right. The war driven migrant crisis in 2015 showed how quickly and powerfully anti-immigrant feelings can distort and destabilize politics. Surging far beyond any initial racial, religious, and cultural friction. One million migrants arrived in a single year and it had a massive impact on the politics of Europe. It undermined the credibility of Chancellor Angela Merkel and helped establish the far right AFD party as a national force.
In Italy, it contributed and helped provide the political ammunition for Lega party to move out of its northern heartlands and establish itself in towns across the south. In Hungary, we saw leader Viktor Orbán link the migrant crisis to threats to western civilization, and then in the United Kingdom, of course, the two leave campaigns used migrant imagery to whip up a panic of immigration during the Brexit referendum.
Ensuring we remain united and embracing tolerance in the face of such pressure is going to be an integral part of fighting for global justice and climate justice. But governments, policy makers and NGOs are not yet ready for this challenge. We must plan ahead, we must resist and repel any backlash to those fleeing the consequences of this climate crisis and build coalitions between the environmental and social justice movements. And unless we take action now on climate change and ready ourselves for its consequences, I fear we could be heading for serious trouble. Thank you for coming. Thank you for listening, and I hope it wasn’t too depressing. Thank you.
danah boyd: Thank you, Joe. So I’ve learned a lot from Joe which is really exciting, but I was asked tonight to give a response to bring some of this back into some of Data & Society’s work. I’m going to begin with a concept, agnotology. Agnotology is the study of ignorance. The concept was coined by Proctor and Boal, and presented publicly through an edited volume with Schiebinger. It attempts to really understand how ignorance is not about not yet knowing, or getting to a point where there’s distributed inquiries around knowledge, but ignorance can actually be manufactured.
And one of the original articles about agnotology in the anthology was written by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, which of course is the basis of their book, Merchants of Doubt. And in that, they talk about the economic interests that actually helped fuel the flawed science to seed doubt about global warming. It was called global warming at that day. In fact, one of the funniest things about the fact that we talk about climate change is that that actually comes from a conservative American talking point. The term was actually coined by the U.S. pollster Frank Luntz. And he wanted to use the term climate change because global warming seemed scary.
So this was a way of actually diminishing and weakening the power of global warming was to shift it to climate change. We saw this moment of trying to seed doubt and engage in these processes of really manufacturing ignorance decades ago, right around climate, and the undermining of science and terminology gains, which was really the strategy of the 1990s, is something that we actually saw in a variety of different domains. I don’t think it was accidental that one of the key campaigns of Russia Today was this coordinated effort to say, “is climate change more science fiction than science fact?” And a lot of the small print, which of course I didn’t give myself, is, “just how reliable is the evidence that suggests human activity impacts on climate change?” The answer isn’t always clear cut. It’s only possible to make a balanced judgement if you are better informed. By challenging the accepted view, we reveal a side of the news that you wouldn’t normally see. Because we believe that the more you question, the more you know. Right?
The very act of questioning, which is at the core of the RT campaigns, becomes a part of the self-investigation rhetorics of a lot of different kinds of white nationalists and far-right movements in the United States. This is where you start to see the merging and connecting of a lot of things in the United States, where we had this long trajectory of different kinds of hate orientations with tactics and strategies that were actually more of institutions in Europe.
And that brings us to Greta Thunberg. So this 16-year-old activist is well-known across Europe long before she arrived on the shores of the U.S. But here, thanks to our wonderful media, we don’t pay attention to anybody from Europe until they actually land by water on our lands. That’s sort of how we work. So in August, she lands here and all of a sudden people are like what is this teenager, right, and who is she, what is she about, and how dare she come and start talking about these issues? Especially the way she would talk by basically accusing us old people of being the problem. Now, the fascinating thing about her response in the United States really even more extending from what was happening to her in the U.S. is that the U.S. reactionaries got obsessed with her, right. They really wanted to tear her down. They tore her down in a way that was very classic to the U.S. frame. So the anonymous digital campaigns that we saw that were really coordinated, they didn’t just mock her campaign about climate, but they mocked her way of speaking, they mocked her autism, they mocked and dissected her body. And what it meant, was that she showed up in a particular way. And these digital harassment campaigns really are the extension of the kinds of things that we’ve seen since Gamergate. And they were really sort of focused on bringing her down. But the interesting thing about Thunberg is she managed to learn something that also a handful of U.S. actors in this landscape had learned.
One that I really think is embodied at best by the Parkland kids. She learned a set of digital jiu-jitsu where she could just mock back anything that they threw at her, which of course infuriated her various attackers. And there were these new videos of, look at all these old people making fun of her. She would write back saying this is funny. She sort of had a field day with it. But you started to see the coordination of that conversation in the U.S., in a country where we don’t really pay attention to climate. So all of a sudden, we’re having one person coming from Europe trying to introduce and get people paying attention to climate, trying to motivate young people to participate. And she gets all of the treatment that we get when we come up against the NRA in our country. So let’s pause for a second. Right. Here is a youthful activist who is peacefully and vocally demanding for change in a way that is actually energizing youth, and the response to her is virulent, hate, anger, and harassment. Right?
These are the tactics that we learn from white nationalists and a variety of different reactionaries. It’s not really about climate denial, as Joe has pointed out, but it’s about destabilizing who can actually serve as an information mediator in this conversation. Now they think that’s really important because we’re seeing the weaponization of the digital targeting at people who are trying to open up the conversation in a way that’s tearing down the conversation, or turning it into such a spectacle that our media will then start to cover it in spectacle mode rather than actually cover the issues at play.
Now, part of what I’ve been intrigued by are the different kinds of groups. I was really fascinated by Joe’s layout of who some of the groups are that are actually part of the far-right navigating aspects of climate because I think a lot about who in the U.S. are actually talking about climate and in which ways. Most of the conversation amongst progressives, amongst social justice and racial justice organizations is really taking a humanistic approach. Right. Which is a theory of change rooted in the idea that we should really work on protecting as many people as possible, we should work on building the policies necessary to—at the very least prevent the increase of carbon. But also the ability to build technologies to actually pull carbon out. This is really about trying to save as many people as possible.
But the U.S. is a funny place. We actually spend a lot of time contesting different people who are more interested in challenging these issues from a neoliberal place. And the neoliberal approach to climate is very simple. I’m going to save me and mine by whatever means possible. And that should sound like some of our elected officials. And that mindset comes in with the idea of amassing wealth, and protecting the people that are close to you. And I’ll get back to where it comes in a moment but this is where any effort to sort of separate out between me and mine and them makes it part of a fertile environment to have this conversation.
And there’s a third set of stakeholder groups that are usually not in our conversations globally but they’re really important in the United States. Which is a set of evangelical Christians who really deeply committed to the rapture, and believe that what we’re seeing are all the signs of the second coming, coming closer and closer. Right. Now, if you think about what the rapture and believe that what we’re seeing are all the signs of the second coming coming closer and closer. Right. Now, if you think about what the rapture looks like, the goal isn’t to deny climate change, it’s to say that it is coming and that the signs of it are very, very clear. The signs of it are massive changes in the weather, the need to hold onto Jerusalem, the need to make certain that you keep out non-believers by building a wall which is part of scripture. And of course, the idea that a heathen will be in power as part of the protection for allowing the rapture.
So here we get this strange convergence, right, because we’ve got these extremists that we can kind of locate in the United States context as white nationalists who are really talking about this in terms of mass migration and the concerns about trying to restrict non-white people from entering into the U.S. But we’re also seeing the coordination of these kinds of logics as coming up against evangelical and neoliberal logic. So what you have at this moment is an idea that build a wall, which is really a fence, which really does a signaling work within evangelical communities, also does this way of saying keeping out brown people from the South and it becomes a way that is actually creating separatism at multiple lenses. That’s where we see these languages that are not themselves explicitly hateful, but they do the work of tying together different ideas of hate with extremists thinking more generally, with a set of more religious values or political beliefs.
By the way, my mind as we work with this is that the seating of ignorance, which, in many ways, was left for the news media and left for big monied actors throughout the 90s, is now at a point where we’re seeing a coordinated harassment campaign that is about the destabilizing of knowledge that is brought to us by some of these far-right movements globally and from different kinds of actors domestically. And that coordinated dynamic, and that really weird swirl that we’re all facing right now, is part of where I think – as Joe was articulating, like how do we get our hands around what’s happening here because these tactics and tools that we’re seeing come from these groups are becoming more amplified and more powerful.
So that brings us back to this concept of agnotology, right. One of the things we can do is we can look at that elephant. We can make sense of its trunk, it’s tail or its legs. But if we’re going to address climate change, we need to think holistically about what we’re seeing because these things are intersecting. One of the things that Joe and I have been talking about is there’s not as much room for these groups to come together and start talking about where is climate and migration and extremism and geopolitical contestations all kind of feeding into each other. Because that is the site where we’re going to see the most pain in the next couple of years as we try to actually move forward on the climate issue.