Climate change and the rise of right-wing populism

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von Hans Dembowski

The IPCC, Bolsonaro, Trump and Kavanaugh

The consensus of climate scientists is that global warming can be kept below 1.5° on average if action is taken fact fast. That is the message of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). By coincidence, it was launched at the same time as it became clear that a right-wing radical won the first round of Brazil’s presidential election. If Jair Bolsonaro prevails in the 2nd round, he is likely to cause serious climate damage.

The IPCC works on behalf of the world’s governments. It relies on the work of the best scientists. Its reports reflect empirical evidence as well as up-to-date theoretical reasoning. In terms of knowledge, it is the most impressive institution on earth.

Right-wing populists like Bolsonaro do not care. He has said that he will quit the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. It is obvious, that under his rule, rainforest destruction would accelerate fast. Brazil has about one third of the world’s remaining rainforests, which are important carbon sinks. Protecting forests is a crucial element of climate protection.

The argument that exploiting mineral underground resources below those forests or turning them into farmland serves Brazil is wrong. Yes, there may be short-term financial gains, but that is only so because the environmental costs are not factored in. The small number of people who profit from rainforest destruction are not forced to pay for the damages they cause. Those damages affect all other Brazilians and the global community.

Like President Donald Trump in the USA, Bolsonaro pretends to be eager to re-establish a previous, social order that was supposedly better. Unlike Donald Trump, he explicitly praises his country’s military dictatorship which ended in 1985. Trump, by contrast, only expresses appreciation of foreign strongmen. Both politicians use racist, xenophobic and misogynist language. The implicit message is that it is white, middle-class men who matter. The true agenda, however, is to protect elite interests.

I am increasingly convinced that the rise of authoritarian populists is linked to climate change. As the IPCC shows global warning is a huge challenge. Humanity can rise to it, but that means transforming how economies operate. The vested interests of very privileged people are at stake.

In past decades, both centre-left and conservative governments were willing to regulate capitalism in ways that solved the problems that market dynamics created. That is how the welfare state and environmental protection emerged, for example. Generally speaking, most parties on the centre-left are still taking this approach, and so are some on the centre-right. However, many traditionally established conservative parties are either being taken over or replaced by post-truth populists. Increasingly, conservative and right-wing leaders are unwilling to countenance what is needed to make capitalism sustainable in view of climate change. As a result, they increasingly shy away from global responsibilities and pretend to be putting the national interest first.

To a large extent, this approach is suicidal. If global warming spins out of control - as it certainly will, if the likes of Trump and Bolsonaro have their way - no country will be great. The hazards of extreme weather will increase dramatically, and failed harvests will lead to dramatic food shortages and even famines internationally. The trend is irreversible, moreover, and will become worse if certain tipping points are reached.

Nobody will be safe. It seems that elitist groups, who benefit from populist rule and want to be above the law, are rallying worried middle classes to support authoritarian leaders. The plan is to build fortresses for themselves. Only the privileged few will get any kind of protection from such fortresses.

Getting Brett Kavanaugh appointed to the US Supreme Court was a major step in this direction. He has a track record of ruling in favour of the powerful and not living up to the standards he preaches. This Supreme Court justice has lied under oath and deviated massively from the principal of judicial neutrality by vehemently attacking and even insulting Democratic legislators. The Republicans, who appointed him actually, only represent the minority of US voters, but they used their Senate majority to build a bastion of elite interests. That bastion cannot be as strong as they hope, however, because the Supreme Court’s reputation has been damaged by the appointment of an obviously unsuitable man.

The majority of Trump voters will not benefit, moreover. This kind of fortress is not designed to serve them. But even those inside will not be safe because the fortresses will be besieged by masses of angry and needy people. I guess this is one reason why the anger of populist movements does not subside even when they gain political power.

The cynicism is extreme. As the Washington Post recently reported, the US administration acknowledges that global temperatures are set to rise by 4°C, but argues that car emissions should not be regulated anyway. The point is that climate change is happening anyway, so efforts to keep it in check are meaningless. The Trump White House is making people believe that life can go on as usual while it knows perfectly well that it will not. It is actually promoting coal even though phasing out this fossil fuel would mitigate global warming.

In Brazil, Bolsonaro has not won the final round yet. He is likely to prevail, but for humankind his defeat would be better. It would also be better for most Brazilians.


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