Before slaughtering dozens of Muslims at a mosque in New Zealand and gunning down Latinos in a Walmart, two mass murderers cited one unifying cause in their manifestos: climate change.
“Why focus on immigration and birth rates when climate change is such a huge issue?” the Christchurch killer wrote.
More and more, white nationalists hooked on visions of a “Great Replacement” of whites will say that the Christchurch and El Paso shooters were not alone in linking climate change to their fretting about mass migration. As the real-world effects of climate change become visible, young racists are increasingly latching onto the disasters it creates as the impetus for protecting a white homeland that they claim to be under threat from refugees.
The vision has some precedent in the history of white nationalist movements. The search for a whites-only nation has, for decades, been intertwined with the vision of a green utopia for racists, often juxtaposed with the idea of overpopulation as a driving environmental concern.
But over the years, the discourse on the far right has shifted from using overpopulation as a fig leaf for efforts to either keep out or exterminate people of color to sweat-soaked anxiety around displacement as a result of climate change, with hordes of climate refugees cast as the new bogeyman.
For Betsy Hartmann, a professor at Hampshire College who has studied the overlap between the environmental movement and white nationalism, the re-emergence of this phenomenon — the far right using ecological concerns to advance its agenda — comes as no surprise, and is part of what she refers to as the “greening of hate.”
“It’s an apocalyptic discourse that the world is going to hell because of the decline of the white race,” she told TPM. Climate change, she added, provides a convenient backdrop in which the far right can place its fantasy.
‘What happens to white people if climate change is real?’
At first glance, this trend may seem ironic: Many on the far right dismiss the science behind climate change. Some see political efforts to confront it as a globalist conspiracy.
But a strain of white nationalist thinking has seized on the dire warnings from experts of what could be in store as climate change advances: Swaths of the world could become uninhabitable, resulting in mass migrations to relatively hospitable climes.
These concerns have become particularly common among younger members of the far right — including the El Paso and Christchurch killers — who seem to accept mainstream climate predictions and incorporate them into their worldviews. The older cohorts, by contrast, either hew to dated notions of an impending Malthusian catastrophe, fretting about overpopulation, or hedge their planning for a migrant invasion with outward skepticism about the reality of global warming.
But for both the Christchurch and El Paso killers, climate change provided a sense of urgency, mixed in with anxiety about a so-called “Great Replacement.”
“They are the same issue, the environment is being destroyed by over population, we Europeans are one of the groups that are not over populating the world,” the Christchurch killer wrote in his hate-filled manifesto. “The invaders are the ones over populating the world. Kill the invaders, kill the overpopulation and by doing so save the environment.”
Experts like Hartmann who study this trend describe it as “ecofascism.” Within the white nationalist movement, it is sometimes referred to as “green nationalism.”
Two leading voices on the white nationalist right — 41-year-old Richard Spencer and 68-year-old Jared Taylor — have staked out positions on the issue in ways that highlight the distinction between younger racists, who eagerly incorporate climate catastrophe into their worldview, and an older generation of white nationalists who remain skeptical.
When asked by TPM about his views, Spencer described a vision of the future in which global populations began to move en masse, doubting that “everyone” would be able “to come north, in the sense that everyone is going to live in Western and central Europe and North America.”
Is not population control and reduction the obvious solution to the ravages of climate change? http://t.co/0vIV4R4rs1
— Richard ☀️ Spencer (@RichardBSpencer) March 31, 2014
He went on to claims of potential climate migration to the situation that came after the “unintended wave” of migrants to Europe following Arab Spring, saying that he did not want the U.S. to become “the refugee camp for the world.”
“Do I want to make these millions of people now into newly minted citizens?” he asked rhetorically. “Does this disaster mean that they’ve won the lottery?”
Spencer’s views echo, but are distinct from, those of Taylor, who has been a prominent white supremacist for decades and whose magazine American Renaissance is influential on the far right.
His website has mulled the issue of climate change in recent years in a way that is more hedged, tempering concerns about climate change with the view common among elected Republicans that mainstream science’s predictions of disaster are wrong or overstated. One American Renaissance article posed the question: “What Does It Mean For Whites If Climate Change Is Real?” (That article concluded that “Migration triggered by climate change would overwhelm us.”)
Another piece, published in January 2019 addressing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY)’s Green New Deal proposal, concluded that “Earth can’t survive an infinite African population boom, skyrocketing Asian consumption and pollution, and a white death spiral.”
Taylor himself couches his decision to publish articles addressing climate change in skepticism, but hits the same points surrounding migration fears as the others.
“There is massive non-white immigration into white nations because whites have built agreeable places to live,” Taylor told TPM. “If climate change makes the global south even more unlivable, that will be another reason to move north.”
Taylor went on to call the resulting migration “the greatest external threat to Western civilization, just as massive non-Jewish immigration into Israel would threaten its Jewish character.”
“White nations should do exactly what Israel does: build fences, deport illegal immigrants, and manage immigration in ways to ensure that the founding stock remains a substantial majority,” he added.
Past Is Prologue
The nod to environmental concerns is not new for the movement.
The interest in climate change is the latest iteration of a long overlap between white nationalism and environmentalism. Today’s claims that population displacement sparked by climate change threatens whites have roots in fears of global overpopulation during the 1970s.
Far-right anti-immigration activist John Tanton, the founder of influential group Federation for Immigration Reform, proclaimed his concerns about the environmental effects of overpopulation throughout the 1960 and ’70s, and pushed virulent attempts to curb non-white immigration. Tanton, a member of the Sierra Club, even urged that organization to turn toward anti-immigrant activism.
Heidi Beirich, head of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s intelligence project, described Tanton to TPM as a “diehard environmentalist who specifically blamed immigrants for destroying America’s environment.”
Over the years, he morphed into a para-mainstream figure, with FAIR exerting influence on the Trump administration’s border policies. Even now, FAIR and similar groups like the Center for Immigration Studies publish articles linking immigrants to pollution.
By mixing them with rhetoric about climate change, Spencer and others have kept overpopulation fears alive on the far right.
“Overpopulation is a global problem,” Spencer told TPM. “And it’s not one in Western, Central Europe, among white Americans, or Japan.”
Spencer added that he would support policies including “humane family planning” and other “national policies” to protect the “founding stock” of countries from the effects of climate change.
But when pressed on where or how that policy would be applied, Spencer replied, “When I’m talking about promoting humane family planning, that’s something that desperately needs to be done in Africa.”
Hartmann, the Hampshire College professor, warned that well-intentioned environmental advocates need to be wary of using rhetoric that plays into apocalyptic narratives related to mass displacement by climate change.
“We need to be cautious around the idea of large mass migrations of climate refugees,” Hartmann told TPM, warning that it conflates the complicated political, individual, and economic reasons that lead people to immigrate into a vision of “one horde of people coming over the border.”
“People need to be aware that the apocalyptic discourse around climate change can trigger unintended consequences,” she said.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.