Could Climate Change Fuel the Rise of Right-Wing Nationalism?

By Joshua Conrad Jackson, Doctoral Student, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Michele Gelfand, Distinguished University Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Maryland. Originally published at The Conversation

Two trends have defined the past decade and both have been on display at this year’s session of the United Nations General Assembly.

One has been the escalating effects of climate change, which were the focus of the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit. Forest fires, floodsand hurricanes are all rising in their frequency and severity. Eight of the last 10 years have been the warmest on record. Marine biologists warned that coral reefs in the U.S. could disappear entirely by the 2040s.

The other trend has been the surge of right-wing nationalist politics across Western nations, which includes Donald Trump’s election in the U.S., and the rise of nationalist political parties around the world.

Indeed, the first four speeches of the United Nations general debate were given by Brazilian right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, Trump, Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and far-right Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

These two trends are rarely discussed together. When they are, their correlation is sometimes viewed as an unfortunate coincidence, since many nationalist politicians actively obstruct climate change solutions.

However, our new research suggests that these two trends may be closely related, and not in the way you might think. The effects of climate change – and the way it makes societies feel threatened – may be one of the elements fueling the rise of right-wing nationalism.

How Climate Shapes Culture

To understand how climate shapes culture, it’s important to step away from current events and consider the way the climate has influenced societies throughout human history.

Cultures can vary in what’s called their “tightness” – the strictness or flexibility of their rules and traditions, and the severity of their punishments for rule breakers.

The Fellahin people of Egypt, for example, were one of the tightest cultures that we analyzed. For centuries, they’ve enforced strict gender norms and strong expectations for how children should be raised.

When cultures feel threatened – whether by war, disease or economic upheaval – they tend to become tighter.

But ecological threats can be just as strongly connected to tightening.

In one analysis, we showed that rates of famine and land scarcity predicted cultural tightness in historical societies. The Fellahin people have faced a constant threat of flooding, and have endured frequent earthquakes, sand storms and rockslides.

The Fellahin have weathered centuries of environmental disaster. Brooklyn Museum

Centuries of climate catastrophe can also predict differences in the cultural tightness in societies today. In another study we found that nations that have endured the highest rates of drought, food scarcity, natural disaster and climate instability have the tightest cultures today.

Even within the U.S., the states most vulnerable to climate disasters have the tightest cultures. A 2014 study found that states like Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama – which have the highest criminal execution rates and corporal punishment rates in schools – also have the highest historical rates of natural disasters such as tornadoes, floods and hurricanes.

Evolutionary analyses suggest that cultural tightness can be functional – even necessary – in the face of climate disaster. It can make people more cooperative, and more likely to follow protocols, like rationing, during a drought.

But our latest studies examined a darker side of cultural tightness. We wanted to know whether tightness also made people less tolerant of minority religions, ethnicities or sexual orientation. In other words, we explored whether prejudice thrives in tighter societies.

This dynamic would have serious consequences for our understanding of geopolitical events. If climate anomalies such as hurricanes and forest fires have a “tightening” effect on cultures – and these catastrophes are happening more frequently – it might be driving more people toward politicians who espouse xenophobic, homophobic or racist rhetoric.

Environmental Threat and Prejudice

To test these ideas, we brought together a group of 19 researchers from eight different nations. With expertise in economics, psychology and anthropology, our team was well-suited to study the effect of environmental threats and culture on prejudice and political nationalism.

We ended up studying 86 historical societies, 25 modern nations and the 50 U.S. states, analyzing data on more than 3 million people.

The results were strikingly consistent across these populations. The cultures most vulnerable to climate threats had the strictest cultural norms, and the highest levels of prejudice against minorities. For example, in American states with histories of climate threat and cultural tightness, white respondents reported the highest levels of aversion to marrying someone who was black, Asian or Hispanic. Turkey and South Korea had the tightest cultures, and also showed the most aversion to living near someone who was a different ethnicity, sexuality or religion.

We next tested whether we could cultivate these social and political attitudes in a laboratory setting. We recruited 1,000 people from around the world. We had some write about a threatening event in their environment, including – but not restricted to – climate. Others wrote about a threatening event in their personal life. The final group wrote about what they had for breakfast.

Subjects who wrote about a threatening event in their environment reported the highest support for stricter societal rules and regulations. These same people also reported the most prejudice toward ethnic minorities. This study showed that even brief reminders of an ecological threat could have an effect on people’s political leanings and make them less tolerant.

Finally, we explored how these issues tied into modern elections. We recruited American and French individuals during their respective countries’ most recent presidential elections.

We found that voters who felt the most threatened were most likely to support harsher punishments for rule-breakers, more adherence to traditional norms and expressed the highest levels of prejudice. Voters who felt threatened were also most likely to vote for Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, each of whom ran on law-and-order, anti-immigration platforms.

One Feeds the Other

According to just about every estimate, climate change will only worsen. Without serious and immediate reform, temperatures and sea levels will continue to rise, along with the risk of destabilizing climatic events.

The natural perils of climate change are evident to many people already. But our research underscores a less visible geopolitical peril. As climate change increases the level of environmental threat, cultures around the world may become tighter, and the exclusionary rhetoric of far-right nationalist politicians may sound more and more appealing.

Since far-right nationalists are notorious for ignoring climate change, the rise of these politicians may also exacerbate the effects of environmental threat. This may create a vicious cycle, in which the threat of climate disaster and far-right nationalism encourage one another over time.

In this way, bipartisan action on climate change may not just be necessary to save the environment. It may also be an important way to ensure values like free speech and tolerance are preserved in countries and cultures around the world.

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  1. MisterMr

    Another IMHO simplier explanation is that economic anxiety fuels cultural conservativism, hence tightness.

    Inequality is linked to economic anxiety.

    1. RepubAnon

      Agreed – look at what the World War 1 reparations led to in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s… Bad times always tempt people to look for strong charismatic leaders – and also scapegoats to blame.

      1. Louis Fyne

        a nitpick, add one intervening step.

        bad times splinters the polity into many factions, so you get the People’s Front of Judea squabbling w/the Judean People’s Front, etc.

        And it’s from this fractured political landscape, a strong charismatic leader emerges (who often might not have emerged had the political landscape been dominated by two parties)

  2. Grizziz

    Interesting…it seems very Malthusian in that when there is a disruptive climate the carrying capacity of the land is reduced. The inability to create a surplus also impedes the ability to be generous to strangers. When the scarcity persists decisions to favor one’s family and members in a community who are most likely to cooperate would have an evolutionary advantage to make it to the next generation. Strangers and “malcontents” would be perceived as lacking the necessary norms to effectively integrate and cooperate.

    1. Grant

      Given how inequitable our society is, and given how inequitable consumption of resources and how inequitable the generation of pollutants are, I think the danger of this should be obvious. Planning will be needed if we are to have an actual society, and that planning will have to deal with physical units more, and markets less than this system. It will either be done in a democratic way, or a fascist state will impose things in response to the crisis. But, holding on the present system with some relatively minor modifications seems to be really dangerous and utopian. Of all of those running, there is Bernie’s plan, and there is everyone else, and you could argue that his plan doesn’t go far enough and doesn’t touch very sensitive things. But, in regards to Warren, it seems that her idea is to use markets (even though markets are missing tons of information and are a key reason why we are in this position) and to encourage green industries to export to places that are largely not responsible for the crisis. It might have made sense 40 years ago, it seems wildly short now.

      I also think it should be acknowledged that while carbon emissions are extremely important, the environmental crisis is much bigger than that. Access to water, the species extinction rate being thousands of times the natural rate, plastic and nuclear pollution, overfishing the oceans, ocean acidification and the threats to phytoplankton, dead zones in places like the Gulf and the Baltic Sea, soil erosion and deforestation, etc. Any market based means, say cap and trade programs and carbon offsets, will set in motion violent conflicts over land, beyond just access to vital natural resources. If we are to try and monetize, for example, carbon sequestration, who owns the land on which the trees are sequestering carbon? Who benefits from the services provided by nature?

      Say said this long ago, “Land, as we have above remarked, is not the only natural agent possessing productive properties; but it is the only one, or almost the only one, which man has been able to appropriate, and turn to his own peculiar and exclusive benefit. The water of rivers and of the ocean has the power of giving motion to machinery, affords a means of navigation, and supply of fish; it is, therefore, undoubtedly possessed of productive power. The wind turns our mill; even the heat of the sun co-operates with human industry; but happily no man has yet been able to say, the wind and the sun’s rays are mine, and I will be paid for their productive services.”

  3. sharonsj

    The answer to the question is “yes” and it is happening now. Since I don’t see nations doing much about (1) climate change or (2) assimilating large numbers of immigrants, things will only get worse.

  4. shinola

    “Subjects who wrote about a threatening event in their environment reported the highest support for stricter societal rules and regulations.”

    What is the definition of “threatening event in their environment”? Were subjects just told to recall a perceived environmental threat that actually happened to them or were they given a possible scenario to opine about? Also there could be a perceived difference between THEIR (personal) environment & THE (global) environment.

    Maybe I’m just dense, but without more info about how this study was structured, I don’t get the correlation.

    1. xkeyscored

      The study had three conditions. In the ecological threat condition, participants were prompted to describe their most salient ecological threat and were given “a foreign attack” and “major recession” as examples. In the control condition, participants were prompted to describe what they had for breakfast. We also included a negativity control condition where participants described a negative event in their personal life, such as “failing to achieve goals,” and “failing to keep up with workload.”
      (I’m not sure why foreign attacks or major recessions were seen as examples of ecological threats, but there you go.)

    2. Leroy

      Shinola, I agree. There needs to be more information here. Would a country that bans single use plastic bags be “tighter” than a country that dictates a shorter shelf life for internal combustion ? Would the biggest polluters be mandated to do the most in terms of clean up ? Questions..
      By the way, I DO know the difference !

  5. Ignacio

    Regarding the discusion on fear vs hope as motivation for fighting climate change this article would support hope rather than fear. Fear is only sane in the sense that helps to be alert and protect oneself against an instant threat. The kind of threat that brings CC, sustained in time, migth bring what this article explains: stricter culture and norms as well as prejudice and confrontation, like blaming the others for CC. This also gives excuses: don’t do anything because… China!

    1. Ignacio

      Importantly, this raises questions on how to properly treat countries/regions under hard CC-associated threats.

  6. Jesper
    The solution proposed by the ‘elite’:

    South Africa’s International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor has spoken of the need to give people the education and skills to enable them to find jobs and not to “see themselves in competition with other groups that come to our country”.

    According to our ‘elite’ then education is the solution for everything but the populists are the ones with the unrealistic simple solutions?

  7. Chauncey Gardiner

    Excellent article, thank you. According to the EPA’s climate resilience screening index (CRSI) published in October 2017, levels of poverty, economic inequality, social cohesion, the natural environment, governance and some other factors all play significant roles in determining a society’s resilience to climate change.

    So why are the political leaders mentioned in this article actively engaging in policies that are damaging both social cohesion and the natural environment, and obstructing climate change solutions? Looks like a deliberate feedback loop has been constructed to consolidate power, not address the issue. The solution does not lie in more of the same.

    1. xkeyscored

      Why wouldn’t the political leaders mentioned in this article be actively engaging in policies that are damaging both social cohesion and the natural environment, and obstructing climate change solutions?
      The article mentions Jair Bolsonaro, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Recep Erdogan, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen by name, and more generally far-right politicians and far-right nationalists. Which of these do you suspect of sanity or rationality, let alone of wishing to address the issue of climate change?

  8. JCC

    Along the lines of this article, David Sloan Wilson’s books, Darwin’s Cathedral and Does Altruism Exist?, are worth a re-visit for me. Group evolution has always been a focus of his and he suggests a few ways the human race could show a little maturity.

    I’m a little cynical about the future, though, particularly since I’m on the road right now listening to Thomas Frank read Rendezvous With Oblivion as well as this site’s comments on The Jackpot (in fact I got the books-on-tape version of The Peripheral for the trip back west)

    Speaking of GW, Upstate NY in the Finger Lakes region has been absolutely lovely for this time of year, warmer and greener than what I remember from 10 years ago. I suppose it should be a little disturbing, but it’s just too nice outside.

  9. David

    I see at least an element of tautology here. Groups, societies and nations confronted with outside threats and survival problems will tend to pull together and work collectively. Individualism is of less significance in a rice-growing village in Asia than in a merchant bank on Wall Street. You can call this reactionary, or conservative (in the traditional sense) if you want to, but in practice all groups retreat into themselves when they feel threatened: just look at social justice warriors.

  10. Susan the other`

    Right wing nationalism all over the place. Because the last thing we tried, neoliberal global financialism, failed miserably. It’s a logical reaction. What’s more frightening, A world full of zombie workers without democracy or a world of clear thinking, angry nationalists? I’ll take the nationalists. I’d prefer it be even more decentralized into localists, because that is where the real work to be done is. That’s where our new reality is.

    1. paul

      Take out nationalism.
      You;re left in limbo.
      Internationalism without nationalism, does not make much sense.
      You just end up with globalization, a euphemism for commodification.

      1. Seamus Padraig

        Don’t confuse globalization with internationalism. True inter-nationalism presupposes the existence of nations and means improving their relations through peaceful, cross-border trade. Globalization, though, just bulldozes indiscriminately over everything in its path–nations included–leaving behind only wreckage and waste. Understood rightly, globalization is actually the opposite of true internationalism.

  11. Jim A.

    Of course it will. When things go to shit, people become more tribal. The circle of people that they trust, depend on, and treat well gets smaller and smaller. There is a whole lot of ugly to come, and only SOME of will be a direct result of the upcoming climate disaster. The rest will be due to the human reaction to that disaster.

  12. George Stubbs

    I think these conclusions were obvious and predictable, but having evidence is helpful. Resource depletion, tens if not hundreds of millions of migrants–how could this not be fuel for violence on racial, ethnic, and class lines?

    In the mid-20th Century, the U.S. had the likes of Clare Booth Luce–definitely a nut, but elite and not alone–warning at a time of abundance that it must all be preserved for the white race. There already is an army of CBLs out there. An armed army.

    Greg Grandin’s recent book “The End of the Myth” is a good read here. If you believed that American history is the 400-year history of a race war of whites against people of color, this book provides abundant and depressing support. If you think climate change can bring us together–in the U.S. and elsewhere…sigh. But go Greta, as far as you can.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      The Big Blue Cities and maybe even some smaller Blue Cities and Little Bluetowns . . . and their immediate culture-shadow hinterlands, could look into effective Hate-Based Initiatives to de-fossilize their own little regionalocal economies as mu;ch as possible. They could unite around reducing money and power to the Red Zone merchants-of-fossil by reducing the use of the energy that money is used to buy.

      They could start doing that now. They are already united with eachother in spirit, they could start co-ordinating various anti-fossil actions and policies.

      What if California were to institute a no-excuses and no-escape gas tax . . . . going up by a dollar a year for ten years till it tops out at $10/gallon on top of the price of the gas? Are the Coastal and Valley majority really all going to drive over the Sierra into Nevada to buy cheaper gas? California could start deploying some serious Hate-Based Policies right now against the merchants of gas and diesel.

      1. Tyronius

        This is an extremely regressive proposal that will force the poor to pay for the excesses of the rich, not that such conflict isn’t already necessary and appropriate.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Runaway global heating caused by runaway carbon skydumping is the most anti-poors and regressive policy I can imagine. It is part of the Jackpot Design Engineering initiative currently under way now.

          A gas-tax policy which could begin the process of successfully exterminating the coal, gas and oil industries would leave the poors still alive at the end of it. A gas tax which falls more relatively on the poors than on the richs is still less regressive than the current policy of exterminate-the-poors-entirely through the Jackpot Design Engineering method of global heating.

          And raising it by $1 per year for ten years gives the car industry time to develop very small very efficient very utilitarian very unsexy little cars that people could afford to operate at $10/gallon gas taxes. Also, it would give California ( or Pacifica if all three states got involved) time and a chance to develop enough mass transit ( train/trolley/bus/streetcar) that the poors would be able to use cars a whole lot less. As would the middles.

          So if regressivity is considered a problem, California could solve it or mitigate under a $10/gallon gas tax policy if California really wanted to.

          So, the question is . . . does California really want to? The tinderbox forests and spreading deserts and sinking aquifers and shrinking mountain snowpacks of California are waiting for the answer to that question.

  13. none

    I’ve heard hot weather (e.g. in the US south) is associated with conservatism because moral disgust arises from fear of diseases spreading:

    An international team of researchers conducted two studies (involving more than 31,000 people in total) and found a positive relationship between sensitivity to disgust and political conservatism. “Across both samples, contamination disgust, which reflects a heightened concern with interpersonally transmitted disease and pathogens, was most strongly associated with conservatism,” the study reports.

  14. drumlin woodchuckles

    If there is no Left-Wing Nationalism stood up and ready-to-go for filling the despair-vacuum created by the International Free Trade Conspirators and their International Corporate Globalonial Plantationism, the Right-Wing Nationalism will fill that vacuum.

    If the Left is too stupid to craft a Left-Wing Nationalism, a ” PopuLeftism” if you will, in the few years remaining, then the Left will join the rest of Darwin’s Discards. In which case, “sucks to be Left”.

    Or as John Wayne is supposed to have said in one of his movies: ” Life is hard. It’s harder if you’re stupid.” And the Left can either become PopuLefto-Nationalist, or the Left can stay stupid. That’s the choice the Left has.

    1. False Solace

      The Left has such an agenda ready to go. Bernie opposes free trade and open borders. However the left has been hamstrung by the right and so-called center at every turn. The wealthy ultimately control this country and they side with right-wing fascists at every opportunity.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        You are correct. But Bernie and even all the Core Bernists can’t do it alone. Everyone who is aware of this aspect of Sanders’ thinking should take advantage of every random opportunity which arises . . . to share this awareness with other people who don’t know about it now.

        Bernie would be horrified at the thought of National Green Patriots creating something like a National Greenist Party. It would sound too much like the “National Socialist” Party of his early youthful awareness . . . even though it could be totally different and entirely unrelated.

        Maybe younger PopuLefto Greenists will come up with such a Party to fill that space before the Fascisto Right fills it instead. They could call it the National Greenist Party or some such thing.

        M A G R A. ( “magra”) Make America GReen Again.
        Greenism in One Country.

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        Also part of what hamstrings the “left” is that PE ( Political Economy) Left lake trout is now smaller than the COW ( Coalition Of Wokeness) Left lamprey which is stuck to the side of the lake trout’s face.

        That big COW lamprey gonna doowa whole lotta hamstringing.

  15. TG

    Alas! what becomes of the picture where men lived in the midst of plenty, where no man was obliged to provide with anxiety and pain for his restless wants, where the narrow principle of selfishness did not exist, where Mind was delivered from her perpetual anxiety about corporal support and free to expatiate in the field of thought which is congenial to her. This beautiful fabric of imagination vanishes at the severe touch of truth. The spirit of benevolence, cherished and invigorated by plenty, is repressed by the chilling breath of want. The hateful passions that had vanished reappear. The mighty law of self-preservation expels all the softer and more exalted emotions of the soul. The temptations to evil are too strong for human nature to resist. The corn is plucked before it is ripe, or secreted in unfair proportions, and the whole black train of vices that belong to falsehood are immediately generated. Provisions no longer flow in for the support of the mother with a large family. The children are sickly from insufficient food. The rosy flush of health gives place to the pallid cheek and hollow eye of misery. Benevolence, yet lingering in a few bosoms, makes some faint expiring struggles, till at length self-love resumes his wonted empire and lords it triumphant over the world. – T.R. Matlhus

  16. Sound of the Suburbs

    Globalisation didn’t work for the majority in most countries.

    It was forced on the majority by privileged elites that benefited from globalisation.

    What was supposed to happen?

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