From “heat domes” to super-hurricanes, the signs of an accelerating climate crisis are all around us. Yet at the same time there’s been a parallel, global surge in far-right forces, many of which flatly deny the very existence of climate change, and drum up racist and xenophobic fervor while fossil fuel use increases.
It might seem like a paradox, but it’s actually just a new chapter in a much longer history, as a new book from author, scholar, and longtime climate activist Andreas Malm, White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism, makes clear. The book, coauthored by an international group of scholars and activists known as the Zetkin Collective, marks the first systemic inquiry into the Far Right’s interventions in the climate crisis. Using case studies from 13 countries in Europe, as well as in the U.S. and Brazil, Malm and the collective explore the links between climate denial, racism, and far-right intersections with the environment and fossil fuels. It also delves, through wide-ranging and interdisciplinary research, into the deep historical roots of those connections: how fossil fuel technologies developed in tandem with European nationalist thought; how fossil fuels literally powered colonial expansion while justifying emerging White supremacist logics; and how they later bolstered fascist ideologies in countries such as Italy and Germany.
Malm engages these histories to develop what he calls “political climate modelling,” which, unlike current climate models, considers variables such as Whiteness, racial othering, and nationalism. He then outlines possible future scenarios of “fossil fascism,” a term borrowed from political scientist Cara Daggett to describe the collision of the climate crisis and dominant class interests. The sort of “fossil fascist” state that could result would aggressively defend the privileges and material benefits accrued from the long and violent history of colonialism and industrialization, while scapegoating people of color and immigrants as the climate crisis intensifies.
As the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) concludes this November, Malm’s incisive conclusions on these dimensions of climate politics ring with urgency. Unless an intersectional anti-racist and anti-fascist climate movement succeeds in ending fossil fuel use and restructuring global energy systems, we may see authoritarian leaders leverage the crisis to consolidate power in increasingly dystopian scenarios. Malm spoke to PRA this October. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
PRA: Your book notes how fossil fuel industries fund not only climate denialism but also White supremacist and far-right politics, leading to a kind of feedback loop of climate denialism and far-right ideologies aided by conspiracist and racist ideologies. Is that a fair summary?
Andreas Malm: Yes, but I think one link here that isn’t as strong as it used to be in the 1990s is that of direct funding from large oil and gas companies into explicit, aggressive climate denialism or far-right parties. Of course, the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel companies massively fund the [most radical] people in the Republican Party. But if you look at the big oil and gas companies, like Shell, Exxon, and [the French-based multinational oil and gas company] Total, it was in the 1990s that they poured all of this money into creating climate denialism, which remains a phenomenon in contemporary politics.
There’s a new study just out about how Total came to know about the climate crisis in the 1970s and were fully up-to-date with the science in the ‘80s. And then they started systematically denying and funding denial under the leadership of Exxon in the ‘90s. Eventually, they then shifted towards publicly saying the problem exists, but trying to delay every kind of significant measure to address it. And that’s what Exxon does nowadays as well. Those companies now nominally recognize the problem. But in a sense, the political damage has already been done, because they have established climate denialism with all its tropes, ideas, and themes and put it into circulation. Climate denialism now recirculates independently of financial flows by the Far Right and political commentators.
This also brings to mind how these forces work to prevent a reckoning. The climate crisis is a kind of material or environmental reckoning with the histories of colonization that have produced fossil fuel technologies. Can you say more about this, and the intersection of race and climate politics more generally?
Yes, these histories of fossil fuel development are completely enmeshed in the racial formations of White supremacy and colonialism. And the racial dimensions of the climate crisis are some of the most under-researched of all. You have more research on social inequalities in general. But race, on the scholarly side of things, has been completely underappreciated as a central feature of the climate crisis.
I think you can say the same thing about the climate movement in the Global North, generally speaking, with obvious exceptions such as Indigenous movements in the U.S. But in Europe, there isn’t the same Indigenous component to the climate struggle because fossil fuel extraction in Europe very rarely happens on land claimed by Indigenous peoples, as you often see in the U.S. and Canada. So in Europe, the climate movement is overwhelmingly White and has not woken up to what that means and the need to develop an anti-racist consciousness.
But this is beginning to change, and a very important manifestation of this is the Fridays for Future movement. The manifesto they put out before their strike on September 24 marks a very significant, clear shift in the rhetoric of the movement towards what you might call an intersectional analysis, with a lot of emphasis on climate crisis being entangled with racism and colonialism. It’s unclear if that sort of radicalization is matched in any radicalization in terms of action and practice. But it’s there on the rhetorical level.
In the present moment, it feels like capitalist climate governance—that is, governing parties that recognize the climate crisis yet only offer market-oriented non-solutions, such as “net zero” and carbon trading, which fail to address its root causes—has been reinstated, at least in the U.S. and some parts of Europe. Within PRA, we’ve discussed how Trump’s loss could actually galvanize certain far-right forces. Are we going to ride this out under a capitalist climate governance with minimal environmental transitions? Or is a fossil fascist state still a threat?
I share your analysis that the conjuncture we’re in right now is a little bit unclear. The general trend since Trump lost the White House has been a swing towards capitalist climate governance as represented by Biden, and Boris Johnson, who has completely abandoned his old denialism and now poses as someone who’s very aware and passionate about climate mitigation. In Europe and America that’s the dominant force right now.
The problem from a climate perspective is that it’s just as useless in practical terms, when it comes to climate action, as it was under Trump and under previous versions of the Tory government in the UK. Biden is showering the [fossil fuel] industry with all of these licenses for drilling on public land. And now with the run-up to COP26, there’s one report after another coming out, almost on a daily basis, showing how absolutely disastrous the situation is with expanding oil, gas, and coal production across the world. None of the governments paying lip service to climate action is doing anything concrete to get us away from fossil fuels.
And what this means is that the climate crisis will inevitably get worse. And this means we are plunging headlong into a succession of one crisis after another. It’s likely these crises will shake up politics in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere. And when these political crises erupt, we can’t know beforehand what they will look like. But the Far Right will play a role because it’s such a significant presence in the U.S. and in Europe.
It’s too early to say that the scenarios for fossil fascism are behind us because Trump is no longer in the White House. It’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security that this whole threat disappeared with Trump. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case. And obviously also with the climate disasters accelerating, as we saw this summer, it’s going to get worse in the years ahead. I mean, for instance, the European fortification of borders and cracking down on migrants, whether in Greece, on the border of Poland, or wherever. All signs are that this will just continue and get worse and be more and more related to climate-induced migration flows.
The status quo of capitalist climate governance may facilitate the ramping up of the climate crisis, which could then energize increasingly extreme authoritarian measures to deal with it. It’s frightening how well the climate crisis feeds that.
This comes particularly out of our research on Poland, where this was such a prominent theme: the idea that we are defending ourselves again against an enemy that we have been confronted with for a millennia-and-a-half: the Muslims. It can be the Jews too, or other groups. But currently it’s primarily Muslims, and we started to see this as a recurring idea. I think “palindefence” is a useful term for pinpointing this particular way of thinking on the Far Right. [Palindefence is Malm’s term, building on political theorist Roger Griffin’s “palingenesis” (or “rebirth”), wherein far-right forces craft a narrative of victimhood, positioning themselves as a beleaguered people defending themselves and their homeland against a longstanding enemy.] And what’s scary about it is how well it fits into the general feeling that the Far Right nourishes or cultivates, that we are under siege from all of these people coming towards our shores and making claims on our resources.
There’s been a lot of attention on eco-fascism and new articulations of right-wing conservationist attempts to mitigate the climate crisis. But your book largely contradicts the idea of a right-wing environmentalism, and asserts that it is more about rhetoric than actual policy or ideology. And that’s because far-right and fascist ideologies are historically so embedded with the development of fossil capitalism. Do you think the attention to right-wing environmentalism is misplaced?
There has been a disproportionate and outsized preoccupation with the apparently ecological side of the spectrum on the Far Right and much less attention politically, analytically, theoretically to the predominant trend, which is anti-climate politics or fossil fuel chauvinism. There are various explanations for this. But our book is an attempt to set the record straight and refocus our attention to the major trend. We see green nationalism or eco-fascism more as spinoffs from the far-right embrace of fossil fuels and denial of the climate crisis. And one of the research projects we have in the Zetkin Collective right now is to look at what’s going on in France.
Half-a-year or so back, it looked like Marine Le Pen would again challenge [French President Emmanuel] Macron in the second round and potentially beat him [in 2022]. And if she were to do so on the basis of a clear green nationalist agenda, with her whole “ecology is the border” campaign theme, then we thought this could potentially mark a shift in the European Far Right towards green nationalism.
But it seems like that the force of green nationalism has been sapped, not least because now [far-right competitor Éric Zemmour is] polling above Le Pen, which probably means that neither of them will win because the far-right vote will be split for the first time. But he’s [more radical] than her, and so far he has said almost nothing about climate and ecology. He’s said two main things. One, that it’s not a coincidence that the color of Islam is green [in reference to the Green party]. And two, he is constantly attacking wind power.
So it doesn’t seem like green nationalism is as powerful as we thought that it might be. But these things obviously are in flux. Our book is an attempt to reorient our focus towards what constantly reappears as the default position, which is denial and aggressive continuation of business as usual.