Climate Denial and Authoritarianism in Global Retreat. But is It Too Late?

November 5, 2022

Washington Post:

One of the ugliest pathologies in global politics at the moment is the bizarre connection between climate denialism and right-wing authoritarianism. With some exceptions, authoritarian politicians are the ones most prone to spinning conspiracy theories and lies about climate change while resisting the transition to a green energy future.

This is why Jair Bolsonaro’s stunning defeat in Brazil’s presidential race is a major global event. It should afford us a moment of hopefulness that, under the circumstances, might seem a touch naive or even daring.

It’s been widely observed that leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s razor-thin victory is good news for the battle against climate change. Lula has vowed to preserve the Amazon and reverse Bolsonaro’s deforestation policies, which could dramatically influence how much planet-warming carbon dioxide the world’s largest rainforest stores — or releases into the atmosphere.

But this moment should be seen in a larger context. It’s only the latest sign that democracies are mobilizing to beat back that virulent and destructive international nexus of right-wing authoritarianism and climate denialism.

Bolsonaro’s defeat comes after two other major global events. This year the U.S. Congress passed a historically large response to climate change. Democrats overcame lockstep opposition from the Republican Party, which is riddled with denial of the long-term threat that climate change poses to human civilization.

Meanwhile, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has sought to use his petro-dictatorship to impose energy challenges on Western democracies, to weaken their support for Ukraine’s resistance to Russian conquest. But this is mostly failing — and inspiring a stronger push toward a green-energy future.

Those three developments — Lula hopefully reorienting the Amazon’s trajectory, the United States passing a massive response on climate, and Putin’s energy blackmail failing — can be seen as part of one story. Jesse Jenkins, a climate and energy expert at Princeton University, says that taken together, their influence on our energy future could prove “really huge.”

“You’ve got the two largest, wealthiest blocs in the world — the U.S. and Europe — doubling down on the clean-energy transition,” Jenkins told us.

Add a new direction for the largest steward of the Amazon, and the collective potential of these trends is heartening, Jenkins said.

As president of Brazil, Bolsonaro appointed as foreign minister a climate denier who dismissed global warming concerns as a plot by “cultural Marxists” to bolster China’s advantage against the West. Bolsonaro dismissed data from his own government’s agencies on deforestation as lies, and he mocked climate worries as “environmental psychosis.”

Bolsonaro also cut funding for environmental enforcement, and deforestation soared on his watch. By contrast, Lula’s previous term in office saw a dramatic decline in deforestation.

During this campaign, Lula proposed an ambitious green agenda to work toward “net-zero deforestation,” along with promoting sustainable agriculture and reducing fossil-fuel use. Though Lula will face congressional hurdles, he can make real progress by vigorously enforcing Brazil’s existing environmental laws.

At the same time, Putin has used Russia’s supply of energy to Europe, particularly natural gas, as a carrot and a stick. He cut off supplies to individual countries, limited supplies to others, and then promised to resume shipments, all to fracture the alliance behind Ukraine.

But that has backfired. Europe scrambled to find short-run alternatives to Russian natural gas, with the European Union slashingwhat it got from Russia. And the E.U. has announced that it will accelerate its transition to clean energy, linking that to the need to remain united against Putin.

And in the United States, the Inflation Reduction Act will likely put us much closer to the goal of cutting global-warming emissions in half from their 2005 levels by 2030. As Robinson Meyer details in the Atlantic, the new law could transform our economy by spending big to fuel the growth of green-energy industries, turning them into the manufacturing of the future.

That last point is important. The clean-energy transition will require showing Western electorates that this shift doesn’t necessarily require zero-sum economic sacrifice and that it contains the seeds of long-term economic opportunity.

This is essential to defining the battle as one that is winnable. Right-wing politicians like to tout “economic development based on fossil extraction and deforestation” that promises a “very short-term” political hit, Jenkins says.

Arrayed against that argument are democratic actors pushing in the other direction, Jenkins notes, with a “strategy that we know will take investments up front” but will pay off as “tangible evidence of economic opportunity” becomes visible in the green transition.

That could make the transition look more viable, not just economically but also politically. We’re seeing this now, as this transition begins to command the support of democratic majorities.

In this sense, there are glimmers of hope in all these developments. As business writer James Murray observes in a Twitter thread, “There is a (heavily caveated) positive story to tell.”

Lula won a bare majority while promising a new direction for the Amazon that rejects right-wing short-termism. The United States bucked the climate-denying movement to invest massively in the transition to a green future. Europe is interpreting Putin’s imposition of energy hardships as evidence of the need to hasten that transition as well.

“Progressive movements across the West are responding to authoritarians and climate denialists by accelerating the push toward a green tech future,” Nils Gilman, who writes extensively about environmentalism and far-right politics, told us.

“The urgency is only increasing,” Gilman concluded. “But I’m cautiously optimistic that democracies are moving in the right direction.”


6 Responses to “Climate Denial and Authoritarianism in Global Retreat. But is It Too Late?”

  1. jimbills Says:

    Wow, that’s the wrong takeaway. Bolsonaro losing in Brazil is like when Trump lost here – but it hardly means authoritarianism is on the decline. Trumpism is as strong as ever, and there is a large segment in Brazil that is increasingly justifying a return to a military government. Bolsonaro lost because he was such a bad leader, horrifically mishandling COVID and other issues. Again, it was like why Trump lost in 2020 here, but it’d be foolish in the extreme to think the threat of authoritarianism is gone or even decreasing. Just wait until Brazil has its next election.

    Signs are everywhere that the world is increasingly flirting with authoritarian governments. Italy just elected a leader whose party hero-worships Mussolini. The United States is likely to elect some hyper cray crays in just a few days.

    All fascism needs to thrive is a deliberately misinformed public by propaganda, a serious economic breakdown for large segments of society, the infiltration of a major political party by pro-authoritarian leaders, and a weakened trust in democratic government – and all of those are on the ascendant.

    “Hope” in this case doesn’t seem just naive, but willful blindness.

  2. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Best wishes to the USA on Tuesday!

  3. J4Zonian Says:

    The more equal & democratic a country, the less it will cause climate catastrophe & every other problem; & the more likely it can & will move to prevent it. China, India, US, Russia… OK, I give up with the list. Even minus Brazil’s 200 million, almost 80% of humanity is under authoritarian or questionable rule.

    While denying the science & reality that’s inconvenient to them in their relentless drive to control the truth, autocracies use ever more scientific methods of control—psychological, military, economic, political—& exploitation of human bodies, minds, & the rest of nature. From the US-created Savak, who inherited their fanatical sadism from the shadow of their culture & bequeathed it to the mujahideen & Taliban, the dumb, brutal, ham-fisted Stasi to the ever more perfectly spun invisible spider web of the US oligarchy, that went underground due to exposure in the late 60s, & is only coming back into its own stupid 1950s brutality with black Abu Ghraib & Steven Donziger. As climate actions fall ever farther behind climate effects, the pressure, & the desire to be protected will mount & the other 20%, every country already the victim of right wing violence, & threatened by masses of vulnerable, gullible thugs.

    Societies turn to strongmen to the degree their collective is psychologically & structurally unhealthy & under stress. This was always going to be the way climate catastrophe went. It’s why some have been determined to solve it first.

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