In this week’s Long Version I cite my fellow Substacker Emily Atkin, whose newsletter, Heated, has become an indispensable daily read on the most urgent crisis of our time. Her mission is to force accountability for global warming on the powerful, corrupt institutions that quite literally fuel it. Past issues have tackled America’s refusal to help poor countries cope with climate disaster and an interview with John Kerry (who’s a subscriber!). Check it out.
The 2020s started early in Australia. Broiled by record-breaking summer temperatures, wildfires have already consumed an area the size of West Virginia, and are growing. Cities are shutting down under suffocating smoke. Half a billion animals are dead. People—and horses—are fleeing for their lives.
The root of the disaster could not be clearer. Australia’s annual mean temperature in 2019 was 1.5 degrees Celsius over its mid-20th century average. That happens to be the exact increase the Paris Climate Agreement was trying to limit the world to (over even-lower 19th-century levels). Worse yet, the fires themselves have exhausted half of Australia’s yearly “carbon budget”—the amount of carbon dioxide the country can expend without juicing global temperatures even more. The symptom is fueling its cause.
This fits a pattern emerging all over the world, from the Amazon to the Arctic. Global climate change is moving from the theoretical models of scientific papers to everyday experience. Here in the United States, community officials along the coast are being forced to admit that some parts of their counties will not be saved.
That turn toward reality is scrambling politics we’ve long taken for granted. As Emily Atkin chronicled in Heated, the fossil fuel industry has spent billions of dollars faking a specious public “debate” about global warming, for the purpose of protecting their profits. For decades, they enlisted and funded reactionaries around the world, primarily their cronies in the Republican Party. It got so that if you heard someone so much as admit that climate change was real, you could bet they were on the left.
And yet, if you were paying close attention to the Trump impeachment hearings, you’d have heard Rep. Matt Gaetz—a close Trump ally and proud “America Firster”—list among the crises Congress should be addressing, “the challenges of extinction and climate change.” (Though, nodding to the confusion financed by his fossil fuel industry paymasters, he did smuggle in a dig at the Democrats’ opposition to coal.)
This might seem like good news, but it isn’t, necessarily. As Donald Trump’s reckless escalation with Iran should make perfectly clear, the forces of reaction aren’t joining the fight to save the planet. They’re doing what, in retrospect, was always going to be their next move: trying to save themselves.
Unfortunately for all of us, that isn’t going to work either.
Panic of the Elites
Imagine the habitable world is a cruise liner that’s been sinking in the middle of the ocean. At first the leak was almost theoretical—only some who ventured into the bowels of the hull could even tell that something was amiss. But as the water keeps rising, the emergency becomes more and more apparent.
The people aboard have to decide what to do. Do we use our resources to repair the leak, tend to those already affected, and protect as many people as we can? Or it is every person for themselves?
Disaster experts can predict how most people will react: Most will try to work together to save the most people possible. As Erik Auf Der Heide, a leading disaster expert with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has written, “antisocial behaviors are uncommon in typical disaster situations.” I’ve observed this myself, in natural disasters in places as different as Haiti and Staten Island, for almost all people.
But there is a notable exception. The richest people on the ship are the least likely to cooperate. There is a formal term for this, based on a 2008 paper by the sociologists Caron Chess and Lee Clarke. It’s called “elite panic.” As Rebecca Solnit has written, “Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature.” And as such, they believe that only “their power keeps the rest of us in line.” If the ship—or human society—is disrupted, they think, “our seething violence will rise to the surface.”
We see it again and again in disaster—as police opened fire on unarmed black New Orleanians after Katrina, elite media emphasized “looting” in the aftermath of María in Puerto Rico, and resources were squandered on a security-led response to the Haiti earthquake, with disastrous results.
In his 2012 book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, the journalist Christian Parenti predicted that elite panic would soon manifest itself in the politics of climate change:
There is a real risk that strong states with developed economies will succumb to a politics of xenophobia, racism, police repression, surveillance, and militarism and thus transform themselves into fortress societies while the rest of the world slips into collapse. By that course, developed economies would turn into neofascist islands of relative stability in a sea of chaos.
He called it “the politics of the armed lifeboat.”
The ‘Real Deal’
Congressman Gaetz is an obvious candidate to help lead the charge to the armed lifeboats. He represents a district in Florida where climate reality is undeniable. He is also an unabashed xenophobe, who rushed to Trump’s defense—and added to the racist pile-on—when the president called Haiti a “shithole.”
In 2019, Gaetz unveiled a climate change proposal he dubbed the “Green Real Deal.” It was an obvious trolling job, a sort of regulation-killing, tax-cutting parody of Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. The resolution was filled with signaling language about “unilateral disarmament,” and the U.S. becoming the “world’s patsy” by taking on polluting industries at home. He focused on military adaptation and expansion into the Arctic.
(In a preview of Republican messaging to come, Gaetz also shifted blame away from the climate-denier-in-chief, Donald Trump. Instead he vaguely he cited “some in our government” as the source of denial and quipped nonsensically that the military does not have “the luxury of an academic debate about climate change”—as if academia is where that debate has been happening. As they did with the Iraq War, we can expect the right to shift blame for their decades of global destruction to liberals, and get much of the media to go along.)
Australia has a lot in common with the United States: a diverse, former British settler colony with a tradition of (white) individualism, corporate capitalism, and mass media owned by Rupert Murdoch, who was born in Melbourne. Its prime minister, Scott Morrison, is also a buffoonish climate denier, whose party’s fossil fuel cronyism is similarly papered over with clumsy appeals to white nationalism. Like Trump, he ran on a promise to bar the door to refugees. In office, he has threatened an authoritarian crackdown on protests and boycotts against companies that injure the environment.
Lurking behind them are deadlier forces. The white Australian who slaughtered 51 people at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, declared himself an “ethno-nationalist eco-fascist,” bent on killing immigrants who he said “colonize other peoples lands.” The gunman who murdered 22 people, mostly Latinos, at an El Paso Walmart in August, framed his massacre in terms of environmental necessity: “The average American isn’t willing to change their lifestyle, even if the changes only cause a slight inconvenience … So the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources.”
“Ecofascism” is a misnomer. This is old-school fascism. Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler both feared the exhaustion of resources, and authorized violence in the name of garnering more productive “living space” (spazio vitale in Italian; Lebensraum in German). In Mein Kampf, Hitler claimed that “we have to face the fact that the general standard of living is rising more quickly than even the birth rate,” and that the “right of self-preservation” meant Germans could take the resources they needed by force.
Taking the resources one needs from the unwashed horde remains a staple of right-wing messaging. As the ultimate elite panicker, Tucker Carlson opined in November: “Isn't crowding your country the fastest way to despoil it, to pollute it, to make it a place you wouldn't want to live?”
Sink or Swim Together
Far from facing reality, those who believe that the only way to survive is to engage in a Hobbesian struggle are engaging in a new, deadlier kind of denial. The reasons for this are obvious, in both disaster experience and climate logic.
Disasters teach us, again and again, that the only way to survive any cataclysm is if people work together. (Researcher Mika McKinnon had a good thread this week.) This is especially true when it comes to a planetary crisis. Think again about the sinking ship—a ship alone at sea, with no one coming to save it. Once they’ve shot their way through the crowds, where are the armed lifeboats going to go?
Maybe we harden our borders, go to war against our perceived climate foes, and horde all the resources we can. Maybe we listen to politicians like Gaetz and Morrison who would rather we turn on each other than hold the corporations that fuel their campaigns accountable.
What has that gotten countries like the United States and Australia so far? It won’t help us as crops continue to fail, seas continue to rise, and more and more forests burn. As Parenti wrote, “A world in climatological collapse—marked by hunger, disease, criminality, fanaticism, and violent social breakdown—will overwhelm the armed lifeboat. Eventually, all will sink in the same morass.”
Or, we can take this moment of growing awareness and address this emergency head on, making sure that everyone knows the priorities: to stop wasting time, resources, and money on division and war, and address the causes of the rising flames. It’s our choice. But we’ve got to make it soon.
Thanks as always for reading. Please support independent journalism by signing up to get The Long Version in your inbox. You can also support my upcoming book on Smedley Butler (the author of “War is a Racket”) and the rise (and price) of U.S. empire at patreon.com/katzonearth.
Jonathan Myerson Katz is a freelance journalist and author. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and contradictions of America’s empire through the life of the legendary Marine Smedley D. Butler. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.
Photo of evacuees at Malua Bay, Australia: Alex Coppel