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Only nationalism can stop climate change In order to survive, industrial societies must harness the most powerful political force

Just great. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

September 24, 2020   8 mins

In John Lanchester’s The Wall, set in the near future, a 6,000 mile, 16-feet high barrier surrounds the United Kingdom. Patrolled by border guards on national service, like Roman legionaries on the empire’s barbarian marches, their task is to guard the nation from the rising seas and the migrant boats that bob furtively on the waves. Climate change has made the global South unliveable; the global North, including Britain, has become a fearful redoubt of civilisation in a world of spreading death and chaos. It is a bleak vision, and perhaps a realistic one.

Surely one of the starkest ironies of environmental politics is the mismatch between the ideology of those who take climate change most seriously, and the likely outcome if their prophecies come to pass. Green activists make dire warnings of the catastrophe to come, while also advancing a random assortment of ultra-liberal causes as part of their electoral platforms; yet if the predictions of the climate scientists are correct, the forthcoming age of blood and fire will surely not advance the ideals of liberalism, but bury them entirely.

In a troubling book aimed at political conservatives and the security establishment, the eminent International Relations scholar Anatol Lieven addresses these dark realities head on. Lieven observes that despite the UK’s 2008 National Security Strategy declaring climate change “potentially the greatest challenge to global stability and security, and therefore to national security”, almost nothing has been done since to prepare for the seemingly now-inevitable storm heading our way.

Aiming to not just shift the Overton Window of green politics, Lieven smashes it, then demolishes the wall containing it, kicking the rubble and broken glass in all directions with wild abandon. Greens, liberals and conservatives all become targets of his ire in succession, as he argues that all must be forced to abandon their most cherished political beliefs in the face of the coming catastrophe.

The threat is such that both liberals and conservatives must abandon their political hobbyhorses just to survive: “if the Greens and the left continue their blind ideological commitment to open borders,” Lieven argues, “they will feed white chauvinism, tear their societies apart, and make effective action to limit climate change impossible. If Right-wing parties allow aversion to Left-wing ideologies to blind them to the existential dangers of climate change, they will betray the vital national interests of their countries and doom them to eventual extinction.” 

After all, he reminds us, if temperatures rise by 5 or 6%, “all existing states will be overwhelmed and by far the greater part of the human race will be doomed”. But even if temperatures rise by a mere 2 or 3 degrees, he argues, Western societies will be overwhelmed not primarily by the changing climate here at home, but instead by the desperate waves of migration unleashed from the worst-affected regions of the Global South. Lieven, an accomplished journalist in the former Soviet Union and Pakistan before turning to academia, argues with no equivocation that the political products of mass migration on such a vast scale will be “political radicalization, polarization, and state paralysis in Western democracies”.

Indeed, gliding briskly beyond any fear of cancellation, he argues that just such an outcome has already taken place in America, which he presents as a model of dysfunctional political order, “becoming reminiscent of the endless squabbles over names and statues that characterised the Habsburg Empire and Yugoslavia in their last decades”.

Here, Lieven seems to directly channel the work of the influential political scientist Donald L. Horowitz, whose 1985 book Ethnic Groups in Conflict characterised ethnically-divided nations as inherently unstable polities where “rather than merely setting the framework for politics, [group relations] become the recurring subjects of politics. Conflicts over needs and interests are subordinated to conflicts over group status and over the rules to govern conflict. Constitutional consensus is elusive, and the symbolic sector of politics looms large.”

The movement of hundreds of millions of people will make the integration of already-existing or new minorities simply impossible; the necessary societal cohesion to fight climate change, or indeed pursue any stable form of political activity, will be destroyed once and for all; the outcome will not be a multicultural utopia, but a world of total global conflict, chaos and disorder. 

Making this case, Lieven observes that Europe’s political stability was dramatically overturned by the movement of one million people during the 2015 migrant crisis. A modest rise in temperature is likely to lead to the movement of 400 million people northwards, the greatest movement in human history, vastly dwarfing the Age of Migrations attending the collapse of the Roman Empire. As crops fail and drinking water dries up, governments across much of the world will either collapse or become more oppressive just to survive, compounding their peoples’ misery and accelerating their flight.

The sheer numbers involved are almost unimaginable: the social scientist Chris Smaje, in his new book makes the argument that the UK alone ought to take in 25 million climate refugees as a matter of moral responsibility. This is no longer an idle thought exercise: as an alarming article revealed last week, the Ministry of Defence now believes that a global rise in temperatures by between 2.5 and 3.5 degrees Celsius is more or less inevitable by the end of the century. 

Will European nations, already turning sharply rightwards largely in response to the growing northward movement of peoples for primarily economic reasons, accept such a sudden and dramatic demographic change? Will China, or Russia, or the United States? Whether or not they should, Lieven’s book, which underlines that it presents the “realist case” for action, argues flatly that they won’t

A sobering vision of industrial civilisation as an embattled fortress, a redoubt of hard borders in an apocalyptic age of global death and disorder, this is also the cruellest and most amoral aspect of Lieven’s argument, given that it is the nations of the industrialised North who have created this catastrophe, and the largely blameless peoples of the global South who will be forced to bear the consequences. 

Many will rightly find this vision hard to bear, condemning it as a heartless form of “lifeboat ethics”, placing our own survival over that of the rest of the world. Lieven’s response is, simply: YesAt this point, he argues, there is no alternative. If liberals don’t harness civic nationalism to preserve democracy within their own societies against the growing global chaos, ethnic nationalists will come to power pledging to defend the global North without any pretence of either democracy or of liberalism. The realistic alternative to liberal nationalism in this apocalyptic scenario is not universal socialism, but fascism. What we are asked to do is cruel, selfish and morally unbearable: but the alternative, total civilisational collapse and the final extinction of democracy, would be even worse.

Instead of welcoming the climate refugees, our moral responsibility now lies, in Lieven’s view, in minimising the catastrophe heading their way as quickly and dramatically as possible. Greens will need to accept an immediate shift to nuclear power; conservatives to a politics of degrowth, on the basis that our current levels of consumption are already about to collapse.

Therefore, he insists that a Green New Deal — a total rebalancing of national economies, on something approaching a war footing, around halting carbon emissions — is urgently necessary, and — counterintuitively — that it should be led by the security establishment and the political Right. The dismissive attitude to climate change displayed by conservatives must be jettisoned immediately, otherwise they will lose everything they profess to hold dear.

The idea of a conservative, even nationalist Green New Deal is an intriguing one, given the proposal’s current pigeonholing within a certain brand of Left-liberal politics. In recent years, the idea has moved from a fringe concern of the Left wing of America’s Democratic Party to a mainstream policy under Biden’s candidacy, with similar proposals being adopted by the European Union and the Labour Party.

Yet as a consequence of the all-consuming culture war, conservatives oppose the idea on the frivolous grounds of partisan political identity. Lieven insists the scale of the coming emergency is too great for such Culture War luxuries. Instead, he argues, the political right must harness the most powerful political force in industrial societies to deal with the challenge: that of nationalism, because only nationalism “can overcome one of the greatest obstacles to serious action; namely, that it requires sacrifices by present generations on behalf of future generations.” 

Indeed, by reframing the fight against climate change as a battle for the survival of nations, we are more likely to secure the cooperation of the non-liberal powers of Eurasia, currently deeply wedded to the exploitation of fossil fuels. Putin, Modi and Xi are “ruthless but sincere nationalists, dedicated to the power and survival of their nations. Convince them that something threatens those nations, and they will act.” 

With some exceptions — that of Palestine, say, Kurdistan or Scotland — it is fair to say nationalism has not had a positive image in recent decades, with the concept having turned full circle over the last century from an idea actively promoted by liberals to enhance global peace to one seen as the greatest, darkest threat to the same.

Harnessing the power of nationalism to fight the climate war will therefore horrify Greens and eco-socialists, as Lieven observes, but he argues there is no other choice. After all, history shows that people will put up with any amount of discomfort, even death, to fight for the survival of their nations, whereas the fate of strangers on the other side of the earth remains an object of total indifference. 

If Greens truly believe the threat of climate change is as great as they claim, then they will have to jettison the utopian baggage they have appended to the environmental movement, like their wildly unpopular fantasies of open borders or of universal liberal governance. Progressives need to remove these “ideological luxuries,” Lieven argues, because “if we fail to limit climate change, the resulting world is extremely unlikely to be friendly to the causes they have tried to load onto the climate change bandwagon.”

The natural environment ought to be a point of political consensus between the Right and Left: after all, many conservatives, at least in Europe, feel a great emotional attachment to the survival of their nations as green and pleasant lands. Yet despite — or as the historian Anna Bramwell has observed, because of the historic origins of the Green movement in radical Right-wing politics — most modern Greens, with their idealistic preference for the universal over the particular, decry such powerful drives as eco-fascism.

But “to reject the entire tradition of attachment to local and national landscapes in the West is to throw out the bathwater, the baby and the entire municipal drainage system”, Lieven argues: “if action against climate change depends on the abolition of nation-states then there will be no action. Existing nation states may well eventually collapse due to climate change, but the result will be not world government but universal chaos.” 

Lieven’s vision is stark and apocalyptic. It would be comforting to believe he is wrong. Perhaps it is not too late to avoid catastrophe, though science warns us it probably already is. Perhaps the hundreds of millions of climate refugees from the global South can be resettled in the industrialised North without inducing social conflict and collapse: liberals and leftists, committed to a fairer world than the one that exists, will argue that they can; conservatives, through comparison with human history up to now, that they cannot. 

Citing the work of writers like Yascha Mounk, David Goodhart and Paul Collier, Lieven argues that social homogeneity, by fostering solidarity, is necessary to concerted political action, and that in contrast a surfeit of cultural diversity brings only political division. It is an interesting reflection of the state of the climate debate then that, in a Guardian discussion last year, the main American figurehead of the Green New Deal and avatar of Twitter socialism Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez broached these issues with Greta Thunberg, observing that one objection against her proposal is that “because of the racial diversity here, and issues with immigration and so on, there’s no way we can come together in order to combat this”. 

Thunberg unfortunately does not answer the question — indeed, she seems not even to understand it, indicating she is perhaps an imperfect figurehead for the global climate movement. Yet as Lieven makes clear, Greens and ecosocialists will need to find answers for these questions sooner than they would like, before their opponents do. The central issues roiling global politics, of the battle between cosmopolitanism and nationalism, between the universal versus the particular, are not going away. Green issues are not a distraction from these questions: instead, within decades, the accelerating climate crisis will heighten the ferocious political battle over place and peoples to a level never seen before in human history. 

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.


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Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

I’ve been saying this for years. If the Greens were really green they’d be pro Brexit, pro nationalism, pro borders and anti immigration. They’d be pushing managed population reduction and self sufficiency. Our army would be a beefed up defensive force designed to keep intruders out and to help manage national emergencies like floods or fires. If climate change is coming then the current truckle of illegal immigrants will become a flood – and swamp us entirely. It’s purely about self preservation now and if you think we should sacrifice our families and our nation for the sake of some utopian fantasy of multiculturalism then you need to give your head a wobble.

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
2 years ago

Open borders will also be the undoing of the socialist utopian dream, since it is evidential that they will attract ever more migration to benefit from it, leading to an eventual collapse of the social cohesion needed to support it. But since the left is guided by ideology rather than experiential knowledge, its adherents will continue to deny the obvious contradiction, and instead blame the selfishness of capitalist “rich” countries for failing to bring about the global socialist dream.

Rob C
Rob C
2 years ago

This is all based on the dubious claim that there is man-made global warming. What if there isn’t What would the author say the future looks like then?

Oliver Wright
Oliver Wright
2 years ago
Reply to  Rob C

Why does it matter, so far as the thesis of this article is concerned, whether global warming is man-made or not?