How Far-Right Extremists Are Using the Climate Crisis to Go Mainstream

How Far-Right Extremists Are Using the Climate Crisis to Go Mainstream
A sign warns against looting in a neighbourhood on Sept 14 in Estacada, Oregon. (Photo: Nathan Howard, Getty Images)

Oregon has been a hot bed of far-right activity for years, but the wildfires have cast the militias in a new light. Misinformation has been rampant as unprecedented fires lit up the state. False rumours of “antifa” igniting fires and coming to loot people’s homes have raced across Facebook.

That led some communities to grab arms and stand in harm’s way as the flames approached, setting up checkpoints where they reportedly threatened journalists at gunpoint, and even getting a briefing from a sympathetic local law enforcement officer on the best way to gun people down and not face trial. (He’s since been placed on leave.) It’s an escalation of fringe ideologies to try and usurp power in chaos and shows another avenue the far-right could use the climate crisis for violent ends.

The right’s relationship with climate change is complicated. Rampant climate denial has been the norm for more than a decade, and any attempts at climate action have faced vehement opposition. In Oregon, state senators ran away to block quorum on a pretty milquetoast cap-and-trade bills. Twice. Militias offered their help, and at least one state senator threatened violence once Gov. Kate Brown dispatched the police to look for the legislators on the lam.

Another emergent ideology, known as ecofascism, takes the warnings of the climate crisis at face value and twists them to violent, exclusionary ends. The alleged shooters who perpetrated both El Paso and Christchurch shootings last year adhered to this belief system, falsely arguing that developed countries had to lock out asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants because the world doesn’t need any more Western consumers. The “we are the virus” meme that emerged at the start of the pandemic also has roots in ecofascism, advocating for humans separate from the natural world and implying it’s OK to wipe out some of us. The end goal for ecofascists, though, is to uses the climate crisis as a means to racist ends.

The right-wing frenzy in Oregon amid the wildfires sits somewhere between the two. Betsy Hartmann, an emeritus professor at Hampshire College who has written extensively on ecofascism, said in an email that she didn’t see the organising as explicitly ecofascist since they aren’t invoking climate change specifically as a reason to hunt down imagined “members” of antifa.

“I don’t know if we should call this ecofascism or not,” she said, “perhaps we need to expand the definition?”

Defining what the escalation in Oregon represents is perhaps more of an academic exercise, but identifying what’s happening and why is extremely important in the context of sweltering planet. The hate directed at antifascists fits with a long pattern of how the right has deployed a version of “the Other” to create an opportunity to flex its semi-automatic weapons.

“In addition to immigrants, hate has of course long been directed at African American and Indigenous people in the U.S., and white supremacy and white nationalism are the foundation of most Far Right groups and movements here,” Hartmann said. “It’s also important to remember that historically fascism has mobilized fears not only of the foreign Other, but the enemy within, Jews and communists being favourite targets. Casting blame on antifa is in this fascist, anti-Communist tradition. It would seem to me that Far Right forces are taking advantage of the environmental disaster in the state to add another layer of blame to their crusade against antifa as the source of violence in cities like Portland, thereby diverting attention from the role of militias, the Trump administration and the police.”

Hotter weather, more intense wildfires, and more violent hurricanes will open the door to more extremism. That’s particularly true due to the decades-long project by Republicans to hollow out the government. Disaster resources are already being stretched thin. Firefighters in the West have essentially become triage nurses, deciding which blazes to battle and which ones to let burn.

The result has been widespread destruction and a power vacuum the far-right has been happy to fill. Writing in the New Republic, Melissa Gira Grant noted that militia groups can use the chaos of the fires and wild rumours to “act out and gain ground.” Ultimately, that could bring more members into the fold and bring these fringe groups a step closer to the mainstream. The Oath Keepers, a far-right group active in the Pacific Northwest but with adherents across the country, has turned out in response to other disasters from Hurricane Maria to the 2019 tornado outbreak.

“Some far-right groups, like militias, seek out the fall out of natural disasters in order portray themselves as benevolent and rooted within communities at a deeper than federal aid agencies and law enforcement; in reality, these are PR endeavours that inject further danger into already dangerous scenarios,” Freddy Cruz, a research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Centre, said in an email.

Many members of the groups such as the Oath Keepers claim to have members of law enforcement and military members past and present in their ranks, a claim that holds at least some truth. The group is ostensibly anti-government, but despite that, it and other extremist groups have gained some legitimacy with politicians; the Multnomah County Republican Party — which includes Portland — enlisted it and the far-right Three Percenters as official security in 2017.

Far-right groups have gotten a bump from the Donald Trump presidency, from the president’s “very fine people on both sides” comments about white nationalists in Charlottesville to his overt use of force against the right’s perceived enemies. That’s let groups push boundaries in dangerous ways, including escalations in response to protests against racial injustice that ended far-right teenager Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly shooting two protesters dead. Now, Rittenhouse has fanboys, and the goalposts of violence have been moved.

The surge in activity around the fires, tied to a baseless conspiracy no less, has given a further opening to test the limits of what law enforcement and citizens will put up with. Civilians setting up checkpoints and holding other civilians on a public road at gunpoint — as happened to photojournalist Nathan Howard (who took the photo at the top of this very article) — is the epitome of lawlessness. Yet if there are no repercussions, it then opens the door to pushing boundaries even further when the next disaster hits.

“Far-right movements are quintessentially opportunistic and seize on misinformation and conspiracy-mongering out of necessity. Spreading conspiracies about ‘antifa arsonists’ allows the far-right to stoke fear and anger while also continuing to ignore devastation and tragedies resulting from climate change,” Cruz said.

Now, extrapolate that out into the coming decade of ever-increasing climate chaos. Absent strong federal policy to both reign in the climate crisis and help Americans prepare for the onslaught of worsening weather and background conditions, the far-right could lead us all to some dark places. At the government level, the right is committed to policies that will worsen the climate crisis. On the ground, it’s most extreme adherents are then capitalising on the shocks of horrific weather to take control and expand their influence, aided and abetted by social media companies like Facebook that have fractured truth apart. These conditions won’t just cause wildfires to explode; they could be fuel for extremists as well.

“The far right will no doubt try use such disasters for their own interests,” Hartmann said. “In many ways, environmental disruption and climate disaster fit into their world view and political strategy, especially of those who are ‘accelerationists’ and want to see a new civil war in this country.”

There are ample reasons to implement sound climate policy, from the simple joys of seeing living coral in the wild to opening the door to a prosperous 21st century. But nestled among those reasons is ensuring that the far-right can’t take hold more than it already has, to make the suffering on a hotter planet even more acute.