The U.S. Capitol has a police force with a $US500 ($645) million budget, and yet it failed at its one job on Thursday. Members of U.S. Congress, among the most protected people on the planet, were forced to hide in undisclosed locations as violent extremists overran the Capitol.
The anti-democratic message Thursday’s insurrection sent is chilling. Far-right mobs incited by the president over baseless conspiracy theories and a commitment to white nationalism breached one of the most secure places in the U.S. and disrupted a basic democratic process of certifying election results. But what it portends for both the future of the Republican Party and its response to the climate crisis is even more chilling.
The ingredients for the toxic soup that stirred extremists to take on one of the branches of government (as well as numerous coordinated attacks at the state level) will only grow more plentiful and powerful as the climate crisis worsens. If elected officials aren’t ready to take a clear-eyed look at the damage done on Thursday and what awaits us in the coming hotter decades, we’ll face even more extreme assaults on democracy and the most vulnerable among us.
The violent assault on the Capitol followed a pattern increasingly familiar in the Trump era, though it’s been an undercurrent in American society for much longer. Blatant lies about the election being rigged were spread over social media and used as cover to convene in Washington, DC, and storm the Capitol. Extremists clashed with police, met minimal resistance outside, and were allowed to mill about the building for hours, trashing offices and posing in the Senate for Parler-worthy photos.
Then they were allowed to politely file out of the building and only a few dozen were arrested. That number may rise, but the initial response pales in comparison to how Black Lives Matter protesters were treated this summer. Not to mention climate-related protesters like Fire Drill Fridays where police created a huge perimeter to cordon off press and onlookers and brought in buses to process protesters who were arrested.
Thursday’s insurrection and law enforcement’s frail response are eerily similar to what happened this summer when right-wing militias spread conspiracies about wildfires in Oregon. In that case, extremists sowed confusion to assert control over regions engulfed in smoke, setting up armed checkpoints and threatening journalists. Law enforcement turned a blind eye, and in the case of one sheriff, even briefed extremists. At the time, experts told me it was in part an attempt by far-right figures to see what they could get away with.
The lesson in both cases is that the pushed boundaries didn’t snap back. The permissive nature of law enforcement and people in power — more than 120 Republican representatives and senators voted to decertify state election results based on lies after the mob invaded the Capitol Building — opens the door to further violent probing.
Now, I’m a firm believer that an assault on democracy or unlawful behaviour during a climate-fuelled disaster alone should be reason to hold people to account. But looking at the two events in tandem and seeing the climate future that awaits us is what really raises my alarm bells — and should raise those of the people in power. Pretending this will pass or offering broad platitudes that “we are better than this” will ensure more terror.
Climate change is chaos by nature. It means more powerful storms, more intense wildfires, more extreme floods and droughts. It is an assault on the weakest among us, and decades of the right-wing mindset of small government have left the country with fewer resources to deal with the fallout. As the summer’s wildfires show, the far-right will be there to try to fill the power void. Those fires occurred in a predominantly white region.
There’s a strong strain of white nationalism and neo-Nazism that ran through Thursday’s insurrection, and it’s easy to imagine what will happen when flames or storms hit places that are predominantly Black, brown, or Indigenous. In fact, we don’t need to imagine it at all. We’ve seen it in the gunman who showed up at a Walmart to kill immigrants whom he falsely blamed for putting strain on the environment. And we saw it in the white vigilante violence in the vacuum after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. We’ve seen it so frequently, it even has a name: ecofascism.
After Thursday, the boundaries of permissible violence have now expanded to a distorting degree, at a time of increasing climate instability. White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and other extremists literally took over the halls of power and got away with it. When climate change upends communities with far fewer defences — communities that hate groups already scapegoat — the results will be catastrophic.
It’s never been clearer that a large chunk of the nation’s top Republican leaders will embrace and even fuel this extremism and hate. The Venn diagram of people who push election denial and climate denial has near-perfect overlap, but even if these figures deny the climate crisis, they’ll still look to exploit it. At the end of the day, their goal is to use easy-to-disprove lies to build and consolidate power.
Fixing a mess like this absolutely has to be part of the process of addressing climate change. Accountability for those who incited extremists is a good place to start. Emily Atkin of Heated noted on Twitter in the wake of the Georgia special election that gave Democrats the Senate that democracy reform is climate policy, and I have to agree. Washington, DC, statehood, getting corrosive money out of politics, and expelling seditionists are all good places to start. A strong federal response to climate change that both draws down emissions and protects people from the impacts already in the pipeline is also crucial. Decades of weakening the federal government and proselytizing about the power of the individual has left millions exposed to calamity. Rebuilding the federal response to climate change, and ensuring it also engages everyone in moving the country forward through good-paying jobs and a just transition for frontline and fossil fuel communities, are essential to beating hate groups into the background.
None of this will make the fascism on full display disappear overnight. But doing nothing or insisting we turn the page opens the door to something much worse.