Climate Denial’s Racist Roots

Climate Denial’s Racist Roots

White supremacy—the force that fuels climate denial and the climate crisis at large—is behind a growing number of mass shootings. Last month, a racist gunman killed 10 people in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. Charon Reed's grandmother was among the victims. At her funeral, Reed cries and holds her son Koda close.
(Photograph by Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times/Redux)


Writer Mary Annaïse Heglar shows how white supremacy is the throughline between the gun crisis and the climate crisis in The Frontline.

I’ve always loved summer. I love the way my hair gets big in the humidity and my skin gets bronze with the sun. I love not needing a sweater or closed-toe shoes. In fact, I used to wish that my birthday came in the hot stickiness of August instead of the mild dullness of November. Now, though, when the temperatures begin to climb, the pit in my stomach falls. But it’s not the heat that scares me the most. That would be the violence


It’s well documented that increased heat and climatic instability leads to increased rates of violence. That means within households, between strangers, from the state (often police) against civilians, and even between states. Now, imagine that playing out in a world like ours, where conflicting media ecosystems have turned into fractured realities that have turned into a sort of choose-your-own hellscape that has turned our society into fighting factions without clear sides. Add climate change on top of that, and you’ve got a recipe for catastrophe—and it wasn’t denial that got us here. 


Last month’s massacre in Buffalo, New York, and the not-so-long-ago shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso, Texas, have forced the mainstream to realize that once the fever of climate denial breaks, it is not inevitable that the right wing will jump on board with policies like the Green New Deal or even a carbon tax. The right is skipping straight to the race war part, citing their Second Amendment rights and vowing that they will never be replaced


As terrifying as this all is, it’s even more frustrating that more people didn’t see this coming because they had the luxury of seeing gun culture and climate change and disinformation as all separate issues and not all working in concert and in service to white supremacy.

Climate denial was never about science and always about white supremacy.

Climate denial has been going out of vogue on the right for years now, giving way to the more “rational” climate delay or dismissal. Under this school of thought, right-wing pundits admitted that if climate change were real, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Let’s take Ben Shapiro, for example, who is famous for his stance that even if the seas rise, people will just sell their houses and move. Now, if you take this argument in good faith, it’s incredibly stupid—but it’s Ben Shapiro, so it’s inherently bad faith. 


Climate delay, much like climate denial, was always a ruse. Shapiro is not stupid; he’s evil. He knows good and well everybody can’t move when the water comes—he just doesn’t care about the folks who don’t have the resources to move. Their lives do not matter to him. 


Shapiro knows that the people who don’t have the resources to move are, by and large, people of color. And that the people who peddle in climate denial or climate dismissal are almost never actual climate deniers. They “believe science,” they know what’s about to happen and, crucially, whom it’s going to happen to: people of color, people of the Global South, and poor people. Climate denial was never about science and always about white supremacy. 


Taken from a white supremacist lens, climate change can actually be seen as a boon because it gets rid of all those “undesirable” non-white people. It creates an almost legitimate rationale to close the borders: sorry, there’s limited resources, and we have to keep them for ourselves. This isn’t theoretical. This is an active school of thought, and it’s called ecofascism. The Buffalo, Christchurch, and El Paso shooters are just the teacher’s pets, but they are far from the only adherents. 


I would say ecofascism is the next logical step from climate denial except they’re both just different incarnations of white supremacy. For Shapiro and Tucker Carlson, a planet free of people of color is preferable to one with a stable climate. These folks aren’t stupid enough to think that they will be untouched by climate change; they just think it will be survivable—for them. Jury’s out on what they think will be in store for their children.

Once the fever of climate denial breaks, it is not inevitable that the right wing will jump on board with policies like the Green New Deal or even a carbon tax.

Maybe they think their (white and, therefore, superior) children will find a way to thrive on a chaotic planet? Maybe they think they’ll build a colony on Mars? Maybe they’ve really not spared a thought for their children at all. But it’s pretty clear: they hate Black and Brown people more than they love their own children. It’s white supremacy masquerading as stupidity. 


The baton has clearly been passed from climate deniers to climate dismissers and is slipping into the fingers of the ecofascists—which means it’s important to understand their ideology. The ecofascists espouse a strain of the Great Replacement Theory—that century-old, Nazi-endorsed conspiracy theory that holds white people are on the brink of minorityhood and disenfranchisement. 


The theory eschews the traditional right-wing talking point that climate change is merely a hoax. Instead, the ecofascist version of the theory takes the climate crisis deadly seriously. They believe that climate change is already putting dire constraints on our resources: water, land, food. They believe that accelerating chaos will lead to greater violence and greater instability. 


The truly scary thing is: they’re not wrong. At least not about the problem. They’re deeply wrong about the causes—and about the solutions. But not about the problem. In other words, ecofascists believe the science. And, unlike the deniers and dismissers who preceded them, they’re willing to admit it, and… they’re willing to kill because of it.


Now, let’s be clear: the people these extremists are scapegoating for the crisis are decidedly not the people who caused it. Immigrants and refugees and people of color, by and large, have made the smallest contributions to the climate crisis. If you really want to blame someone, grab a pitchfork, and let’s go eat the rich. I’ll bring the hot sauce.


I’m old enough to remember when leftists celebrated the rising numbers of young Republicans who believed in climate science as evidence that conservative politics didn’t have a future, but now we know what those young people are willing to do with that knowledge. 

If you really want to blame someone, grab a pitchfork, and let’s go eat the rich. I’ll bring the hot sauce.

The shooters in Buffalo, El Paso, and Christchurch were all young white men who had been exposed to a heavy diet of misinformation in the form of message boards and the right-wing media ecosystem. All three of them realized no one was doing anything about the climate crisis and, instead of turning on their political leaders, decided they had to take matters into their own hands to protect them and theirs.


Like Naomi Klein said in 2020 as Australia burned and the coronavirus had not yet infected the globe: “If you convince those people climate change really is real, or if it just becomes so obvious that they can no longer deny it, they don’t suddenly want to sign onto the Paris Agreement. What actually happens is they apply that intensely hierarchical supremacist worldview to the reality that what climate change means is that the space for people to live well on this planet is contracting… In other words, the racism will get worse.”


As far as I am concerned, this is the real terror of climate change. Not the storms, not the fires. It’s the hatred—and how far people are willing to take it. White supremacy has always been a zero-sum game that operates on the assumption of scarcity. Well, climate change makes that scarcity real. So now what? 


This essay is based on essays previously published in the Hot Take newsletter.

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