Could Climate Change Fuel the Rise of Right-Wing Nationalism?


By Joshua Conrad Jackson, Doctoral Student, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Michele Gelfand, Distinguished University Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Maryland

Two trends have defined the past decade and both have been on display at this year’s session of the United Nation General Assembly.

One has been the intensify effects of climate change, which were the focus of the United Nation’ Climate Action Summit. Forest fires, floods and hurricanes are all rising in their frequency and seriousnes. Eight of the last 10 years ought to have the warmest on record. Marine biologists warned that coral reefs in the U.S. could disappear wholly by the 2040 s.

The other tendency has been the surge of right-wing nationalist politics across Western nations, which includes Donald Trump’s election in the U.S ., and the rise of nationalist political parties around the world.

Indeed, the first four speeches of the United Nations general debate were given by Brazilian right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, Trump, Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and far-right Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

These two trends are rarely discussed together. When they are, their correlation is sometimes viewed as an unfortunate coincidence, since many nationalist politicians actively obstruct climate change answers.

However, our new research suggests that these two trends may be closely related, and not in the way you might believe. The effects of climate change- and the style it builds societies feel threatened- may be one of the elements fueling the rise of right-wing nationalism.

How climate shapes culture

To understand how climate shapes culture, it’s important to step away from current events and consider the way the climate has influenced societies throughout human history.

Cultures can vary in what’s called their” tightness“- the strictness or flexibility of their rules and traditions, and the severity of their penalties for rule breakers.

The Fellahin people of Egypt, for example, were one of the tightest cultures that we analyzed. For centuries, they’ve enforced strict gender norms and strong expectations for how children should be raised.

When cultures feel threatened- whether by war, illnes or economic upheaval- they tend to become tighter.

But ecological menaces can be just as strongly connected to tightening.

In one analysis, we showed that rates of famine and land dearth predicted culture tightness in historical societies. The Fellahin people have faced a constant threat of flooding, and have suffered frequent earthquakes, sand storms and rockslides.

Centuries of climate catastrophe can also predict differences in the culture tightness in societies today. In another study we found that nations that have suffered the highest rates of drought, food dearth, natural disaster and climate instability have the tightest cultures today.

Even within the U.S ., the states most vulnerable to climate disasters have the tightest cultures. A 2014 study found that states like Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama- which have the highest criminal executing rates and corporal punishment rates in schools- also have the highest historical rates of natural disasters such as tornadoes, inundates and hurricanes.

Evolutionary analyses suggest that cultural tightness can be functional- even necessary- in the face of climate disaster. It can attain people more cooperative, and more likely to follow protocols, like rationing, during a drought.

But our latest studies examined a darker side of culture tightness. We wanted to know whether tightness also made people less tolerant of minority religions, ethnicities or sexual orientation. In other words, we explored whether prejudice thrives in tighter societies.

This dynamic would have serious consequences for our understanding of geopolitical events. If climate anomalies such as hurricanes and forest fires have a ” tightening ” effect on cultures- and these cataclysms are happening more frequently- it might be driving more people toward politicians who espouse xenophobic, homophobic or racist rhetoric.

Environmental threat and racism

To test these ideas, we brought together a group of 19 researchers from eight different nations. With expertise in economics, psychology and anthropology, our team was well-suited to study the effect of environmental menaces and cultural activities on racism and political nationalism.

We objective up studying 86 historical societies, 25 modern nations and the 50 U.S. nations, analyzing data on more than 3 million people.

The outcomes were strikingly consistent across these populations. The cultures most vulnerable to climate menaces had the strictest cultural norms, and the highest levels of prejudice against minorities. For instance, in American countries with histories of climate menace and cultural tightness, white respondents reported the highest levels of aversion to marrying someone who was black, Asian or Hispanic. Turkey and South Korea had the tightest cultures, and also demonstrated the most aversion to living near someone who was a different ethnicity, sexuality or religion.

We next tested whether we could cultivate these social and political attitudes in a laboratory setting. We recruited 1,000 people from around the world. We had some write about a threatening event in their environment, including- but not restricted to- climate. Others wrote about a threatening event in their personal life. The final group wrote about what they had for breakfast.

Subjects who wrote about a threatening event in their environment reported the highest support for stricter societal rules and regulations. These same people also reported the most prejudice toward ethnic minorities. This study showed that even brief reminders of an ecological threat could have an effect on people’s political leanings and construct them less tolerant.

Finally, we explored how these issues tied into modern elections. We recruited American and French someones during their respective countries’ most recent presidential elections.

We found that voters who felt the most threatened were most likely to support harsher punishments for rule-breakers, more adherence to traditional norms and conveyed the highest levels of prejudice. Voters who felt threatened were also most likely to vote for Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, each of whom ran on law-and-order, anti-immigration platforms.

One feeds the other

According to just about every estimation, climate change will merely worsen. Without serious and immediate reform, temperatures and sea levels will continue to rise, along with the risk of destabilizing climatic events.

The natural perils of climate change are evident to many people already. But our research underscores a less visible geopolitical peril. As climate change increases the level of environmental threat, cultures around the world may become tighter, and the exclusionary rhetoric of far-right nationalist legislators may sound more and more appealing.

Since far-right nationalists are notorious for ignoring climate change, the rise of these politicians may also exacerbate the effects of environmental threat. This may create a vicious cycle, in which the threat of climate disaster and far-right nationalism encourage one another over time.

In this style, bipartisan action on climate change may not just be necessary to save the environment. It are also welcome to be an important way to ensure values like free speech and tolerance are preserved in countries and cultures around the world.

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