Mobilising Nationalism to Combat Climate Change

It should be blindingly obvious that long, long before the immediate physical or economic effects of climate change become really disastrous as far as wealthy countries are concerned, the effects on poorer countries and fragile states would drive vast masses of people from their homes in a desperate search for food, water, and safety.

Conventional thinking has it that nationalism is a great obstacle to action against human-generated climate change; and up to now this has indeed often been the case. In future, however, I believe that nationalism will often be and have to be a leading force, both in recognising the need to take action against climate change but in mobilising states and populations behind this action.

For a fundamental paradox of this issue is that while action against climate change has to be agreed and co-ordinated at a global level, the required policies can only be implemented by strong states and state leaderships – and that inevitably means ones acting in what they believe to be their national interests. The challenge for nationalists is to understand these interests in longer historical terms. On the other hand – for reasons I will come to – nationalists can be better at thinking in these terms than liberal capitalists wedded beyond escape to calculations of short-term growth in GDP and living standards.

My own view of this issue is close to that of the report by Sir Nicholas Stern commissioned by the British government in 2007, widely viewed as the most authoritative analysis of the economics of climate change and climate change prevention. My own concern has been greatly sharpened by long experience of South Asia and other areas where already fragile states with huge populations and very limited water resources are highly endangered by climate change.

I am of course not a scientist – neither is Lord Stern. He is an economist whose most recent work has been on reforming the British university system. In both our cases we therefore follow what used to be the universally-accepted rule of following the consensus among scientists. In the case of human-induced climate change, as the Stern report says,

“The scientific evidence is now overwhelming: climate change presents very serious global risks, and it demands an urgent global response.” (Stern Review on Climate Change)

From this, the Stern report draws the following logical conclusions:

“No-one can predict the consequences of climate change with complete certainty; but we now know enough to understand the risks. Mitigation - taking strong action to reduce emissions - must be viewed as an investment, a cost incurred now and in the coming few decades to avoid the risks of very severe consequences in the future…The evidence shows that ignoring climate change will eventually damage economic growth. Our actions over the coming few decades could create risks of major disruption to economic and social activity, later in this century and in the next, on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century. And it will be difficult or impossible to reverse these changes.”

Such action against climate change therefore has two features which take it quite out of the sphere of normal democratic or authoritarian politics: firstly, it requires sacrifices not seen outside wartime, or efforts to develop economies at high speed in order to prepare for war. The revised Stern report of 2008 put the costs of changing existing economies radically to reduce CO2 emissions at around two percent of global GDP per year. Some estimates put the cost much higher. Moreover, these costs would be very unevenly distributed, with some areas – notably those dependent on coal mining – suffering shattering losses. Secondly, these sacrifices would have to be made by the present generation for the sake of future generations.

Historically speaking, there have been only three ideological forces that have been able to demand and enforce significant sacrifices from people of one generation for the sake of future generations: religion; socialism; and nationalism. In most developed countries, the first two forces are relatively weak, though they may well return in future. Nationalism however is very visibly not just alive and well, but visibly growing. This is above all true of Europe and the USA, where Western academics long declared that nationalism was a moribund relic of the past.

It is in part the rejection of nationalism and national allegiance by progressive intellectuals and politicians which has left this ideological sector to the crudest, most blindly ignorant, selfish and short-sighted nationalists of the stamp of Donald Trump. The fact that most environmentalist thinkers and activists are drawn from the progressive camp has naturally acted as an immense barrier to them even beginning to think of nationalism as (in part) a potentially positive force, or the kind of arguments that would be necessary to mobilise nationalists behind action to reduce carbon gas emissions.

Two of the features of nationalism in this regard have already been touched on. One is the ability of nationalism to create a mass emotional appeal that will lead populations to make immense sacrifices, and also to take ruthless action when necessary for the sake of the nation as a whole. In the past, this has been in the context of war and (more rarely) forced economic development; but the threat of climate change to existing states can and should be seen as in many ways equivalent to war. The second is that any nationalism that goes beyond a brutish tribalism is rooted in a sense of national society in Burkean terms as a covenant between the dead, the living, and those yet to be born. This has always set conservative nationalists at something of a tangent to radical free market liberals, and today brings them closer to some of the moral and philosophical underpinnings of environmental thinking.

A more specific and absolutely critical feature linking nationalism to action against climate change is migration – another subject that progressive thinkers and politicians for a very long time absolutely refused to think about, but are now being forced to do so. Up to now, the overwhelming majority of warnings about the effects of climate change have focused either on the direct physical effects, like sea-level rise and flooding, or on the economic effects, or on ethically-based arguments (ethically correct ones, I must add) concerning our duty of stewardship towards the natural world.

All of these arguments are entirely justified, but they also invite a set of counter-attacks: that wealthy countries will be able to deal with the crude physical effects of climate change by ameliorative measures and limited relocation, more or less like the Dutch and their dykes; that poorer countries like India will be able to do this by ignoring attempts to limit carbon emissions and becoming wealthy as soon as possible; that continued rapid economic growth will generate the kind of technological innovations that will allow wealthy countries to respond in this way; and that concern for natural habitats and other species must take second place to the interests of humans.

What should be blindingly obvious however is that long, long before the immediate physical or economic effects of climate change become really disastrous as far as wealthy countries are concerned, the effects on poorer countries and fragile states would drive vast masses of people from their homes in a desperate search for food, water, and safety. I recall in this regard a rather tragicomic conversation I had a number of years ago over dinner with the governor of a Siberian province of Russia, who informed me that he welcomed climate change, because it would mean that in future his province would be able to grow “not just wheat, but oranges”. I pointed out that the Siberians would however very likely have to share those oranges with tens of millions of Muslim refugees from the new deserts and ruined countries to the south. His mouth opened and closed a couple of times. “Oh”, he said. “I hadn’t thought of that”.

Well, it is time to think of that. In recent years, even relatively limited migrations have helped bring Trump to power in the USA and have fuelled a previously unthinkable rise of radical nationalist parties in Europe. If the scale of such migration increases greatly as a result of climate change, then either existing states will be overwhelmed, or they will have to resort to responses which will in themselves bring modern democracy to an end. And incidentally, the threat from migration applies even more greatly to India, an aspiring modern economy and great power which is not only endangered itself by ecological change, but borders on two of the most endangered major countries on earth, Bangladesh and Pakistan. This is an argument for action against climate change that even President Trump or General Flynn should be able to understand.

There is therefore a case to be made that the most important audience that environmentalists should be seeking to persuade are national security elites. This is also because while pressure and influence from below is of course vital, for policies to be adopted and implemented in the end the people who will need to be convinced are the power elites of key countries – of whom the security elites are generally a key part. A fascinating document in this regard is the essay published in the USA in 2011 under the pseudonym “Mr Y”, by two US military officers, Captain Wayne Porter USN and Colonel Mark Mykleby, USMC . Entitled “A National Strategic Narrative”, most of it is about the need for national economic renewal, with a strong emphasis on the development of alternative sources of energy – both in order to bolster US security and economic development and because of the threat of climate change. This paper is a model of how intelligent and farsighted national security elites should understand their national security and national interests in future.

Most unfortunately this paper was not adopted as a basis for strategy by the Obama administration, and of course under Trump any hope of US action has vanished, at least for the next four years. Instead, most remarkably, it is China which is beginning to take the global lead on this issue. The reasons why this is so are closely related to a nationalism accustomed to think in the long historical term. China’s rulers are of course now nationalists, not communists; and whatever their deep faults, no-one can doubt their iron commitment to build and maintain a state that will survive and grow for many generations to come.

As Chinese, they are aware of a continuous recorded history ten times that of the USA, and are therefore accustomed to think in long historical terms. And one of the things that Chinese history – unlike that of the West to date – teaches is that ecological catastrophes can happen on a scale which has devastating consequences not only for the populations involved, but has repeatedly played a key part in delegitimising the Chinese state in the eyes of the people, and depriving dynasties of the “Mandate of Heaven”. The three worst floods in US history put together caused a total of around 10,500 dead. The three worst floods in Chinese history over the same period caused at the very lowest estimate a total of 2.5 million dead, with other estimates ranging up to 10 million or more. It should not be necessary for the USA and its neighbours to suffer those kinds of losses before even US Republicans take climate change seriously. All they have to do is think seriously about just how high a wall they would need to contain its consequences.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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