Turning the climate crisis into racist politics

Fears of floods of migrants are nothing new. But they have become a way to racialise climate change and justify ever-more brutal policing at the border.

Fear is often used by governments and right-wing activists to mobilise people and create political constituencies.

Fear of migration is nothing new, but it is taking on a new form with the increasingly visible impacts of climate breakdown.

At the recent UK Police Superintendents’ Association conference, police were warned that climate migration into the UK could produce a “backlash” in local communities.

Police were told they should be prepared for the rise in racial tensions and conflicts within the community, and be prepared for the ‘fallout’ of climate breakdown.

 Sinkings

“It upsets the local community. That can lead to tensions, sometimes on racial grounds, sometimes around resources. It would be as well to plan for that.”

Reporting on the conference, The Telegraph declared that studies indicate upwards of 1.5 billion people could be displaced by climate change, hyperbole that can be found everywhere from newspaper headlines to well-meaning NGO reports.

This joins other recent headlines declaring climate migration “the biggest challenge of our times” (FT), as “intensifying the US border crisis” (CNN), and a recent World Bank report claiming climate change was already fueling a wave of migration.

At the same time, newspapers in the UK have also been full of articles decrying migrants crossing the English Channel. Less than a month ago, hundreds crossed the channel in a matter of days, with 17,000 crossing this year, up from 8,400 crossing in 2020, and 2,000 in 2019.

In response, Priti Patel, the UK home secretary, is preparing to send back small boats carrying migrants, with the Border Force apparently being trained in ‘turn around’ tactics, likely not dissimilar to ones already being used by France, Italy and the EU in the Mediterranean, tactics that lead to sinkings and deaths.

Shortages

Fear is often used by governments and right-wing activists to mobilise people and create political constituencies.

In addition to adopting the existing practice of ‘pushing’ migrants back from national borders, the UK is also to adopt offshore processing, presumably copying the cruel ‘success’ of Australia’s brutal border regime, sending on-shore arriving migrants to Albania for ‘processing’.

There have also been discussions between the UK and Denmark about sharing a similar processing centre in Rwanda, mimicking Australia’s neo-colonial border regime relationship with Nauru.

The cruelty of the UK and EU borders is not new, nor is the role Australia has played as a pioneer in the violent repression of migration. What is new is the emerging combination of increasingly authoritarian politics in the UK and Europe and the visible increase in ‘climate migration’.

What we are seeing is an emerging right-wing climate politics, one after denial, where climate breakdown is seen as a disruption to our lives. Not one that we’ve caused, but something that arrives from outside or elsewhere.

Floods that shouldn’t happen here. Gas shortages caused by Brussels. Or, increasingly, people arriving by boat or hidden in a lorry. Climate change, in this right-wing vision, is being done to us.

Flooding

Fusing climate change and migration as a crisis, turns climate change into another cause of shortages in housing, closures of hospital and health services, and cuts to local government services.

The sense of scarcity, of not-enough, of fear of declining living standards, has been mobilised by right-wing politicians and attached to migration for the past decade, shifting blame for austerity from government and bankers to migrants, and fuelling the rise of islamophobia and the far right.

And it is though the idea that climate change will arrive by boat as a migrant, ‘flooding our shores’, that the everyday fears and experiences of austerity and crisis become bound up with the idea that it is climate migrants that cause these problems.

At least, this is what Priti Patel and the Tories hope will happen, and are trying very hard to manifest.

For years environmentalists have been told that fear demobilises people; that a politics of fear will produce inaction and cause people to ‘switch off’, to not engage with the more severe threats of climate breakdown.

Blame

Fear doesn’t demobilize however. Politics is often built on a foundation of fear. Fear of migration and Islam have both fueled spectacular far right street movements and provided support for authoritarian political parties around the world.

Fear is often used by governments and right-wing activists to mobilise people and create political constituencies.

Fear doesn’t come from nowhere, however. Politicians and right-wing activists mobilise two types of fears: those that already exist, largely produced through the media or through state-propaganda (Islamaphobia being a good example), or, more insidiously, by taking people’s everyday experiences of anxiety, fear and disrespect, and attaching them to a figure or issue.

This is what fuels the rise of anti-migrant sentiment. The articulation of people’s everyday fears – of economic precarity, of bullying at work, of a lack of local government resources or a scary long medical procedure waiting list – as being caused by migrants.

The right tells a story that fits our feelings, our fears, and gives us both an answer to why we feel this way and, crucially, who we can blame and how we can fix it.

Human-caused

By talking up the idea of a community backlash, or of clashes in the streets, by raising concerns about a ‘flood’ of migrants, the right is trying to convince people that their experience of climate breakdown is the fault of climate migrants.

Migrants are already described as criminals and terrorists. These two labels have become entrenched in popular imagination over the past three decades.

To this list is being added words like surge and flood, making the migrant not just a dangerous outsider, but a vengeful natural force, one that arrives as a disaster, here to punish us.

In the UK climate change is not a polarising issue. There is a small and vocal denialist community. But, overwhelmingly, people in the UK believe climate change is real, is human-caused, and is going to impact their lives.

In contrast to only a few years ago, the majority of people from almost every demographic think climate change is a very serious problem that will directly affect their lives.

Misogynistic

And while over 40 percent of people in the UK think migration should be reduced, 60 percent think it should increase or stay the same.

We could talk about how the numbers thrown around about the scale of future climate migration are often hugely overblown, or how most people displaced by environmental disasters are displaced within a country - as internal migration.

Or, given the various current supply chain and labour crises of past weeks, we could talk about the critical role migrants play in our societies and economies – that is, on our dependency on them, a dependency not repaid in fair wages or welcoming communities.

But it is more critical we talk about why fear being generated around the figure of the climate migrant, and who is being mobilised.

When we look at who, what we see is a hardening core of right-wing, misogynistic and homophobic sentiments.

Rule

Beyond the usual suspects, this ‘Trumpian’ 40 percent of the population are coalescing around a new set of right-wing sentiments and issues, from anti-mask and anti-vaccine issues through to anti-Islam and anti-migrant xenophobia.

Joining conspiracy theory and racism, as well as support for draconian action against those seen as ‘cheating’ their way through life, this is fertile ground for current anti-migrant government policy.

To what end? These people are being mobilised through a combination of Brexitarian anti-migrant rhetoric and vacuous culture wars to consolidate an authoritarian politics in the UK, one that fuses the worst of free market ideology with ruling class graft and privilege.

The aim is not to ‘restore’ some Etonian elite, but securing the future of a corrupt and narcissistic ruling class through the coming crisis. It is about making sure the ruling class are in a position to rule after climate breakdown has totally disrupted our lives.

Mobilisation

Climate change is already producing disruption and scarcity. The future will only be, at the very least, more flooding, fires, storms. More supply chain shocks and gas shortages. More disruptions and less of everything as the climate super cycle kicks in.

But while climate disruption is here, this doesn’t inevitably lead to either climate migration nor the right of a new kind of far right ecofacism. In our globalised world, scarcity is the result of politics, not carbon cycles.

Climate breakdown is already a defining feature of our everyday lives. And it will only become more so. It is fueling a crisis in fear and anxiety.

It is vital we struggle to oppose the right’s mobilisation of this fear, to ensure that our climate future isn’t one build on authoritarian politics and racist hatred.

This Author

Dr Nicholas Beuret is a lecturer in management and ecological sustainability at the University of Essex. His research has been published in journals including AntipodeScience and Culture and South Atlantic Quarterly.

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