White nationalism gave us the climate emergency. Now, it's our biggest obstacle.
Anti-racism must be the core of climate action. Without it, we risk losing everything.
We are in a climate emergency. And you were born at just the right moment to help change everything.
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We all watched in horror this week as hate-filled people marched into the core of our country’s most sacred spaces.
This seditious act wasn’t a spontanous lapse of security or the flailing throes of a defeated President. It was a calculated attack on our shared future.
2020 was the hottest year in recorded history. Every single square inch of the continental United States was warmer than normal. Our country, and our nation, are in a climate emergency. Not only do white nationalists understand that, they embrace it.
This country was founded on the exploitation and extermination of non-white people who lived together with Nature, not in opposition to it. Over the past five hundred years, that racist underpinning has continued to escalate the climate emergency.
If we don’t acknowledge the racist roots of opposition to climate action, the world is going to keep spiraling towards chaos. It’s bad now. But it will get much, much worse.
The problem is not Donald Trump himself, or even the several hundred insurrectionists that breached the US Capitol with the intent to kidnap the Vice President and members of Congress and publicly execute them in public view. As horrific as the past few days have been, the problem of white nationalism is far more widespread than almost everyone cares to admit.
As climate activists know from Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth’s work, it only takes 3.5% of the population engaged in active protest to change the course of history. While non-violent revolutions have historically been twice as successful as violent ones, obviously violent revolutions can also be successful.
As shocking as this week’s events were – the most serious attack on our country since 9/11 and the worst attack on our nation’s capital since the war of 1812 – a YouGov rapid poll found that more than 20% of registered voters, including 45% of Republicans, approved of them. That’s more than enough people to forcibly block climate action, and render the planet uninhabitable.
I’ll say it very clearly: White nationalism is a threat to the planet.
White nationalism is a threat to the planet
Trumpism and the rise of “Big Lie” politics – climate denial, anti-masking, embracing conspiracy theory – is rooted in white supremacy. It’s rooted in the lie that “this world belongs to me, and not you.” It was rooted in the opposition to the Paris Agreement. It’s rooted in the America First doctrines that have systematically dehumanized people of color and kept climate refugees from entering the country.
Amid all the chaos in Washington, DC on Wednesday, on the very same day, the Trump Administration carried out an attack on the environment that was decades in the making – successfully auctioning off oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – a longtime dream of the fossil fuel industry and hard-core climate deniers.
Like I explained to my kindergartener this week, racism is stealing. Stealing lives, stealing property, stealing self-worth and personhood. And stealing is bad. White supremacists aren't bad because they're white, it's because they steal. And the goal of American white nationalism is to steal this country, and our collective future, for themselves.
In recent years, white nationalists have increasingly embraced eco-fascism before carrying out mass shootings. Neo-nazis are using the climate emergency to recruit people. White supremacy means supremacy over Nature itself.
As Sarah Smarsh has written for years, white nationalism is not a case of rural, backwards hillbillies. It’s in boardrooms. It’s in the white exodus of public schools. It’s in the privatization of health care. It’s in the fossil fuel industry. It’s in the White House.
And even more importantly, as climate scientist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson wrote after the murder of George Floyd last summer, racism steals time from fighting climate change.
In Dr. Johnson’s op-ed, she quoted Toni Morrison: “The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”
That was the explicit goal on Wednesday: not just to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the next leaders of the country, but to prevent them from carrying out their stated goals: Advancing economic, social, racial, and climate justice for everyone.
White supremacy exists to hoard resources on a finite planet. And that’s exactly what the Trump Administration’s climate policy was during his time in office. It’s what sociologist Daniel Aldana Cohen calls eco-apartheid, the surging fight to preserve the fossil fuel industry – and the massive racialized inequality it creates – at any cost. It was there in the attack dogs and water cannons unleashed on Indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock.
The vision of that world is truly bleak, and it’s been in motion for decades: Right now, there are 80 million refugees around the world, a number that could swell into the hundreds of millions without urgent climate action. The people who did the least to cause the climate emergency are bearing the brunt of its effects, and that’s by design.
Like Brian Kahn writes, climate change is steroids for fascism – denying survival to certain groups of people.
Lifting people out of poverty, guaranteeing human rights, making sure every single person has a livable future – all that costs money. And the bottom line is, the main thrust of climate denial and delay has always been rich white men who don’t want to pay the bill for the mess they made.
Chaos and collapse are not inevitable
Climate justice means explicitly confronting racism and white supremacy.
In 2021, one of white supremacy’s biggest functions will be attempting to stall, sabotage, and derail the rapid transition to a zero carbon world. We can’t let that happen.
In these final few days of the Trump presidency, it’s all on the line. In the best-case scenario, Trump would resign or be removed from office by impeachment or the 25th Amendment as quickly as possible. Removing Trump from office immediately, by any means necessary, is just as important to prevent short-term violence as it is to ensure the best chance possible for a nationwide emergency mobilization on climate for the rest of this decade. White nationalists cannot be left unaccountable for an attack on this scale, or else they will continue to grow in ambition and scale until we lose everything.
All of this is why "vote!" is never the only answer. Our country was founded on white supremacy. This really is who we are. But it doesn’t need to be who we will be. We can and *must* build a different future by organizing. (Here are POC-led climate groups you should support today.)
I don't know where we go from here, honestly. But I know that chaos and collapse are *not* inevitable. There are futures where justice and equality and a thriving spirit of mutual prosperity for all living things will flourish. And so that's what we have to fight for.
If there’s anything we’ve learned from 2020, it’s that the old world isn’t coming back. If we’re going to build a better world that works for everyone, WE are the ones who are going to have to do that work, together.