WHAT hope is there when one can literally be on fire and still obstinately refuse to see any reality in climate change? Or when the palpable experience of ecological disasters leads, not to environmental consciousness, but to bloody, authoritarian fantasies?

The wildfires in the state of Oregon in the summer of 2020 were the worst on record. The temperatures in the blazing forests, as tropical storm winds blew the fires over the crest of the Cascade mountains and across the state’s impoverished rural regions, would have reached at least 800C.

In a state already blighted by “deaths of despair”, soaring opiate addictions, with suicide rates rising and unemployment still above the pre-2008 peak, there was little infrastructural preparation for the severity of the crisis. A 10th of the state’s population was forced to evacuate, thousands of homes were destroyed, and 1.2 million acres of land were consumed in the blaze.

Yet, for many of those living through it, the fires were suspicious. Rural residents believed that they were victims of arson. Amid a collapse in local news provision, they were accustomed to relying on social media for information. And on social media, a spontaneous, collective apocalyptic fantasy emerged to explain the wildfires.


Residents posted vague footage and images showing nothing of significance, which they claimed to be scenes of criminality. They alleged that “Antifa” terrorists working as “paid mercenaries of the Democrat Party” were attacking conservative America. Many refused to evacuate. Graffiti warned that “looters will be shot”.

One man – who was given a level three evacuation order, meaning he was in mortal danger – said he was staying behind to protect his city: “If I see people doing crap, I’m gonna hurt them.”

No “Antifa” arsonist was ever found, but 11 people were killed and thousands had their lives destroyed.

The National:

Oregon’s rural conspiracists were right to think that something weird was happening. The fires had never been so bad. But, ill-disposed to blame climate change, they instead hallucinated a malevolent enemy. They had been predisposed to do so.

Since 2017, social media had been buzzing with a “prediction” spread by far-right YouTubers that Antifa was about to massacre white, conservative Christians, an idea later woven into QAnon fantasy. In the context of Black Lives Matter protests unprecedented in scale, which Donald Trump had blamed on Antifa, they imagined that the big city marauders had come to visit chaos on them.

There was an advantage in believing this. The forces really assailing them, like “climate change” or “fossil capitalism”, were abstract. But Antifa arsonists could be shot and killed. Armed militias duly patrolled the roads and set up checkpoints, hunting for the enemy.

But it went further. The conspiracy theory was that Antifa was working for “the system”, the Democrats and the lying “mainstream media”. By implication, the guns would have to be turned on those elites. That’s exactly what many Americans tried to do when armed mobs stormed the Capitol building in Washington DC on January 6, 2021.

This pathology emanated directly from the decades-old effort by an alliance of fossil fuel companies known as the Global Climate Coalition to attack climate science just as it was being recognised with the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988.

The denialist machine, working with conservative think tanks, Evangelical churches and rightist media, argued that fossil fuels are good for us. That CO2, far from being too plentiful, is a life-giving chemical of which there is too little. And that the drive to control climate change was an unscientific fad supporting a socialist attack on freedom.  These arguments were then taken up by the far-right, from Germany to Brazil, once the fossil fuels industry abandoned them for a more subtle approach designed to delay mitigation measures.

In Europe and North America, they added an important twist – climate change was a lie designed to enrich the Global South at the expense of the West. Trump called climate change a Chinese scam, American right-winger Pamela Geller called it a plot to transfer wealth from the “producers” to the “moochers”, and Anders Behring Breivik’s “lone wolf” manifesto was denounced as “Enviro-Communism” for transferring resources “from the developed Western world to the third world”.

Today's authoritarian right aims its guns at its own fantasies. But they claim to be standing for “freedom” against a new totalitarianism. This idea was turbo-charged by the Covid pandemic and the safety measures introduced by national states.

The pandemic, striking in the same year as Oregon’s wildfires, was most likely triggered by the zoonotic leap of a pathogen from the wildlife reservoir of lethal microbes to the human population. As David Quammen’s Spillover documents, pandemics are a growing risk thanks to deforestation and the profit-driven encroachment of industry and agribusiness on wild ecosystems. Here, surely, was the first major ecological disaster of the 21st century.

And just as evacuation orders that might normally be considered authoritarian became exigent during record wildfires, so a variety of “non-pharmaceutical interventions” restricting movement and commerce were unavoidable during the pandemic.  For the new far-right, this was yet another socialist conspiracy. “Social distancing is communism”, said anti-lockdown protesters in the United States. Masks were “muzzles”.

Books such as Rise Of The Fourth Reich and conspiracist sheets such as The Light in the UK documented a conspiracy of “Covid fascism” and “brainwashing”. In the UK, a far-right anti-vaccine movement called itself “The White Rose” after the nonviolent opposition movement in Nazi Germany. A formerly respected psychologist, Mattias Desmet, produced a pseudo-scientific theory of totalitarian “mass formation” to explain the eerily uniform behaviour of people wearing masks and queueing for vaccines.

In Germany, the Querdenken movement, led by assorted neo-Nazis, antisemites and figures from the esoteric right, won the support of a heteroclite coalition of former Greens, liberals, free marketeers and even leftists on the basis that safety restrictions were a new breed of totalitarianism.

Querdenken was a successful conversion machine. As of 2023, the far-right Allianz für Deutschland – which had campaigned against Covid safety measures – was second place in the polls.  So did this now mean that, in however delusional a form, the new far-right was somehow anti-authoritarian? Hardly.

At the origin of modern conspiracism, in books written by Abbé Barruel and John Robison in response to the French revolution, absolutist monarchy was justified precisely on the grounds that the revolution was a conspiracy of elites, Freemasons, and later Jewish people, who insidiously controlled all major institutions and were working against Christian civilisation. This was a theory of “totalitarianism” avant la lettre.

The authoritarian far-right which continues this tradition has always, in this sense, styled itself as an “anti-totalitarian” movement and has always done in power what it claimed its opponents wanted to do. Now, predictably, coming off the back of the Covid conspiracism, the far-right warns of “climate lockdowns”.

Even the lifelong environmentalist Robert F Kennedy Jr, finding allies on the Right because of his anti-vaccine position, claims that climate change is an “excuse to impose totalitarian controls”.

Yet outright denialism is becoming untenable. Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni, representing the neofascist Brothers of Italy, complains that “ecology has been militarily occupied by the left” and wants to make it a right-wing issue.

“The right loves the environment,” she says, “because it loves the land, the identity, the homeland.”

Viktor Orbán describes Hungary as a “Climate Champion” despite its promotion of fossil fuels and deforestation, because nationalists protect the “homeland”.

In France, Marine Le Pen connects climate change to migration, because migrants are “nomads” who have no “homeland” and no care for the environment.

In India, the Hindu nationalists portray Muslims as pollution in an otherwise great, ecological “Hindu Motherland”. In the “lone wolf” manifestoes of ecofascist mass shooters Payton Gendron, Brenton Tarrant and Patrick Crusius, climate change is linked to fears of overpopulation, migration, “The Great Replacement” and “white genocide”.

Insofar as the new far-right adapts to the reality of climate change, it addresses it as a problem of blood and soil. It treats migrants and religious and ethnic minorities as the true pollutants. It reverts to Malthusian mythologies of overpopulation – the problem is not carbon emissions pumped out by the over-developed world but too many babies in societies that emit little carbon. They approach ecology through the lens of Social Darwinism and race war in which unfit and out-of-place biology must die.

But climate change seems to invite authoritarianism from every direction. The ecofascist ideas that are beginning to emerge instead of denialism have their roots in aspects of 19th and 20th-century ecology. There has always been a deeply racist and authoritarian side to ecological thought.

Eco-Malthusianism gains support far beyond the far-right. Even so benign a figure as David Attenborough misleadingly attributes the climate crisis to overpopulation.  Beyond these ideas, there is growing despair at the possibility of democracy delivering a solution to climate change. As Simon Kuper argues in the Financial Times, people will never vote for the necessary measures to avert disastrous warming as it would make them poorer.

A current of environmentalist thought, from William Ophuls’s Leviathan Or Oblivion to David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith’s The Climate Challenge And The Failure Of Democracy, has long argued that the climate crisis shows the unsuitability of democracy for human survival.

In truth, public opinion has had almost zero impact on climate policy, and the public has rarely been engaged on the issue except to be patronised. Corporate lobbying has been far more effective. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to worry about.  Democracy is in a precarious condition. Globally, according to the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, half of the world’s democracies are in trouble. Support for democratic ideas is, according to data published in the Journal of Democracy, sliding.

The ecological stresses on the world system and ensuing shortages, price rises and refugee flows will surely catalyse this. And the emergencies and disasters that arise from climate change will necessitate relative privations and major changes to people’s lives that, if not achieved by democratic mobilisation, will in practice be quite authoritarian. Just like lockdowns, such measures may be necessary, but their necessity will prove a prior policy failure, and empower technocratic authoritarians. Worse, they will likely provoke fascist backlash.

No realistic solution to the climate crisis can work without democratic buy-in. There ought to be emergency public assemblies, and town hall meetings every week, to hammer out and agree on solutions. Without mobilisation of that scale, we will be caught in the dialectic between technocratic authoritarians and fascists.

Richard Seymour is a journalist and is author of Corbyn: The Rebirth Of Radical Politics and The Disenchanted Earth: Reflections On Ecosocialism And Barbarism'. At the Break-up of Britain conference on November 18, Richard will appear as part of a panel on democracy and climate change. Tickets for the conference can be purchased at thebreakupofbritain.net. Donations, to help cover running costs, are welcome.