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Fault lines at the intersection of nationalism and fossil fuels politics.

  • May 16 2022
  • George Edwards
    is a researcher based in Berlin. He is a member of the Zetkin Collective and co-author of White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism published with Verso Books.

Much of the blaring condemnation of the Russian invasion has been organized along nationalist lines. In protest of Putin's misadventures, corporations, governments and individuals have made desperate efforts to cleanse themselves of all things Russian. Russian vodka removed from supermarket shelves, Russian academics blocked from publishing in scientific journals, even Russian cats have been banned from entering feline beauty contests. A more logical set of cancellations, however, have been the proposals to rid economies of Russian fossil fuels. Few dissent from the wish to sever this bloody and oily tie, yet the strategies for what comes next are less coherent. 

Whilst the bombs rained down on Kyiv, a heatwave was recorded at both poles simultaneously, as the bodies were found in Bucha, a drought in Northern Italy entered its fifth month, and as the siege on Mariopol raged on, relentless rains swept through South Africa. These were just some of the extreme weather events reminding us of the overarching and ongoing assault on the climate, overseen by an economic system sustained by the endless combustion of fossil fuels. The latest prognosis of this particular war was spelt out in a flurry of reports from the IPCC; the most recent, described as “an atlas of human suffering” by the chief of the UN, demanded “rapid, deep and immediate” emissions cuts in all sectors to ensure an inhabitable planet for all. In step with the science, many wish this conflict to mark the beginning of an intensified programme of decarbonization, ridding economies of not only Russian, but all fossil fuels, wherever their geological source.

But whilst political leaders scramble abroad to secure new sources of fossil fuels - sweet-talking sheiks and summoning LNG terminals from the ground - a resourceful and committed cohort, let's call them the anti-climate lobby, refuse to accept this diagnosis. The partakers in the fossil industry have seized upon this crisis, sensing it as an opportunity to enlarge and entrench economic interests rooted in fossil fuels. As the course of action prescribed by the IPCC imperils this line of business, the attempts to secure fresh investments in fossil fuel infrastructures, to lock-in production and secure profits for the coming decades may feel all the more pressing. The solutions they pose also fit within the national frame and it is with nationalist political forces that they find their most ardent allies.

A short history of climate denial

Ever since the science of climate change matured in the late 1980s, so came the efforts to deny, downplay and distort its findings. Always in defence of the continued combustion of fossil fuels, these efforts nonetheless matured over the decades. Originating with the brazen inversion of fact - the climate is not changing, the science is bogus - more recent iterations of denial acknowledge the scientific foundations but continue to defend the fossil fuel way of life. This is a broadly cultural project, aimed to influence and persuade popular sentiment that the rational and sensible response to the climate crisis is to in fact do very little, and, better still, to shift the blame elsewhere. In this change of tactics, the fossil fuel industry has found support at the far-right end of the political spectrum. 

Despite their central appeal being for the nation and against immigration, in recent years no other party family was so indifferent to questions of climate than the far right. Both of these concerns were animated by a defensive urge: the defense of fossil fuel privileges from the threat of climate science on the one hand, and the defense of the nation from immigrants on the other. The consistency with which this pattern manifested - across Europe, in Trump, in Bolsonaro - and the electoral successes enjoyed for those espousing this doctrine suggest an emergent political formation, one where the interests of the fossil fuel industry and nationalist political projects appear as one and the same. 

This convergence between anti-climate and nationalist politics takes a distinct form in different political contexts, yet some broad trends can be detected. For countries with their own fossil fuels, nationalist imaginaries are easily invested in the fossilized stock itself, an investment that segued into calls for maximum production: “Do you want British energy? ... We, the people, stand on £1 trillion of shale gas!” Nigel Farage recently alerted the nation. Those without their own stock are more preoccupied with defending any encroachment on the fossil fuel status quo: Madrid's Vox government decried a low emissions zone as “pure communism” and saw it overturned. With or without their own black fuel, there's no room for renewables; the wind and sun elusive to nationhood, the paraphernalia used for harnessing their energy - panels and turbines - are treated as an invader. “Migrants are like wind turbines, everyone agrees to have them but no one wants them in their backyard” claimed Marine Le Pen.  

Never let a good crisis go to waste

The traces of this political formation could be sensed in the responses to the carnage in Ukraine, which, since the 24th February, have an added sense of urgency. “We must go for gas with all the vigor of a national war effort” one figure on the Tory right pronounced in response to Russia's invasion. This was one part of the Brexit clique’s programme to “Take Back Control” of energy, accelerating all fossil fuel production and obstructing any solar farms from encroaching on the Tories’ sunnier, southern heartlands. “Against the background of Ukraine, the phase-out of coal must be stopped!” demanded an AfD representative in Saxony, the state where the largest sums of coal and AfD voters reside (the rest of his party obsessed over fuel prices, true to their election promise that “your car would vote for us”). In Poland, a spokesperson from the Solidarity Trade Union, tightly linked to the ruling Law and Justice Party, complained not only of Russian energy polluting the nation, but the foreignness of renewable technologies too. “This is the time to start investing in Polish coal”, he concluded. 

In the US, the president was accused by one Republican for declaring “war on fossil fuels” and neglecting “our national security and energy independence”. His offense? Refusing to commit to increasing domestic oil production to replace the negligible quantities imported from Russia. This criticism being leveled at the man who has opened up more federal land for drilling than his predecessor and at a time when energy companies are making obscene profits, suggests another annoyance. Technologies of fracking and horizontal drilling rejuvenated the US energy industry in recent years, but ambitions of “energy independence” mutated into “American energy dominance” under the leadership of Donald Trump. “We will be dominant... we will export energy all around the world” uttered the man who has every chance of becoming president again. The drive to restore such national-energetic strength to the White House was captured in a meme circulated by Donald Trump Jr. It depicted Trump senior brandishing a gas nozzle like a gun, “MISS ME YET?” written beneath. 

From Bakken to Berlin

With energy and the climate politicized as never before, there is, of course, no shortage of ideas pulling in the other direction. The desire to decarbonise appears widespread, particularly in Europe, as clean energy strategies roll out the mouths of political leaders. But caution may be gleaned from this decade's other global crisis. In the aftermath of the first lockdowns, with all the promises to 'build back better' and popular support to do so, government stimulus packages saw more capital pumped into polluting industries than pre-pandemic averages. The same skew could be detected in investment trends: no strangers to greenwashing, the world’s largest banks last year channeled a record sum of $742 billion into new fossil fuel infrastructure projects. So, despite the rhetoric of renewables scaling up, without the corresponding cuts to the actual sources of climate breakdown, these words count for little. 

And it would be a bigger mistake to imagine that the fabled energy transition shall proceed along a rational path. As the costs of living are set to spiral, deep ruptures in society are likely to appear. This is precisely the place where nationalist and xenophobic politics may emerge. As Orban's crushing victory and Le Pen's presidential bid suggest, Europe hasn't lost its appetite for such politics. The response to the Ukraine invasion from the anti-climate lobby and their political allies confirm a tendency: whatever the crisis, drill more, burn more. If actors at this political pole continue to operate as the defensive shield for fossil fuel interests, as all trends suggest, then we can expect this impulse to echo out through all future crises, climate especially. Indeed, if a political programme pushing for deep emission cuts gains ground, the consolidation of this political formation may become all the more necessary. In such a scenario, instead of business-as-usual plus a few windmills, the global economy must be redirected away from its energetic base, and instead of making astronomical profits, fossil fuel producers must be put out of business. However, such self-mutilation won't happen by itself. 

For a week last summer, a field on the edge of Brunsbüttel, a small town at the eastern mouth of the Kiel canal, was host to a few thousand climate activists. There to disrupt operations at the nearby industrial complex - the site of a proposed new LNG terminal - the activists navigated the area by foot and boat and used their bodies to block bridges and railway lines. At the end of last year, major investors had pulled their financial support and the project stalled, but not for long. Within hours of Putin's declaration of Luhansk and Donbas independence, Scholz terminated the Nord Stream II pipeline and soon swung the state behind the Brunsbüttel project. Fossil gas from the Bakken rock formation of North Dakota may one day arrive in Berlin through the Zukunftsnetz Nordwest pipeline, Vattenfall's latest installment under construction, set to arrive in Reuter West. But this outcome has yet to be decided. The pipeline has been the object of resistance by the climate movement, a movement that increasingly merges anti-racist and anti-fascist fronts, recognising that any true energy transition must also confront and overcome the anti-climate politics which revolve around the nation.


    @ Pauł Sochacki



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