The government of the Netherlands fell last week. The issue that tipped it over the edge was immigration driven by climate change.
If Putin wanted to destroy democracy in Europe (and he does), back in 2015 he couldn’t have picked a better strategy. Odds are, though, he was just trying to protect his deepwater ports; it wasn’t until the crisis developed that he realized how he could exploit it to overthrow liberal democracies in the EU.
The way it’s played out gives us a glimpse into our future — and the future of democratic republics all across the world — as the global climate emergency and the refugee crisis associated with it grows more severe over the next few years.
The current rise-of-rightwing-fascism crisis building in Europe began in 2010 and started with global climate change.
The fall of that year saw unusually severe rainfall across the wheat-growing parts of Canada, cutting that nation’s wheat harvest, along with drought across Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and China. A La Nina caused crop failures in Argentina and Peru. Worldwide prices of staple foods, particularly wheat, exploded.
On December 17 of that year a street vendor in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire to protest the high cost of the wheat he needed to make the foods he and his peers sold, and the harassment of police against their protests. It sparked what we referred to then as the Arab Spring, that lasted through most of 2011.
The steady warming and drought in that area, though, never let up and the desert in North Africa relentlessly continued to eat up millions of acres of food-producing land, particularly across Syria. By 2015 it had pushed over a million Syrian subsistence farmers off their land — that had desertified — and into Syria’s cities, particularly Damascus and Aleppo.
Northern Africa became the world’s number one food importer, and the prices kept rising relentlessly.
Newly homeless, hungry, and destitute, these Syrian farmers began demonstrations in the streets demanding food, shelter, and employment or “welfare” payments from the Syrian government.
Bashar Assad, being a psychopathic dictator, ordered his troops to fire live ammunition into the crowds in 2012 and 2013, and soon a full-blown revolt was on: “rebels” seized Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, in early 2013.
Syria was also the base for Russia’s Mediterranean fleet, with multiple deep-water ports that Putin believed were critical to his nation’s military defense. By 2015 he had a dozen battleships there, along with submarines and other warships.
He had to prevent the Assad government from falling or risk an “Arab Spring democracy” emerging — as happened for a short while in Tunisia and Egypt — that might align itself with the West and kick Russia out.
Making a long story short, Putin bombed the crap out of Syria on Assad’s behalf, virtually leveling the city of Aleppo, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.
It was one of the worst war crimes of this century, almost as deadly as George W. Bush’s brutal and criminal invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Millions of climate and war refugees fled the country, joining Bush’s wars’ fugitives making their way into Europe by any means possible.
Thus began Europe’s refugee crisis, which just helped bring down Holland’s government. In two weeks, it may well cause the rightwing fascist-aligned anti-immigrant People’s Party to come to power in the Spanish elections on July 23.
As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) noted in a 2021 report:
“By the end of 2016, nearly 5.2 million refugees and migrants reached European shores, undertaking treacherous journeys from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries torn apart by war and persecution.”
This flood of brown-skinned Muslims fleeing African and Middle Eastern climate change and wars into Europe over the past decade is why Italy and Sweden now have rightwing leaders; why Viktor Orbán was able to gain and hold power in Hungary with his promise to “build a wall” along Hungary’s southern border (a promise he kept); and why rightwing parties are today growing so rapidly in Germany, Greece, Norway, Austria, Belgium and France.
The legacy of five centuries of racist imperialism across four continents has been that wealth and safety from the ravages of climate change are concentrated in mostly White-run nations, while vulnerability to desertification and poverty are concentrated in mostly Brown- and Black-run nations.
When Russia intervened in British politics to tear apart the EU, their trolls’ main Facebook pitch for Brexit was that “those [Brown and Black] people” the EU had let in were now making their way to the UK.
While every country in the world can accept refugees in small numbers without crisis, when “other people” begin showing up in large numbers the response by every nation in history typically tends toward rightwing nationalism and xenophobia, an obsession with borders, and demands for racial, cultural, and religious “purity.”
Here in North America we’re seeing a similar dynamic. Reagan so severely destabilized Central America and Venezuela with his sanctions, illegal Iran-Contra program, and support for rightwing death squads that those nations never recovered. In the years since, climate change has bit these weakened governments deep, forcing millions of subsistence farmers — just like in Syria but here mostly from hard-hit Guatemala — off land that once grew crops but is now, just a few years later, scrub desert.
Exploiting the climate refugee crisis on America’s southern border, Republican politicians have spent the years since Obama’s election in 2008 falsely claiming that Democrats had thrown the border “open,” producing thousands of news stories that have been used by coyotes — human traffickers — to draw even more refugees toward the United States.
Compounding that, Trump launched his 2016 campaign on keeping Brown people out of the United States, and today racism and xenophobia form the foundation of most Republican political campaigns (when they aren’t hating on queer people or women).
The result of these trends has been a worldwide shift to the right. As Freedom House noted in a 2022 report, over 60 countries experienced “declines” in democracy the previous year; only about 20 percent of people worldwide now live in “free” nations:
“Global freedom faces a dire threat. … Authoritarian regimes have become more effective at co-opting or circumventing the norms and institutions meant to support basic liberties, and at providing aid to others who wish to do the same. …
“The global order is nearing a tipping point, and if democracy’s defenders do not work together to help guarantee freedom for all people, the authoritarian model will prevail.”
So far, the western world’s refugee crisis has been mostly driven by massive policy errors and outright war crimes: Russia’s response to the Syrian farmers, the US invasion and destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, and American meddling in Central America and Venezuela.
But all have been either triggered or exacerbated by the worldwide climate emergency. And, as we can see from this summer’s weather worldwide, that emergency is building at a rate far more rapid than even alarmist climate scientists were predicting just a decade ago.
Recent projections show that within just the next two decades as many as three billion people could be fleeing areas that will soon only marginally support human life.
As equatorial regions become uninhabitable, the mostly darker-skinned people living there will be migrating north and south into areas controlled by lighter-skinned people in numbers that will make today’s Syrian, Iraq, and Afghan refugee crisis look like a statistical blip.
It will put worldwide white supremacist and Nazi movements into hyperdrive.
In addition to acting immediately to mitigate climate change and green the world’s economy, the free nations of the world must harden our democracies against reactive rightwing violence- and hate-based racist political movements.
That will also require radically reducing the Supreme Court-gifted political power of big money here in America — particularly from the fossil fuel industry and the billionaires it has created — and returning that power and wealth to the hard-hit majority. The Democratic Party in America is increasingly committed to this, but Republicans and the dozens of billionaires in their camp are prepared to spend heretofore unimaginable sums to keep climate deniers and race-baiters in office.
We also must help those nations most hard-hit by the warming — caused largely by our carbon pollution — to deal with their own refugees internally, lest they irrecoverably destabilize first their own governments and then ours.
To paraphrase JFK, we are not helpless before this task.
But it will require western and American media and political systems to take on these three crises — climate change, the refugees it produces, and politicians who demagogue the issue while blocking forward progress — now.
We are quite literally out of time.