Because the impacts of climate change may make us less likely to cut emissions

The fires raging in Canada’s southeastern province of Quebec are unprecedented. A hot, dry spring allowed tinder to build, and thunderstorms in early June lit the match, dramatically intensifying the 2023 fire season.

As the smoke swept south, it created apocalyptic skies over the northeastern United States and placed more than 100 million people on air quality alerts, putting New York City at number one in the global rankings of cities with more polluted.

Canadian scientists have warned about climate change’s role in fueling wildfires in 2019. Climate change may not cause wildfires, but it significantly increases the likelihood of them happening, and globally, wildfires are projected to increase by 50 % in this century.

One might at least hope that as these increasingly acute effects of climate change are felt by rich and high-emitting countries, people will be persuaded to act with the conviction necessary to avert the climate crisis, which threatens the lives of millions and the livelihood of billions.

A woman on an electric scooter rides past the smoke-engulfed New York skyline.
New York City, shrouded in smoke from the Canadian wildfires on June 7.
EPA-EFE/Justin Lane

However, as I argued in a recent article, the hope behind this assumption may be misplaced. As the effects of warming are felt more substantially, we could instead vote into power people committed to making the problem worse.

This is due to an overlap between the broader effects of climate change and the factors that have aided the rise of nationalist, authoritarian and populist leaders in Europe, the US, Brazil and elsewhere, particularly in recent years.

The wider consequences of climate change

Climate change is widely expected to bring a range of impacts, from increased frequency and severity of storms, droughts, floods, heatwaves and crop failures to the wider spread of tropical diseases. But it will also bring less obvious problems related to inequality, migration and conflict. Together, these could create a world of growing inequality and instability, rapid change and perceived threats, an environment in which authoritarian leaders tend to thrive.

Climate change threatens to widen inequalities within and between countries. In fact, the evidence suggests it already is. This is because poorer people are generally more exposed to the effects of climate change and more vulnerable to the resulting damage.

Poorer countries, and poorer people in rich countries, face a vicious cycle in which their economic situation leaves them stranded in areas most exposed to extreme weather conditions and prevents them from recovering. Conversely, the wealthy can insulate their homes from smoke, hire private firefighters, run air conditioning without worrying about bills, or simply buy a home elsewhere.

Climate change is also expected to increase migration. Estimates of the number of people expected to migrate in response to climate change are highly uncertain, due to a combination of social and political factors, and discussion in the media sometimes leans towards scaremongering and myth.

While most of the movement is also expected to occur within countries, there is likely to be a significant increase in people moving from poor to rich countries. By mid-century, significant numbers of people in places like South Asia could be exposed to heat waves that humans simply cannot survive, making migration the only possible escape route.

Finally, climate change is expected to increase the risk of conflict and violence. Wars can break out over basic resources like water. On a smaller scale, violence and crime could increase. Research has shown that even tweets are more obnoxious in the heat.

Authoritarian populism

Right-wing politicians have successfully exploited the narrative around these themes that climate change is inflaming: immigration, economic inequality, and global insecurity. Their promises to reverse declining living standards for a select public, relieve stress on (underfunded) public services, and protect the nation from external threats invariably involve calls to close borders and scapegoat migrants.

These leaders are also anti-environmentalists. Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Jair Bolsanaro have fetishized traditional industries like coal mining, turned away from global challenges in favor of domestic pursuits, and are outright skeptical or even in denial of human influence on climate.

A bald policeman with his back turned stands before people carrying sleeping children.
Trump has promised to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico.
EPA-EFE/Etienne Laurent

The absence of global awareness and willingness to cooperate, which is inherent in this policy, would make it almost impossible to maintain a safe climate.

The freedom that remains

This is a bleak view. But it’s being offered as a warning, not a prediction, and there’s good reason not to be pessimistic.

One reason is that there is some evidence that experiencing extreme weather increases support for climate action. So the effects of climate change may not only be turning people away from an appropriate policy response.

More importantly, climate change does not directly cause things like migration, conflict and violence. Instead, it makes them more likely through interactions with existing social and political issues such as government repression, high unemployment, or religious tensions. This is both good and bad news.

First, the bad news. Researchers suggest that poverty and inequality are more important drivers of conflict and migration than climate change. But these themselves are amplified by climate change. So climate change may play a role in conflict and migration that is not yet understood.

The good news is that these complex interactions between environmental conditions and our political and social life show us that the future is, to a large extent, yet to be decided. In the Anthropocene humans have become an agent of planetary change that we can determine the future of the environment. But the environment will not determine ours. However, understanding how climate change can indirectly affect policy is key to finding a policy that fits the challenges we face.


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