Standing in front of the partial ruins of Rome’s Colosseum, Boris Johnson explained that a motive to tackle the climate crisis could be found in the fall of the Roman empire. Then, as now, he argued, the collapse of civilization hinged on the weakness of its borders.
“When the Roman empire fell, it was largely as a result of uncontrolled immigration—the empire could no longer control its borders, people came in from the east and all over the place,” the British prime minister said in an interview on the eve of crucial UN climate talks in Scotland. Civilization can go into reverse as well as forwards, as Johnson told it, with Rome’s fate offering grave warning as to what could happen if global heating is not restrained.
This wrapping of ecological disaster with fears of rampant immigration is a narrative that has flourished in far-right fringe movements in Europe and the US and is now spilling into the discourse of mainstream politics. Whatever his intent, Johnson was following a current of rightwing thought that has shifted from outright dismissal of climate change to using its impacts to fortify ideological, and often racist, battle lines. Representatives of this line of thought around the world are, in many cases, echoing eco-fascist ideas that themselves are rooted in an earlier age of blood-and-soil nationalism.
In the US, a lawsuit by the Republican attorney general of Arizona has demanded the building of a border wall to prevent migrants coming from Mexico as these people “directly result in the release of pollutants, carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.” In Spain, Santiago Abascal, leader of the populist Vox party, has called for a “patriotic” restoration of a “green Spain, clean and prosperous.”
In the UK, the far-right British National party has claimed to be the “only true green party” in the country due to its focus on migration. And in Germany, the rightwing populist party Alternative for Germany has tweaked some of its earlier mockery of climate science with a platform that warns “harsh climatic conditions” in Africa and the Middle East will see a “gigantic mass migration towards European countries,” requiring toughened borders.
Meanwhile, France’s National Front, once a bastion of derisive climate denial, has founded a green wing called New Ecology, with Marine Le Pen, president of the party, vowing to create the “world’s leading ecological civilization” with a focus on locally grown foods.
“Environmentalism [is] the natural child of patriotism, because it’s the natural child of rootedness,” Le Pen said in 2019, adding that “if you’re a nomad, you’re not an environmentalist. Those who are nomadic … do not care about the environment; they have no homeland.” Le Pen’s ally Hervé Juvin, a National Rally MEP, is seen as an influential figure on the European right in promoting what he calls “nationalistic green localism.”