By Kate Aronoff
Britain’s vote last night to leave the European Union will be a disaster for the climate — both physical and political — on both sides of the Atlantic.
Most obvious are all of the direct impacts Britain’s departure from the European Union will have on environmental policies outright. “Leave” zealots don’t care much for the caps on carbon and free markets that Cameron’s Tories have also shunned, and UKIP party head Nigel Farage is eager to cut through the E.U. “red tape” of environmental regulations. Worse, many Brexiteers also happen to deny temperatures are rising at all, setting them apart even from Cameron and his Tory comrades. One recent study found that Brexit voters are nearly twice as likely as their “Remain” counterparts to deny the existence of man-made climate change — with two out of three thinking the media are guilty of exaggerating scientific consensus on the matter. Farage even called wind energy “the biggest collective economic insanity I’ve seen in my entire life.”
Fresh off the heels of their biggest victory to date, Brexit champions like Farage are now stronger than ever. And because deals like the Paris Agreement chafe up against the kind of isolationism the 21st century far-right loves, it’s not hard to imagine that UKIP will be as eager as Trump to “cancel” the Paris Agreement entirely, and make future collaboration on climate even more challenging. (The party’s energy spokesman, Roger Helmer, went so far as to call the agreement “institutionalized lunacy.”)
Once Brexit goes into effect, whatever formation takes hold of the government will enjoy free reign to scale back the environmental regulations they were roped into by the European Union. That’s a major reason, as Grist pointed out earlier this month, why groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were pro-Remain. Farming Minister George Eustice has buzzed about that possibility of gutting regulations, as free marketers stand ready to do away with them entirely in favor of a market-friendly (and likely meaningless) carbon tax.
Since we live in an economy based on a series of bets, the financial markets this morning are buckling under their own bad one; namely, that Brexit was impossible. Talk is spreading that Britain’s vote to leave the union will bring the world economy down along with the pound. Those of us who lived through 2008 know how spending averse governments deal with bad markets. Whether Brexit spells a financial slump or not, it’s hard to imagine any pro-Leave forces that might come to power in the next several months will mark a radical break with the reigning dogma: Those already worse-off will be told to tighten their belts, while public funds flood in to prop up the economy’s worst actors. Reflecting on the vote, Paul Mason warns that “Unless Labour can win an early election it will be a fast-track process of Thatcherisation and the breakup of the United Kingdom.”
With a climate crisis that demands massive public investment — in everything from renewable energy to social services to infrastructure upgrades — that kind of austerity, in the accelerated or standard issue variety, will only kick these projects dangerously farther down the road.
Perhaps more concerning are the kinds of Brexit impacts that deal less directly with climate policy proper. Like UKIP, the Leave campaign has been marked from its start by a virulent and aggressive nationalism, hell-bent against refugees and changing demographics alike. Recent U.N. estimates, meanwhile, find that climate change could create anywhere between 200 million and 1 billion climate refugees. Combined with climate skepticism, rising xenophobia could create a Britain verging on dystopia: where the white and wealthy insulate themselves from catastrophe as millions suffer from the impacts of rising temperatures and more militarized cities and borders, erected to keep order in check amidst climate chaos.
This phenomena, of course, is global. Brexit fan Marine Le Pen, head of France’s far-right Front National, once accused a Green Party official in her country of “promoting a profoundly anti-ecological model through the European Union and through the absence of borders.” Trump, speaking from Scotland, tweeted this morning that “America is proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder w/a free & ind UK. We stand together as friends, as allies, & as a people w/a shared history.” His opinions on who should and should not be let into the United States are all too well known, falling along the lines of who he deems fit of claiming that history. As the flow of refugees swells, his views — like Le Pen’s — will only harden.
UKIP’s victory on Brexit emboldens the worst of the world’s racist and authoritarian right. Allowed to take power, those same forces could doom us all to a world warmed beyond reversal, leading their governments even farther away from course-corrections on climate than they already are. As rising tides loom, far-right responses to them — for many communities — could prove as dangerous as the crisis itself.
Brexit is by no means game over for the climate. It does, however, make the challenge for progressives in a warming world eerily clear. A low-carbon future can also be a more inclusive and democratic one. But not without one hell of a fight. If the atmosphere at Trump rallies — or leading up to the E.U. referendum — is any indication that will be harder now too.
Like most other changes for the better through history, progress on the environment thus far has been the result of sustained pushes from below, whether the campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline or the wave of global marches and blockades that made the Paris Agreement — however modest — possible. Now, more than ever, the fight for a better environment is a fight against an ascendant far right — not the working-class Leave voters that registered their disaffection with austerity, but men like Farage and Trump, who twist pain into violence and division.
“Not everyone, or even most, of the people who voted leave were driven by racism,” British writer Gary Younge wrote. “But the leave campaign imbued racists with a confidence they have not enjoyed for many decades and poured arsenic into the water supply of our national conversation.” It’s this kind of toxic environment where men like Donald Trump thrive and where movements that show a way forward are desperately needed.
Kate Aronoff is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer, the Communications Coordinator for the New Economy Coalition, and a co-founder of the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network. Her writing has appeared in The Nation, The American Prospect, Dissent and The New York Times.