In February 1938, John Maynard Keynes, the 20th century’s most celebrated economist, wrote to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that the fate of democracy as a viable method of governance hinged on America’s ability to combat its high unemployment. Absent a proactive policy approach to put people to work and eradicate poverty, the British thinker contended, violent extremist tides would flood Washington as they had in Berlin, Rome, and Moscow in years prior, creating a domino effect that would quickly reach Western Europe.
FDR took Keynes seriously. In a fireside chat to the nation in April 1938, the president issued a warning to his citizens that “democracy has disappeared in several other great nations…because they had grown tired of unemployment and insecurity.” The only solution, he said, was to “meet the problems of the Nation boldly, and to prove that the practical operation of democratic government is equal to the task of protecting the security of the people.”
In the midst of a year-long recession that had seen a 10% drop in GDP and nearly one in five out of work, his words were a call to action to solve the pervasive unemployment problem before “idle men” looked beyond democracy to find the answer. The threat of authoritarianism loomed large over a desperate people looking for a way to feed themselves and their families. A similar danger hovers over the US and the rest of the world today, more than 80 years after Roosevelt’s rallying cry. Instead of an economic depression, however, the menace takes the form of climate change.
IT’S GETTING HOT
Last month’s report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed scientists’ and activists’ worst fears: No matter what humanity does to limit carbon emissions moving forward, the planet will warm 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in the coming decades, with cataclysmic consequences for all life on Earth.
Yet, we need not brace for impact: Climate change is already changing our quality of life globally — and within the US. This summer was the hottest on record, with heat waves in Northwest and Canada killing hundreds. The entirety of the American West is suffering through severe drought while fighting over the remaining water in the quickly-shrinking Colorado River. Megafires have become a permanent fixture in the region, accelerating deforestation while causing billions in damages and claiming dozens of lives. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Hurricane Ida overwhelmed Louisiana and the Northeast, shattering rainfall records, bringing economic activity to a halt, and killing dozens. Similar flooding has killed hundreds in Europe and China this year, too.
These calamities are not one-off emergencies. They are indicative of not only a permanent, human-caused shift in Earth’s climate, but of the US government’s inability to adapt to and mitigate its worst consequences. After four years of open hostility toward climate science under the Trump administration, President Joe Biden has made climate policy a priority, appointing John Kerry, one of Washington’s most respected diplomats to a cabinet-level “climate envoy” position, proposing nearly $200 billion in new investments to help realize a zero-emissions economy, and strong rhetoric endorsing an American-led multilateral approach to international climate policy. Will all of these measures work? The answer is not as clear as one would hope.
THE CLIMATE OF AUTHORITARIANISM
The Biden administration’s promising steps face a myriad of bureaucratic and political obstacles: An utterly denialist Republican party (which holds almost half the seats in Congress, more than half of governorships, and more than half of state legislatures); reluctant senior lawmakers like Senators Joe Manchin (WV-D), chair of the pivotal Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ); and arcane procedural rules like the Senate filibuster that empowers a single defiant lawmaker to crater an entire climate package. So while elected officials twiddle their thumbs and their industry supporters mobilize against comprehensive energy and climate reform, the US is burning and drowning. The most vulnerable Americans — people of color, socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, and those with chronic health conditions — are suffering the most and have the most to lose under the current policy regime; a fact that demagogues will be sure to highlight if the status quo does not reverse immediately.
Since the concern about climate is felt across the political spectrum, there is ample opportunity for illiberal forces to exploit fear on both the far-right and left.
As Roosevelt alluded to in his speech a lifetime ago, illiberal agitators exploit moments of acute crises to advance authoritarian agendas disconnected from concrete solutions and even reality itself. At that time, it was Hitler, Mussolini, and the Bolsheviks who rode popular discontent (or at least apathy) stemming from the economic and political trauma of World War I to absolute power, creating conditions for the deadliest conflict in human history. Yet, we need not have to look nearly a century into the past for examples of violent reactionary movements. After the September 11, 2001 attacks and the US-led Global War on Terror, far-right xenophobic and Islamophobic populist movements across the US and Europe gained political saliency and led to a dramatic rise in deadly domestic terror attacks that targeted women and religious and racial groups. At the same time, when the Great Recession turned the global economy upside-down and Americans elected their first Black president, the number of hate groups in the country increased dramatically before dropping off toward the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. This hopeful trend abruptly reversed after the election of Donald Trump: White nationalist groups have grown at least 55% since 2016.
As the number of far-right nationalist groups continues to swell, their political influence can directly affect politics in Washington. These militant groups’ racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic causes are marshalled by aspiring authoritarians for political expediency, bringing about seismic cultural shifts in popular attitudes and conduct. The 9/11 attacks, 2008 election of Obama, election of Donald Trump, and the COVID-19 pandemic all saw a spike in hate crimes toward Muslims, ethnic minorities, immigrants, and Asian Americans, respectively, while the total number of reported hate crimes hit a high in 2020, according to the FBI. Climate change will be the next (literal) wave for would-be authoritarians to ride into Washington, and they may find an unusually receptive audience across the political spectrum: More than 90% of Biden voters and 40% of Trump voters care about climate change. Couple this with the fact that most Americans are dissatisfied with democracy as a method of governance and do not believe their elected representatives care about them, and it is not inconceivable to think that like the Great Recession, last two presidential elections, and the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change could emboldened Americans’ worst impulses toward the decisiveness that heavy-handed authoritarians always promise.
More significantly, since the concern about climate is felt across the political spectrum, there is ample opportunity for illiberal forces to exploit fear. On the right, for example, extremists and would-be despots (like Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán and Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland party) could inflame long-held suspicions about migrants and refugees as the number of those displaced by climate change from areas like Central and South America inevitably reaches the hundreds of millions, sparking a violent backlash to immigrants and people of color similar to the one Trump rode to office in 2016. Similarly, hopeful tyrants could (and do) capitalize on bipartisan uneasiness about China, the highest emitter of carbon dioxide and the main antagonist in the great power competition narrative dominating Beltway foreign policy. Such an emphasis on antagonizing Beijing could dangerously escalate the already fraught relationship and produce a violent reaction toward America’s Asian population akin to the racist aggression that has defined the COVID-19 pandemic.
CAN WE LEARN FROM HISTORY?
While the global warming of Earth’s atmosphere by 1.5 degrees is a certainty, the advent of climate-fueled authoritarianism is not carved in stone. The Biden administration and its Congressional allies can do much to both restore faith in the democratic process and tackle the climate problem.
First, Biden and his counterparts in Congress could neuter anti-climate science conservatives’ ability to halt climate legislation and put an end to paralyzing gridlock in the Capitol by abolishing the Senate filibuster, a nuclear option that activists and even lawmakers have been calling for. Second, those same leaders should eliminate the debt ceiling, which is an enduring source of embarrassment for the US and has no parallel in other advanced democracies. Removing this antiquated limit on borrowing and spending could give lawmakers the fiscal breathing room they need to fund climate policy measures while also restoring voters’ faith in Washington’s ability to keep itself open for business.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, President Biden and Congressional Democrats should make every effort to empower Americans — most of whom believe climate change is a critical threat — to exercise their right to vote. By signing H.R. 1 into law and expanding access to the polls, our nation’s leaders can help the US edge closer to its founding ideals of equality and democracy while cementing their mandate to mitigate and adapt to climate change through legal, electoral victory. Bolstering the democratic process in this way could, as Keynes believed almost a century ago, be the catalyst for a truly global movement against authoritarianism and for democracy and science-based policies.
Keynes was not being prescient when he was warning FDR of the sociopolitical dangers of mass unemployment: He had watched a backlash to economic crises lead to the rise of militant fascism and communism, forever transforming both the international system and humanity’s understanding of itself. Today, we are confronted with an even greater threat: The self-inflicted extinction of life on Earth.
The cyclical nature of history and humanity’s short collective memory begs a question whose answer will decide the future of both democracy and our species: How hot will we let our planet get before slipping into the suffocating arms of dictatorship?
Connor Sutherland is the program associate in the Council of Foreign Relations’ Washington Meetings and Independent Task Force Program.