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Climate Disasters May Be Nudging Societies Toward Rising Violence and Cruelty

Efforts to curb climate change are provoking right-wing backlash and bringing state violence down on climate activists.

This photo taken on June 7, 2023, shows smoke from wildfires in Canada enshrouding New York City.

Several times in recent weeks I’ve heard people suggest that Mother Nature has been speaking to us through that smoke endlessly drifting south from the still-raging Canadian wildfires. She’s saying that she wants the coal, oil, and gas left in the ground, but I fear her message will have little more influence on climate policy than her previous ones did. After all, we essentially hit the “snooze” button on the wakeup call from Hurricane Katrina 18 years ago; ditto the disastrous Hurricane Sandy seven years later, as well as the East Coast heat waves and West Coast wildfires of more recent years; or the startling overheating of global waters and the sea level rise that goes with it. And that’s just to begin an ever longer list of horrors.

Despite the fact that, in recent weeks, more than 100 million North Americans have been inhaling lungfuls of smoke from those Canadian wildfires, we’ll probably continue to ignore the pummeling so many here are enduring daily while carbon dioxide continues to accumulate overhead. Climate disasters are not only failing to goad governments into taking bold action but may be nudging societies toward increasing violence and cruelty.

Recently, Joel Millward-Hopkins of the University of Leeds suggested that, as the climate emergency intensifies, we may only find ourselves ever more affected by some of the indirect impacts of global warming. Those would include the “widening of socioeconomic inequalities (within and between countries), increases in migration (intra- and inter-nationally), and heightened risk of conflict (from violence and war through to hate speech and crime).” Such impacts, he suggests, will reflect a “highly inconvenient overlap with key drivers of the authoritarian populism that has proliferated in the 21st century.” Inconvenient indeed.

In other words, although weather disasters of many kinds can increase public concern about climate change, they can also help to whip up an oppressively violent sociopolitical climate that may prove ever more hostile to the very idea of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions — especially in large, affluent, high-emission societies.

Warm in the USA

Though not itself linked to climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic may have given us a preview of such developments. When it first struck, a feeling of noble national purpose, shared sacrifice, and mutual aid swept the country… for perhaps a few weeks. Then came the waves of social conflict that may, in the end, have left us even more poorly prepared for the next public health emergency. After all, the pandemic of hate that first fed on anti-vaccine and anti-mask fervor now sups from a far larger buffet of political issues including energy and climate.

Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote recently that “culture war entrepreneurs” are casting efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions as authoritarian attacks on ordinary people’s fundamental freedoms. Be ready to do battle, they say, against any move to promote heat pumps over furnaces or electric induction stoves over gas stoves or walking to the store instead of driving a big-ass truck there. In fact, he suggests, “you cannot propose even the mildest change without a hundred professionally outraged influencers leaping up to announce: ‘They’re coming for your …’’”

There are always going to be people under the influence of such influencers who will respond by jumping in their trucks for a session of “rollin’ coal” — that is, spewing toxic diesel fumes into the faces of pedestrians and cyclists. Or maybe they’ll run over a climate protester (without fear of prosecution if they’re in Florida, Iowa, or Oklahoma).

This outbreak of hostility and violence among right-wingers is occurring even though no one has actually curtailed any of their freedoms. Now, imagine the ferocity of the backlash if we could somehow manage to enact the policies that are undoubtedly most urgently needed to rein in greenhouse gases and other environmental threats: a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels and cuts in the extraction and use of material resources. The eruption would undoubtedly be far more aggressive and violent than the resistance to Covid-19 regulations.

From Pole to Equator, the Specter of Violence Looms

New climate realities are also expected to alter military conflicts among nations. One of the most troubling potential flashpoints could be the fast-melting Arctic, which, thanks to all that carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, will soon be wide open for fishing, resource extraction, and other activities. In fact, the United States and Russia haven’t even let the Arctic Sea finish its thaw before starting to militarize it. As Devin Speak of NPR reports,

“While indigenous communities have long thrived in communion with the land there, nation states haven’t had much presence in the northern latitudes because it hasn’t been ripe for exploitation. Until sea ice began rapidly receding, oil, gas, shipping, and minerals were all under frigid lock and key. But with dwindling sea ice, tapping the region’s resources is becoming more feasible. And in conjunction with the economic opportunities, nations are eyeing big military spending. Russia has already ramped up its military presence and the United States is playing catch-up.”

As an armed standoff in cold polar waters heats up, increased attention is being paid to climate-induced mass migration as another likely conflict trigger. After all, forecasts now suggest that if greenhouse-gas emissions aren’t reduced deeply and quickly, the climatic zones safe for humans to live in will shrink dramatically. The worst of it will happen in tropical South America and Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, parts of China, and the U.S. Sun Belt. By 2050, two to three billion people are likely to either be living in or fleeing regions that have become increasingly hostile to human existence and, by 2090, it could be three to six billion of us, or a quarter to a third of humanity. Desired destinations will include the northern United States and southern Canada, Russia, Central Asia, Korea, Japan, northern China, and northern Europe.

Consider for a moment the torrent of hate and cruelty we’ve seen in the past decade along borders between the United States and Mexico, Southeast and South Asia, and Europe and Africa. Now, imagine a 10- to 20-fold increase in long-distance migration rates and the anti-immigrant hate, violence, and even international conflict that could grip the globe in the decades to come. As a preview, just consider the fact that Republican governors in 14 states have already deployed National Guard troops to the border with Mexico for no good reason whatsoever.

In his Guardian column, Monbiot explains succinctly how climate disruption and anti-immigrant bias reinforce each other: “Round the cycle turns,” he writes. “As millions are driven from their homes by climate disasters, the extreme right exploits their misery to extend its reach. As the extreme right gains power, climate programs are shut down, heating accelerates, and more people are driven from their homes. If we don’t break this cycle soon, it will become the dominant story of our times.” It may already be the most important story, whether we realize it or not.

Climate change is likely to exacerbate violence within countries as well, simply by discombobulating us as individuals. A 2015 analysis of 57 nations found that “each degree Celsius increase in annual temperatures is associated with a nearly 6% average increase in homicides.” More recently, a review of research worldwide found that climate disruption can undermine peace by interfering with people’s mental or physiological functioning and by threatening our quality of life.

Increasingly extreme heat will also push waves of human displacement within national borders, further fanning the flames of domestic conflict. An analysis by Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica found that, as the Earth’s atmosphere warms, almost half of the U.S. population “will most likely experience a decline in the quality of their environment, namely more heat and less water. For 93 million of them, the changes could be particularly severe.” Expect many millions of us to move from the Sunbelt to, perhaps, the Great Lakes region and from rural to urban areas.

Mathew Hauer, a sociologist at Florida State University and a modeler of climate migration interviewed by Lustgarten, predicts some especially hard times for Atlanta. It’s the largest metropolitan area in the Southeast, a region in which, climate models suggest, droughts and wildfires will become far more common and severe as the decades pass. He projects that hundreds of thousands of local climate refugees will migrate from outlying areas into an urban area already experiencing overburdened water systems and a shaky infrastructure, along with the highest income inequality among large U.S. cities. All of that, writes Lustgarten, could make the future Atlanta “a virtual tinderbox for social conflict.”

Such conflict could well include the kind of state violence and oppression that’s increasingly unleashed on people and groups who are determined to protest against the systems that create climate chaos, environmental devastation, and injustice. Indeed, in Atlanta, that violence is already a reality. This winter and spring, city police shot and killed an activist and arrested 40 more for nonviolently occupying the city’s largest urban forest. They were part of a broad effort by people in low-income neighborhoods bordering the forest, environmental organizations, and racial-justice groups to head off the construction of a tactical-training center for the Atlanta police department that would occupy and devastate 85 of that woodland’s 150 acres. The coalition aims to prevent deforestation, preserve the quality of life for nearby neighborhoods, and halt the expenditure of $90 million on a facility that would hone the skills of cops who have demonstrated their willingness to kill unarmed Black people.

And mind you, those forest defenders were charged not with trespassing but with violating Georgia’s domestic terrorism law, which carries a sentence of at least five years in prison. When arrested, they were held in a jail that, reported Piper French of Bolts, “is notorious for squalid conditions and allegations of mistreatment by staff.” The defendants, who had committed no acts of violence, let alone “terrorism,” were denied bail on flimsy grounds, including accusations of merely “wearing black, having a jail support number scrawled on their arm, and having mud on their shoes,” according to French. And the basis for denying bail thanks to wearing black clothing and having on muddy shoes? That domestic terrorism law provides for something called “vicarious liability.” (In plain English, you could call it guilt by association.)

Nor did the repression stop there. Following a SWAT team’s recent raid on a southeast Atlanta home, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested three board members of an Atlanta nonprofit that was arranging legal support for those forest defenders. They were charged with money laundering and charity fraud, stretching the already dubious concept of vicarious liability even further. Writing for Jacobin, Abe Asher notes that “the intensity of the threats protesters in Atlanta are facing is reminiscent of the risks climate defenders routinely face in the Global South, where both activists and journalists are routinely jailed and killed in their defense of land and water. Of the 401 human rights defenders killed last year, nearly half were killed defending the climate.”

Violence on the Ground (and Below It)

Some of America’s domestic policies aimed at curbing climate change could also become increasingly responsible for conflict in the Global South. If, for instance, the wealthier North continues to pursue technology-heavy “green growth” climate policies, the south could suffer yet more from the inherent violence of resource extraction. The need for increasing amounts of the minerals and metals essential to building renewable energy systems and vast fleets of electric vehicles — including lithium, cobalt, copper, nickel, and rare earths — is attracting much media attention these days.

Worse yet, in the future, they are likely to become the focus of “green resource wars.” And the mining of such ores isn’t the only extractive activity that raises the threat of conflict. To take one example, if the world’s nations pursue climate-mitigation policies that depend heavily on biofuels, the ensuing fuel plantations could end up occupying a staggering quarter to a third of the world’s croplands, almost certainly displacing some essential food crops to less productive areas. And count on this: communities throughout the global south are not going to stand back and allow such potentially wholesale losses without protest.

Selina Gallo-Cruz is an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University. She recently published a paper, “Peace Studies and the Limits to Growth,” in which she laid out the ways the widespread violence and injustice implicit in the global North’s quest for growth — green or otherwise — has affected other communities around the world.

Citing the work of organizations like Global Witness in conflict zones worldwide, she points out that a significant part of the violence on this planet comes from the North’s “extraction of natural resources through mining or deforestation — palm oil plantations are a big one — and mega-, mega-agricultural projects,” all of which lead to “outbreaks of very violent conflict.” We must not, says Gallo-Cruz, fall for the specious argument that it would be unfair and cruel not to extract resources from impoverished countries, because the North needs such minerals and energy, while the South needs the revenue those resources can bring in. That argument, of course, ignores the devastation of the lands, waters, and biodiversity on which such communities depend, not to mention the violent conflict that so often threatens to become a part of resource extraction.

To sum up: There has always been violent conflict. (As striking evidence, the artist Miranda Maher has documented that over the past 2,023 years of human history, only one year, 327 AD, was completely free of open armed conflict.) But we may now be preparing to top off that sorry record with climate-induced conflict globally — from open war between nation-states to abuse of migrants at borders to hate and physical assaults that happen just down the block. And efforts to curb climate change are already provoking a right-wing backlash that encourages civil conflict while bringing state violence down on climate activists. Meanwhile, corporate efforts to achieve climate-friendly growth end up inflicting the violence that accompanies resource extraction on the world’s poorest regions, creating conditions for… yes, yet more conflict.

In short, industrial civilization has by now painted the world into a perilous corner. The only way out of this mess would be for affluent societies to deeply reduce their consumption of energy and extraction of material resources, but don’t hold your breath on that one.


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