Climate Change and the Nation State: The Realist Case

Anatol Lieven

Allen Lane, £20

Review by Jamie Maxwell

Climate change has traditionally been a cause for the left. In recent years, however, the right has begun to take it seriously, too. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally,” Jordan Bardella, a spokesman for France’s ultra-conservative National Rally party, remarked last year. “It is through them that we will save the planet.”

In his new book, Climate Change And The Nation State, the journalist Anatol Lieven maps out a response to the environmental crisis that draws on both the radical social democracy of Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal and the burgeoning “eco-nationalism” of Europe’s reactionary populists.

For Lieven, global warming is principally a security threat; an existential challenge to the basic political stability of Western states. Rising sea waters will flood coastal cities. Surging temperatures will generate droughts and famines. Wildfires will destroy vast swathes of agricultural land. The result? An unprecedented exodus of climate refugees from the global south to the industrially-advanced north by the middle of this century.

If the democracies of Europe and North America are serious about surviving the “menace” of international climate chaos, he says, they will need to do three things: restructure their economies to maximise human welfare and eliminate carbon emissions; embrace strong central governments, anchored by a renewed sense of patriotic duty and shared national sacrifice; and abandon liberal shibboleths like open immigration and multicultural citizenship in favour of enhanced social cohesion and draconian border controls.

In short, Lieven’s solution to the challenge of ecological breakdown is a sweeping revival of nationalist politics — although not, he is keen to stress, of the ethnic variety. Instead, a “new ethic of social solidarity” that cuts across “lines of race and class” will have to emerge that binds society together in the face of protracted global disruption.

“As states elsewhere crumble, the need to preserve [Western democratic freedoms] will become more and more evident,” he writes. “This may seem a bleak vision, but there’s not much sense in warning of climate disaster and then suggesting it is going to be nice and cuddly.”

There’s no denying the prescience of Lieven’s analysis. In the last few weeks, as the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated, countries around the world have imposed radical restrictions on individual liberty and economic activity. At least a quarter of the world’s population is in lockdown. The border between France and Germany has been shut. In Britain, as in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, the government has stepped in to pay the wages of millions of private-sector workers.

To the extent that Covid-19 is a dress rehearsal for climate change, Lieven is right to argue that nation-states are the only institutions capable of staving off imminent social and economic collapse. He makes a useful point, too, about how external crises can have an abruptly unifying effect on otherwise divided political communities.

But his logic goes off the rails when he lays the blame for the West’s complacent approach to global warming at the feet of millennial identity politics and mass immigration. “Climate activism has become associated with the liberal sacralization of different identities and gratuitous attacks on conservative symbols,” he says. This has in turn “alienated” white working-class voters at the precise moment the left needs to win them over.

In reality, the failure of countries like Britain and the US to move more rapidly towards zero-carbon reflects the overwhelming power of the oil and gas sector and the chronic indifference of rightwing nationalist leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, not the supposedly counteractive influence of liberals and foreigners.

Lieven offers a sobering account of the climate crisis, how dramatically it is going to reshape human life, and how quickly that transformation is likely to take effect. But his misguided focus on abstract cultural issues at the expense of material economic ones illustrates why conservative isolationism, bolstered by a few progressive adornments, won’t solve anything in the long run.