Climate authoritarians and the lessons of history

To their own peril as well as everyone else's, climate alarmists are increasingly embracing authoritarianism.

A rump group of the environmental movement has always been wedded to authoritarianism.  Going back to the beginnings of the environmental movement, Progressive-era politicians such as President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the newly created U.S. Forest Service, believed that democracy and markets were both ill-suited to manage natural resources.  Progressives believed natural resources should be controlled, developed, and conserved by elite scientific managers and bureaucrats unbeholden to the wishes of the public.

Later, as detailed by Alston Chase in his powerful book In a Dark Wood, many Nazis were at least in part inspired by an expansive vision of environmental purity.

Although few if any progressives were full-on misanthropes, there have always been some of these within the environmental movement, pushing for increasingly extreme actions in defense of the environment and against human use of natural resources.  The misanthropic wing of the movement has referred to humanity as "a cancer," "a virus," and "a parasite," with some openly hoping for a killer virus to come along and wipe out most of humanity.  Eco-philosopher Arne Naess, who coined the term "deep ecology," said the ideal human population on Earth is 200 million, and he called for policies and personal actions to achieve that goal as soon as possible.  Others have estimated the "optimal" human population as 1.5 to two billion people and claimed this justifies population engineering, including both "active" and "passive" means to get there.

Now even the academic literature is embracing climate authoritarianism as the world's allegedly last best hope to avert supposedly apocalyptic climate change.

The Cambridge University Press journal, the American Political Science Review, recently published an article, "Political Legitimacy, Authoritarianism, and Climate Change," which begins by asking, "Is authoritarian power ever legitimate?"  The author, Ross Mittiga, answers with a resounding "yes!"  Pointing to the restrictions many governments established in response to COVID-19 as the type of emergency justifying authoritarian limits on freedom, the author states, "Climate change poses an even graver threat to public safety.  Consequently, I argue, legitimacy may require a similarly authoritarian approach."

Mittiga says climate change is a greater threat than COVID-19 and therefore justifies long-term restrictions on life choices even stricter than those imposed over the past two years.  How the public will respond to that might best be judged by the visible street protests to ongoing or newly imposed restrictions in Europe and elsewhere, and the people widely flouting mask mandates, fighting vaccine mandates, and publicly sharing information about adverse vaccine reactions and COVID-19 cases among the fully vaccinated in the United States.  This type of pushback presents a problem for Mittiga unless the type of authoritarian solutions he supports are much more like those of North Korea, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, China under Mao, and Russia under Stalin than what the liberal democracies have dared to attempt thus far.

Based on the evidence, I believe that no climate crisis is in the offing, that science shows that the modest warming of the past century and any reasonably expected warming in the coming century have not caused calamity or even worsening weather extremes and are unlikely to do so.  But even if I'm wrong, authoritarianism is the worst possible response to the climate crisis.

Climate alarmists praise China, ignoring the fact that it produces more greenhouse gases than every other industrialized economy on Earth combined, and its emissions are growing.

People like Mittiga and others who embrace authoritarianism as a solution to the climate crisis somehow believe they will be the anointed ones wielding power if liberal democracies are displaced by authoritarian governments.  I'm sure Robespierre and Trotsky felt the same, but history tells a very different story.  China's treatment of its environmental protesters should be a cautionary lesson.  Environmentalism doesn't thrive under authoritarian rule.

If climate alarmists help bring down liberal democracies around the globe and replace them with authoritarian rule, they will most likely enjoy a fate similar to that suffered by Ernst Röhm and the Brownshirts when Hitler no longer needed them and perceived them as a threat to his power.

History shows revolutions resulting in dictatorships typically eat their children and those who they overthrew alike, indiscriminately and with equal fervor and self-perceived righteous indignation.

Authoritarianism is bad, regardless of the cause it purportedly serves.  Painting evil green does not make it better.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ( is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

Image: Pixabay.

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