Increasingly I’ve found myself thinking that the combination of far-right and conspiracy-theorist movements we’ve seen grow during the pandemic is a dress rehearsal for what we’ll see once the impact of climate change becomes more significant.
The global pandemic has brought about abrupt changes that have disrupted our usual way of life, occurring in a time of massive wealth inequality. Conspiracy theories have emerged claiming the pandemic is a hoax to usher in a new economic order for the benefit of sinister elites, and there has been a willing audience for those theories. While white supremacy, Islamophobia, xenophobia and anti-Semitism are ideas with deep roots, and the fear of white people becoming a minority has been around for at least a century,
In 2021, the wealthiest 20 per cent of New Zealand’s households owned 69 per cent of the wealth. Between 2018 and 2021, households in that 20 percent increased their median wealth by $313,000, while the median wealth of the bottom 20 per cent increased by $3000. Those who benefit from the established economic order will react strongly to any perceived threat to their wealth and power. We saw this with attendees at Groundswell protests reacting to the Clean Car Discount rebate scheme and other environmental protection policies by deriding a centrist prime minister as a communist and declaring New Zealand was becoming a Venezuela or Zimbabwe.
We also saw how quickly the conspiracy-theory crowd got amongst it, searching for recruits to the conspiracy that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by self-serving scientists and sinister globalists. While those who have benefited from being able to externalise the environmental costs of their businesses (for example, farmers who have not had to pay for the impacts of methane emissions) will make the most noise about any environmental regulations they have to adhere to, it is the poor who will be worst affected by any climate-change-related price increase on transport, food and other necessities, things that could be caused either by compliance costs with environmental regulations or by climate-change-related weather events affecting production. Again, the conspiracy theorists are there to tell them this is all a hoax, carried out by malevolent elites.
Perhaps more significantly, though, climate change and related natural disasters are going to cause people to move, and many of them will move across national borders. Estimates predict there could be as many as 1.2 billion displaced people by 2050, making the 2015 refugee crisis, which saw 1.3 million people seek asylum in Europe, look tiny in comparison. Observing how a significant number of people in the Western world reacted to the northern migration that occurred in 2015, electing politicians like Trump and Orbán, and creating a climate of increased xenophobia.
The shift from Covid conspiracy to climate conspiracy is already under way. “Covid is not *the* agenda”, read a post on a conspiracy-theorist Telegram channel quoted by the Daily Beast. The agenda was, according to the channel, much bigger, incorporating “race chaos, LGBT stuff … fake environmentalist climate change bullshit … mass migration, human rights, etc.”
Glen Beck, a former Fox News host who now has his own media platform, Blaze Media, has hosted shows with graphics reading “Covid-19 Pandemic + Climate Change ‘Crisis’= The Great Reset.” Beck alleges that the Great Reset will “use the threat of Covid and climate change to force private businesses and corporations into bending the knee to their government overlords’.
Conspiracy theories centred around the Great Reset were promoted in Australia by Sky News as early as 2020, with one host, Rowan Dean, describing it as “a hardcore leftist eco-horror show replete with quasi fascism”. The conservative news network has a small reach compared with other Australian news outlets, but has found a dedicated audience among the anti-vaccine and conspiracy theorist community (in 2021, the Sky News YouTube channel was suspended for a week for airing Covid-19 misinformation).
People who had been primed to distrust settled science and the international organisations during the pandemic are now doubting the reality of climate change
The network also exerts influence over the far-right fringe of Australian politics. Sharing a video clip of Dean’s comments on her Facebook page, Pauline Hanson, leader of the One Nation party, wrote that “Australia should have nothing to do with this so-called ‘great reset’; furthermore, Australia should remove itself from the Paris climate agreement and any other international agreement that doesn’t put the interests of Australians first and foremost!”
People who had been primed to distrust settled science and the international organisations during the pandemic were now doubting the reality of climate change. “This whole campaign of fear and propaganda is an attempt to try and drive some agenda,” Matthew, a British man now living in New Zealand, told the BBC. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s climate change or a virus or something else.” During the pandemic, Matthew had joined Telegram group The White Rose. The group uses stickers with slogans such as “Resist the New Normal” and “Real Men Don’t Wear Masks”, as well as objectively false statements such as “There Is No Pandemic”, to advertise itself.
Matthew first joined the group after seeing one of these stickers, and now places them on lamp posts around his home near Auckland. He told the BBC reporter of his beliefs about the Great Reset, claiming it would usher in a ‘super-government’ that will control the lives of the world’s citizens. A lot of people have someone like Matthew in their lives.
When I began writing this book, I asked people what they wanted to learn from a book about New Zealand’s alternative right. Two issues came up again and again. One was wondering about the funding sources for groups like Voices for Freedom and media platforms like Counterspin. While impossible to know for sure, it appears the most likely source is members and supporters making donations – probably no billionaire backers from overseas, despite the international links these groups have.
The other question was how to pull people back out of a conspiracy rabbit hole. Of the hundreds (possibly thousands) of people who attended the occupation of Parliament grounds or the other anti-lockdown/anti-mandate protests around the country, and the tens of thousands more who are in Facebook and Telegram groups dedicated to conspiracy theories, most will have family members and friends who have tried to prevent them going down this path.
The evidence shows that bringing people out of that space is no easy task. It’s comparable to helping someone escape a cult; they can only leave when they want to leave, but it’s at that point they need friends and family – outside of that world – to be there for them, ready to forgive mistakes, make amends and move forward.
After the Christchurch mosque attack, Caleb Cain, the young American man who, in his words, “fell down the alt-right rabbit hole” due to the plethora of alt-right content available and seeing how he was someone who was susceptible to it, now speaks out about the alt-right and the dangers of radicalisation. I reached out to him after his first YouTube video, thanking him for what he was doing.
I saw a little of myself in Cain. Had I been a bit younger, and a few factors had been different, maybe I might have fallen down a rabbit hole, too. Instead, my own political radicalisation was a left-wing route. As a susceptible teen around the time of the 9/11 attacks, I became an activist against the war in Iraq, and, while experiencing some of the harsh realities of being part of the working class in New Zealand, working in a fast-food joint, I joined a socialist group when I was 18. The group had its heyday in the late 2000s, organising protests and conferences, being active in students’ associations and contesting local and national elections, even signing up enough members to be on the ballot in 2008.
We face the greatest challenge humanity has encountered, and to make it harder, we do so in a world where people increasingly have not just a difference of political opinion but also differences in terms of the reality they live in
It was during this period that New Zealand’s first use of the anti-terrorism legislation was deployed, with police raids on the community of Ruatoki in the eastern Bay of Plenty and a property in Wellington that was well known as a hub of anarchist politics and protest. Charges were later dropped against everyone who was arrested. The group I was in was not targeted, but in the aftermath of those events there was widespread distrust of the state and its counter-terrorism powers, which had been utilised against tino rangatiratanga activists and others on the political left.
Some wanted to challenge the state and its monopoly on the idea of who is a terrorist. A decision was made to raise money for a militant group in occupied Palestine. As a young man I believed, incorrectly, that this group had put down their weapons and joined the peaceful political process, like the ANC in South Africa or Sinn Féin in Ireland. As far as I’m aware, not only did the Palestinian group never actually receive any money but also the New Zealand state never attempted to challenge the fundraiser, making the whole exercise futile.
This hasn’t stopped members of New Zealand’s far-right, who found an advertisement for the fundraiser in the group’s magazine The Spark (specifically, in the first issue that I edited), claiming that I give money to terrorists. It was the terror attack in Christchurch that spurred my activism focused on the far-right, but I do it in part because I know first-hand how people, perhaps young men especially, can acquire political beliefs that lead to them thinking violence is justified in the name of a cause, or turning a blind eye to the violent aspects of a movement they belong to or ideologies they adhere to.
The political left is as susceptible to disinformation as the right. Many people who, like myself, were part of the anti-war movement at the time of the US invasion of Iraq, developed a geopolitical worldview opposed to US imperialism, and by extension the actions of NATO countries. By the 2020s, this has led to people on the ‘anti-imperialist’ left, including intellectuals and journalists I once held in high regard, repeating the falsehoods of the Putin regime regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, causing many of them to hold almost the same position on the war as the dezinformatsiya that influenced members of the far-right.
As the world around us starts to look increasingly unfamiliar and the future increasingly uncertain, black-and-white narratives that provide an enemy to fight against, be it the imperialists, the communists, the globalists, or a vaguely defined elite that somehow incorporates all the above, become appealing. While a person can be de-radicalised, we’re not looking at an individual problem, we’re looking at a fundamentally social one. This means we require a solution that isn’t just focused on individuals. Education that teaches critical thinking and media literacy can be part of it, but it can’t be the entire solution. Ultimately, we need to tackle the major issues of our time: wealth inequality – both within nations and between them – and the consequences of climate change.
Regarding the latter, adaptation to our warmer world has to be done in such a way that it doesn’t exacerbate the former. Solutions to climate change that put the burden on the world’s poor will lead to further radicalisation, in all its forms. We face the greatest challenge humanity has encountered, and to make it harder, we do so in a world where people increasingly have not just a difference of political opinion but also differences in terms of the reality they live in.
I can’t possibly provide the answers to this problem, but I implore you to think about what you can do to be part of the solution, and not to delay.
Taken with kind permission from the concluding chapter of Fear: New Zealand’s hostile underworld of extremists by Byron Clark (HarperCollins, $37) is available in bookstores nationwide.