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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned us that this decade is our last chance. If we do not have policies in place by 2030 that are already turning greenhouse gas emissions sharply downward, we will have little chance of enjoying a prosperous and tolerant civilization, or perhaps any civilization at all, at the end of the century. We need radical changes, but what can possibly make them happen?

Book coverAnatol Lieven offers a provocative answer in his important new book, Climate Change and the Nation State: The Case for Nationalism in a Warming World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020). Lieven is a rare bird, a British professor of international politics at Georgetown University, Qatar, whose academic credentials are backed up by on-the-ground experience as a journalist in nations under stress and in actual war zones. His arguments, closely reasoned and passionate, range too widely to fully summarize here. This is not a book you should read to agree or disagree with, it is a book to push your political thinking in new directions.

Personal sacrifices to help distant unknown people?

What can motivate people to take serious action on climate? The problem, of course, is that personal sacrifices must be made. Automobile drivers, for example, need to pay higher gasoline taxes, yet even modest attempts in that direction have been flatly rejected. After all, the ones who will get the biggest benefits are impoverished families on some distant seacoast, who may not even be born yet. People will not give up much for those they have never met … will they?

Now think of a farm boy in Vermont who rushes to volunteer to join the Army when the radio tells him that bombs have fallen on Pearl Harbor, a place he never heard of on a tropical island five thousand miles away. Yes, there is something that can motivate people to make great sacrifices – to pay taxes, change their daily behavior, charge into gunfire. This force, says Lieven, is nationalism. He argues that nationalism, and nothing else, can motivate people to make the changes necessary to solve the climate problem. We will not do it for the Bangladeshis, or the “global community,” or “posterity,” but perhaps we will do it for America, or for England, or India, or wherever we find our identity as citizens. People who may think little of others can care deeply about the perpetuation of their own nation with its beloved traditions and culture, the sacred heritage bestowed by those who came before us, and which we are duty bound to pass on intact to future generations.

A need to ‘recruit a large majority of all political persuasions to the common cause’

Climate change threatens the existence of every nation state in its present form: its traditions, its culture, its very landscapes. A world three or four degrees warmer than ours would probably be a wasteland of starving refugee bands and desperate warlords with drone armies and nuclear bombs. That is the world that children now alive will inhabit when they reach retirement age, unless we join together to make basic changes – if only for the sake of national survival.

Lieven’s analysis, forcefully laid out in clear language, will disturb liberal thinkers. Wasn’t nationalism the dreadful force that tortured Europe with wars, century after century? Isn’t nationalism the poisonous ideology that sustains dictators today from Moscow to Beijing, as they rouse their people against supposed external enemies? Lieven does not dig far into these problems. He only calls on elites to abandon their Cold-War mentality as an outmoded habit, insisting that true political realism means setting chauvinism aside to address the climate emergency. As an example, he calls on the United States and China to moderate their hostility over air bases on reefs in the South China Sea, since a century from now they will be underwater anyway.

Think nationalism, rethink preconceptions

Lieven could have gone farther by noticing that for centuries the most fervently nationalist states have repeatedly been able to cooperate in joint enterprises, to wit, wars. Alliances against a common enemy have been the rule when the enemy poses an existential threat to each separately. That is precisely our situation with climate change. The nation state does not have to be an obstacle to action, it can be the means to enact it.

The sort of nationalism Lieven hopes will motivate people to work together and make sacrifices is our deep love of our homeland, our traditions, our common aspirations. He might have called this force “patriotism.” By deliberately endorsing “nationalism,” a term increasingly co-opted by the right wing in Europe and the United States, he aims to push liberals to rethink some preconceptions that alienate them from many of their fellow citizens. Heaping scorn on nationalism will only drive away people whose support is vital. For we cannot solve the climate problem unless we recruit a large majority of all political persuasions to the common cause.

In particular, Lieven warns that we must accept and even approve a nationalism within distinct national boundaries. That means restricting immigration. All the more so, he notes, in the future if artificial intelligence reduces employment even as climate change raises the pressure of refugees from regions ruined by drought and/or civic breakdown.

Lieven similarly decries identity politics. Grouping people by racial or sexual or ethnic identity and placing such identities in the forefront, he argues, undermines his project of national unity. Likewise liberal attempts to arouse a global movement of the downtrodden against predatory capitalism are “simply silly,” Lieven maintains; “nothing of the sort is occurring.” Whatever the theoretical merits of such projects, in the current situation they are divisive, and we must have unified nation states to act effectively against climate change. If we do not solve that problem, liberals will lose everything they treasure anyway.

Speaking directly on current politics, Lieven is deeply worried that some elements of leftist rhetoric are driving many into the arms of the right in both Europe and the United States. If Lieven had been writing after this summer’s uprising against racism in the United States, however, he might have conceded that such movements can actually be helpful, at least in the American context. For the centuries-long American project is explicitly against defining citizenship by racial, ethnic, or any other personal identity. We can describe opposition to racism and other injustices as a call for national solidarity. This may be hard (and even harder in Europe) but it is possible and necessary. Lieven did write recently enough to address the Green New Deal. He endorses it, provided we can make it a rallying point for action, a specifically nationalist/patriotic unifying enterprise.

Need to advance equality and democracy

There is a danger that conceding to the right on issues like immigration may leave too much in place. It is essential to confront the entrenched structure of radically unequal wealth and corporate power, for this structure stubbornly blocks the policy changes we must make to survive as a nation. Lieven does not directly address the economic and political system, but he does warn that elites are stuck in patterns no longer appropriate to our situation, and he sees nationalism as the only force that can overcome their resistance. I would add that the way forward must include recognizing how racism and other prejudices shore up the power structure. Forging a national solidarity that embraces all citizens will necessarily involve reforms that promote equality and democracy.

After all, there is something besides patriotism that throughout history has inspired multitudes to sacrifice to a common cause, to risk their very lives: freedom, liberty, democracy. A future with countless starving refugees and interminable disasters will have little room for democracy. Ruthless elites will amass power while everyone else sinks – a world of vast inequality, failed states, desperate tyrants with nuclear weapons. Sharing this vision of the future could unite the great majority of citizens in democratic nations.

Lieven could have added yet another element to his argument by admitting the full extent of our peril. Most scientists agree that if we allow emissions to continue, we risk triggering feedbacks (for example, greenhouse gases escaping from warming tundra and wildfires) that will irreversibly add yet another two or three degrees of heat. On such a planet, a century or so from now, there might be no place where any group of humans could physically survive. Is the risk one chance in a hundred? One in ten? Nobody knows, but the risk is real. Even people indifferent to the fate of their nation and of democracy may be appalled at that prospect. What becomes of the deepest meaning of our lives, if our indifference dooms the entire future of intelligent life in this corner of the universe?

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Lieven would answer that we cannot rely on gauzy abstractions when only nationalism is a proven inspiration to prodigious sacrifice. But we can accept his argument without neglecting other motivations that may inspire people to act – not for themselves nor even their country, but to perpetuate democracy, civilization, humanity itself. Pointing out the risk to the entire human prospect extends to a larger scale the positive features of nationalism, what Lieven persuasively identifies as an essential tool for our survival.

Also available on Amazon.

Spencer Weart is emeritus Director of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics. His publications include The Discovery of Global Warming and a much larger history/science website.