The far-right's vision of environmentalism has long roots in the U.S. The modern environmental movement and the far-right movement might appear to be on opposing sides of the political ideology spectrum. But overlap does exist and researchers say it's growing.

The far-right and environmentalism overlap is bigger than you think — and growing

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Picture two circles. One is the modern environmental movement, and the other is the far-right movement, including anti-immigrant and white supremacist groups. In the Venn diagram with these two circles, how much do you think they overlap?

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part of Making America Great again is making it green again.

MARK BRNOVICH: We know there's information out there that says that every time someone crosses the border, they're leaving between six and 8 pounds of trash in the desert. Now, this trash...

TUCKER CARLSON: Illegal immigration comes at a huge cost to our environment.

SHAPIRO: Researchers say this intersection between the far right and environmentalism is bigger than many people realize, and it's growing.

ALEX AMEND: As climate change kind of turns up the heat, there's going to be all sorts of new, kind of political contestations around these issues.

SHAPIRO: Alex Amend used to track hate groups at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and these days he researches ecofascism. He says, once you start to look at this overlap, you find two big misconceptions.

AMEND: One, that the right is always a climate denialist movement, and two, that environmental politics are always going to be left-leaning.

SHAPIRO: Let's take those one at a time, starting with the idea that the far right always rejects environmental arguments. Conservative leaders have certainly denied climate change in the past...

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RUSH LIMBAUGH: Because this is a worldwide hoax.

SHAPIRO: ...From Rush Limbaugh to Donald Trump.

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DONALD TRUMP: It is. It's probably getting a little bit warmer. And then in a number of years or decades, it'll get a little bit cooler.

SHAPIRO: But today, a different argument is becoming more common on the conservative political fringe.

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SHAPIRO: On the podcast, "The People's Square," a musician who goes by Stormking described his vision for a far-right reclamation of environmentalism.

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STORMKING: Right-wing environmentalism in this country is mostly - especially in more modern times - an untried attack vector.

BORZOI BOSKOVIC: Yeah.

STORMKING: And it has legs, in my opinion.

SHAPIRO: Attack vector is an apt choice of words because this ideology has been used in literal attacks.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ay, no.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Unintelligible).

SHAPIRO: In El Paso, Texas, in 2019, a mass shooter killed more than 20 people and wounded more than 20 others. He told authorities he was targeting Mexicans, and he also left behind a manifesto - quote, "the decimation of the environment is creating a massive burden for future generations." The shooter wrote, if we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable. He titled that manifesto An Inconvenient Truth, which was also the name of Al Gore's Oscar-winning 2006 documentary about climate change.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: KTAR News, Newsmaker.

SHAPIRO: Anti-immigrant environmental arguments pop up in more official places, too, like court filings.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: We are talking with Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich about his new lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that stopping wall building is a violation of the Environmental Protection Act.

SHAPIRO: Local news station KTAR interviewed Arizona Attorney General Brnovich last year about this case. Brnovich argued that because migrants leave trash in the desert, a border wall is needed to protect the environment.

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BRNOVICH: That trash is a threat to wildlife. It's a threat to natural habitat.

SHAPIRO: To be clear, mainstream environmental organizations take the opposite view - that a wall will harm ecosystems on the border. This strain of anti-immigrant environmentalism may be growing today, but it isn't new. And that brings us to misconception No. 2 - that environmental politics are always left-leaning. The truth is eco-fascism has a long history in the U.S. and in Europe. Blair Taylor is a researcher at the Institute for Social Ecology.

BLAIR TAYLOR: The idea that natural purity translates into racial or national purity, that was one that was very central to the Nazis' environmental discourse.

SHAPIRO: Quote, unquote, "unspoiled forest" goes hand in hand with racial purity or something like that.

TAYLOR: Yeah, yeah.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, the Nazis saw themselves as environmentalists. In the '90s when Taylor started reading books about the environmental movement, he stumbled upon some ideas that seemed very wrong.

TAYLOR: There is this earlier very nativist, exclusionary and racist history of environmental thought that was very much based on this idea of nature as a violent, competitive and ultimately very hierarchical domain where, you know, white Europeans were at the top. So that's been rediscovered, I think, by the alt-right.

SHAPIRO: Taylor was kind of horrified to learn that in some ways, the environmental movement was founded on ideas of white supremacy. The word ecology was even coined by a German scientist, Ernst Haeckel, who also contributed to the Nazis' ideas about a hierarchy of races. And this history applies to the United States, too.

DORCETA TAYLOR: I am the author of "The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection."

SHAPIRO: That's Yale University professor Dorceta Taylor. Her research helped reveal this American environmental history that had not been widely known.

D TAYLOR: We see a taking of Native American lands to turn into park spaces that are described as empty, untouched by human hands, pristine, to be protected. So this is where the language of preservation really crosses over into this narrative of exclusion.

SHAPIRO: Taylor read the notes and diaries of early American environmentalists and learned that the movement to preserve natural spaces in the U.S. was partly motivated by a backlash against the racial mixing of American cities.

D TAYLOR: White elites, especially white male elites, wanted to leave the spaces where there was racial mixing, and this discomfort around a racially mixed neighborhood infuses the discourse of those early conservation leaders.

SHAPIRO: So the connections between environmentalism and xenophobia in the U.S. are long and deep. In recent years, some prominent groups have begun to publicly confront their own exclusionary history, like the Sierra Club.

HOP HOPKINS: We're not going to just pretend that the problem is not happening. We're actively going to begin to do the responsible thing and then begin to address it.

SHAPIRO: Hop Hopkins is the Sierra Club's director of organizational transformation. And the organization went through its own transformation. In the 20th century, the group embraced racist ideas that overpopulation was the root of environmental harm. In fact, in 1998 and again in 2004, anti-immigrant factions tried to stage a hostile takeover of the Sierra Club's national board. They failed, but the group learned a lesson from those experiences. You can't just ignore these ideas or wish them away.

HOPKINS: We need to be educating our base about these dystopian ideas and the scapegoating that's being put upon Black, Indigenous and people of color, working-class communities, such that they're able to identify these messages that may sound like they're environmental, but we need to be able to discern that they're actually very racist.

SHAPIRO: Do you ever encounter people who say, I believe in the environmental movement; I believe in the racial justice movement; these two things have nothing to do with each other?

HOPKINS: I encounter it on a daily basis, and that's part of the reason why I do the work that I do.

SHAPIRO: That work goes beyond identifying the racism and bigotry in the environmental movement. It also means articulating a vision that can compete with eco-fascism. Because as climate change increases, more people will go looking for some narrative to address their fears of collapse, says professor Emerita Betsy Hartmann of Hampshire College.

BETSY HARTMANN: If you have this apocalyptic doomsday view of climate change, the far right can use that doomsday view to its own strategic advantage. So we're letting an opening happen that doesn't need to be there.

SHAPIRO: In a way, the threat of eco-fascism has something in common with climate change itself. The problem is visible now, and there's time to address it. But the longer people wait, the harder it's going to be.

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