Radicalisation and polarisation feedback on the Earth system

Radicalisation and polarisation can have feedback effects on the Earth system, destabilising it further. Authoritarian and social dominance attitudes are negatively related to environmental attitudes and support for environmental/climate change policies (Jylhä and Helmer, 2020; Stanley and Wilson, 2019; Stanley et al., 2017). Indeed, right-wing ideology has been repeatedly correlated with climate change denial (Jylhä and Hellmer, 2020; Czarnek et al., 2020; Hoffarth and Hodson, 2016; Hornsey et.al., 2016). When climate change is denied, no attempts are made to mitigate that change – on the contrary, decisions may be taken to further prop up high-emitting industries (Darian-Smith, 2023; Ekberg et al., 2023), which would fuel climate change further, contributing to yet more change in the Earth system. 

Pure climate denial (or primary climate obstruction) is, however, in retreat, and instead we see a rise in secondary and tertiary climate obstruction, which can include deliberate, often elite-driven, polarisation of societies on the issue (Cole et al., 2023; Ekberg et al., 2023; Flores et al., 2022; Mann 2021; Goldberg and Vandenberg, 2019; Kousser and  Tranter, 2018). The effects, though, are similar, because committed minorities can be sufficient to block or water-down crucial policies to deal with the climate crisis (Ekberg et al., 2023; Abou-Chadi and Krause, 2018) and lack of mitigation results in further changes in the Earth system. Committed minorities can also polarise, for instance, through deliberate misinformation (Galaz et al., 2023). Polarisation impedes cooperation required to implement mitigation policies by degrading trust and mutual understanding, and by making it difficult to engage in constructive debate toward consensus (Judge et al., 2023; Barfuss et al., 2020). Radicalisation and polarisation taking hold in a country can also affect climate mitigation efforts of the wider international community, particularly if the respective nation holds a key international position, as happened with the US under the presidency of Donald Trump (Bomberg, 2021). 

On the other hand, the effects of a violent or armed flank at the margins of the climate movement are more difficult to predict, as research on the effectiveness of this approach is inconclusive and appears to suggest a high level of context dependency (Simpson et al., 2022; Belgioioso et al., 2021; Muñoz and Anduiza, 2019; Schock and Demetriou, 2018; Tompkins, 2015). Two pathways are conceivable: 

  1. The violent flank alienates the population (Feinberg et al., 2020; Muñoz and Anduiza, 2019; Simpson et al., 2018), leading to erosion of support for the cause, greater polarisation and non-cooperation on climate policies. In this case the feedback on the Earth System could be further destabilisation due to lack of agreed mitigation policies;
  2. The violent flank forces policymakers and business leaders to respond to the demands of the moderate climate movement (Simpson et al,. 2022; Belgioioso et al., 2021) and this, through a reduction in GHG emissions, could lead to some stabilisation of the Earth system. However, the violent/armed strategy may itself result in significant human suffering.
Bezos Earth Fund University of Exeter logo
Earth Commission Systems Change Lab logo Systemiq logo
Global Tipping Points logo
Share this content