Fossil Fuels and the Threat to Liberal Democracy and Human Civilization

Time is running out for liberal democracy to step up and really deliver on the promise of a more inclusive justice that can defeat right-wing extremism.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted June 13, 2022 in Blog (Last Updated June 13, 2022)


1Decades of FUD
2Destabilize Liberal Democracy
3Resource Curse
4Common Cause
5Fertile Political Soil
6Our System is Vulnerable

The biggest threat to liberal democracy is the destabilizing propaganda war against civic solidarity being waged by fascists and supported by global fossil fuel interests and radical libertarian oligarchs.

The fossil fuel industry is staggeringly wealthy and powerful, representing many trillions of dollars of market capitalization and more than a century of entrenched influence across the political landscape and around the world.

The fossil fuel industry's business is intrinsically apocalyptic. Their core product is systematically destroying the capacity of the planet earth to sustain human civilization as we understand it, and it has been doing so since the beginning of the industrial era.

The survival of human civilization requires transitioning rapidly off fossil fuels, figuring out how to remove much of the greenhouse gases we have already pumped into the global ecosystem, and regulating the oil industry out of existence. There is simply no wiggle room here.

Needless to say, the people whose extraordinary wealth and power are tied to those trillions of dollars in fossil fuel market value really don't want the fossil fuel industry to be regulated out of existence.

1 Decades of FUD

For decades, oil industry barons have exerted their vast influence within systems of liberal democracy (and elsewhere) to undermine, stall and delay any meaningful regulation by casting as much fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) on climate science as they could.

It worked for a long time, but by now, the FUD strategy has largely run its course. For most people, it has become impossible to continue to deny global warming (not that there aren't some diehard right-wing ideologues still trying).

Late-stage denialist strategy is to acknowledge reluctantly that global warming is real, but either downplay its severity (warmer summers, yay!) or else claim fatalistically that it's too late to do anything.

Downplaying its severity is increasingly implausible as the world is rocked with ever more intense and devastating extreme weather events hitting with greater frequency and variety. Floods, droughts, wildfires, insane heatwaves, 'rain bombs' - no one thinks these are mild.

Likewise, claiming it's too late to do anything, after acknowledging everything else, is so irredeemably self-serving that it's hard to be taken seriously - especially as we see real momentum (finally) toward transitioning off oil.

2 Destabilize Liberal Democracy

So when denialism runs its course and liberal democracies are under irresistible public pressure to take real action, the next step of the oil industry strategy is to focus on undermining and destabilizing liberal democracies themselves.

And that is the stage of the oil industry strategy in which we find ourselves today.ยท

There is a through line that connects many of the political crises unfolding around the world today, from Brexit to MAGA to the multi-national white supremacist "freedom" convoys to the Ukraine war: they are all fronts in the fossil fuel industry's war on liberal democracy.

The strategic interests of Vladimir Putin and the Kochs are substantially identical: to weaken the institutions of civil society to the point that it remains incapable of regulating fossil fuel power out of existence.

3 Resource Curse

The Resource Curse is a real thing. Fossil fuel dependence produces corruption and tyranny.

It is no coincidence that right-wing fascists are obsessed with denying the reality of climate science and the global climate crisis. Fossil fuel wealth props up many of the world's worst tyrants. The worst thing that could happen to them is for us to choose to wind down our oil dependence.

When I say the Resource Curse is a real thing, I mean it is a real thing everywhere. Even liberal democracies struggle with the relentless corrupting influence of fossil fuel interests, who invest heavily in obstructing and undermining public confidence in science-based policy.

So you have, for example, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney praising Vladimir Putin not long ago for how Putin handled environmental activists in Russia.

And after an extraordinary coalition of western businesses made a principled decision to stop doing business in Russia, Koch Industries dragged their feet for months before following suit.

4 Common Cause

Russian trollbot farms and Koch-funded bullshit mills alike make common cause over their shared determination to block the kind of public consensus that threatens to regulate an industry that is literally sacrificing the future of the earth as a habitable planet for humans for profits.

And their shared campaign to destroy public confidence in broad scientific consensus does enormous collateral damage along the way - for example, the antivax antimask cult that has succeeded in deforming a coordinated public health response to the COVID pandemic.

The ecosystem of right-wing media organs and thinktanks and legislative ghostwriters and PR firms and astroturf groups and dark money PACs work together with RT, the IRC and the various bot armies that indoctrinate, rile up and amplify extremist voices.

When Putin's invasion of Ukraine first started in February and his bot farms were cut off from western social media, disinfo analysts observed that the supply of all kinds of propaganda - including antivax and anti-climate - collapsed overnight.

5 Fertile Political Soil

These parallel, mutually reinforcing movements of right-wing libertarianism and burn-it-down nihilism find fertile soil in right-wing parties, which are already ideologically predisposed to be resistant to the concept of public action in the civic interest.

While right-leaning parties increasingly diverge from reality, moderate and left-leaning parties seem unable to muster enthusiasm for the kinds of big thinking that might reinvigorate civic engagement - in part because they too are captured by narrow private interests.

Instead, they seem increasingly stuck choosing empty performative rhetoric over meaningful action on social justice and environmental sustainability. So, for example the Feds in Canada declare a climate emergency on the same day they buy a $4.5B oil pipeline.

After decades of neoliberal hollowing-out of our civic institutions and social programs, our systems are tired. The left is uninspired, while the right is wired, animated by a simple, atavistic narrative of Us and Them calculated to preclude compassion and solidarity.

The genius of conservatism as a political movement has always been its ongoing capacity to persuade people to act against their interests. The key insight is that for many people, emotional identity is more compelling than mere rationality.

6 Our System is Vulnerable

So our system is vulnerable, weakened by decades of bipartisan deregulation and divided by a parallel media universe of right-wing propaganda designed to protect the interests of the most destructive industries.

Ironically, the more harmful an industry is, the more its survival depends on the capacity to capture and deflect regulatory apparatus, and so the worst industries also have the most sophisticated and well-funded propaganda apparatus.

And thos apparatus are running flat-out, assaulting the very legitimacy of our political system, which, while disappointing in many ways, at least offers the possibility of a more humane, inclusive politics in the face of existential threats.

We are in a struggle for the future survival of human civilization. The stakes couldn't be higher. This is it. Time is running out for liberal democracy to step up and really deliver on the promise of a more inclusive justice that can defeat right-wing extremism.