Last November, Tucker Carlson invited Justin Haskins, the editorial director of the Heartland Institute, to discuss climate change on his popular talk show. The Heartland Institute is a climate-denial think tank, and given Fox News’s penchant for climate misinformation, the appearance of one of its representatives on the channel was hardly surprising. According to a report by Public Citizen, a watchdog group, “The millions of Americans who tune into Fox News are regularly bombarded with messages intended to undermine climate science, cast climate advocates as hysterical and frame climate policy as dangerous and un-American.”
The episode offered something different from Fox’s usual slant, however. Haskins’s rhetoric departed from climate denialism, pure and simple, in favor of blaming immigrants for causing environmental damage—an ideology known as the “greening of hate.” Supposing that climate change really is human-caused, Haskins mused, then why let in all those immigrants from countries like Mexico and Guatemala, where CO2 emissions per person are way lower than in the US? Carlson jumped in: “Isn’t crowding your country the fastest way to despoil it, to pollute it, to make it a place you wouldn’t want to live?”
Both men were repeating lines of argument routinely deployed by the Tanton network, a collection of more than a dozen anti-immigration groups founded or funded by John Tanton, a wealthy ophthalmologist from Michigan. Tanton, who died last summer, believed that the root cause of environmental destruction is overpopulation by the wrong sorts of people. To protect both nature and the nation, one must preserve white supremacy by keeping immigrants out.
Tanton was a shrewd political operator who, in the seventies, was a leader of the Sierra Club and the Zero Population Growth organization. He was a clever fundraiser, too; over the years he secured generous financial backing from Cordelia Scaife May, an heiress to the Mellon family fortune. With her support, he set up multiple anti-immigration organizations, including the influential Federation for American Immigration Reform, Numbers USA, and Center for Immigration Studies (CIS).
Tanton lured mainstream environmentalists into the nativist camp by exploiting the public’s fears of overpopulation and environmental doom. He was successful at first, but in the nineties the Tanton network’s attempts to take over the Sierra Club ran up against resistance from a coalition of progressive activists. (Full disclosure: I was part of that coalition.)
The network remained largely off the radar of liberal media outlets until the election of President Donald Trump. A number of top Trump advisers and appointees—Stephen Miller, Kellyanne Conway, and Jeff Sessions, to name a few—have close ties to the Tanton network. So far, the anti-immigrant messages emanating from the White House and right-wing media have leaned on economic and security narratives rather than Tanton’s environmental arguments. But the Carlson-Haskins exchange from November offers a preview of how the political calculus could change.
Outright climate denial is falling, even among Republicans. A recent Pew Research Center poll of Americans’ views on climate and energy found that 67 percent of the public thinks that the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change. Predictably, 90 percent of Democrats believe this, as opposed to 65 percent of moderate to liberal Republicans and 24 percent of conservative Republicans. But Republicans are also split along generational and gender lines. More than half of millennial and Gen Z Republicans want more government action, compared to less than a third of boomers and those older. And Republican women are significantly more likely to favor climate action than Republican men. As the direct impacts of climate change become ever more apparent in severe heat waves, storms, wildfires, droughts, and coastal flooding, climate denial is likely to become an increasingly hard sell.
The European right is facing similar challenges, and some parties are adapting their positions on climate change. Last spring, the youth wing of Alternative for Germany, the country’s largest ultra-right party, called on its leadership to reexamine climate skepticism after the party received a poor showing in the European Parliament elections compared to the Greens. In Austria, a new coalition government has formed between the conservative People’s Party and the progressive Greens. The People’s Party has pledged to crack down on Muslims and immigrants; it has also committed to the Greens’ goal to make Austria carbon-neutral by 2040.
If political necessity forces the US Republican Party in this same direction, the Tanton network stands ready to help. Its main think tank, the CIS, served as an important source of immigration-
related disinformation for the 2016 Trump campaign. CIS has also carefully cultivated access to the liberal press by cloaking its agenda in the neutral language of research studies and statistics. A study by Define American and the MIT Center for Civic Media found that from 2014 to 2018, more than 90 percent of references to CIS in the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today were made “without contextual information as to the nature of the group or its ties to the Trump administration.” In January, the New York Times ran an anti-immigration op-ed written by a member of CIS who identified himself, in the headline, as a “liberal.” It was likely an attempt to spin the organization’s image away from a less favorable label: being named a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Blaming immigrants for causing environmental damage is an ideology known as
the “greening of hate.”
How the conservative media treats climate change matters deeply. The views of moderate Republicans who favor bipartisan action on climate change, whether through taxing carbon, investing in alternative energies, or improving infrastructure, warrant far more space than they’re getting in right-wing outlets like Fox and Breitbart as well as in conservative newspapers like the Wall Street Journal.
At the same time, liberal media need to play a much stronger role in educating the public about the key issues and debates that will emerge when the federal government finally gets serious about establishing a national climate policy. Years of climate denial have left the public largely illiterate about the brass tacks of an effective and equitable transition away from fossil fuels.
It’s of equal and vital importance that liberal media expose the influence of the Tanton network. To guarantee close and continuous scrutiny of the network, why not assign reporters to a “Tanton beat”? Only a few days after the Times published the CIS op-ed, a Tanton network litigator wrote on the organization’s website that immigration-caused population growth drives carbon emissions, pollution, and destruction of open space in the US. We must correct this narrative rather than giving disinformation a platform.
The environmental stakes are high. The stakes are also high for the safety and security of immigrants. The white-supremacist shooters who went on killing sprees last year in El Paso, Texas, and Christchurch, New Zealand, rationalized their deadly violence against immigrants in part on environmental grounds. “The environment is getting worse by the year,” the El Paso shooter lamented in his manifesto. “Most of y’all are just too stubborn to change your lifestyle. So the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources.” The Christchurch shooter wrote that he was an ecofascist concerned about the threats of climate change, overpopulation, and immigration: “They are the same issue, the environment is being destroyed by over population, we Europeans are one of the groups that are not over populating the world. The invaders are the ones over populating the world. Kill the invaders, kill the overpopulation and by doing so save the environment.”
As outright climate denial diminishes among conservatives, we can expect the Tanton network to renew its focus on the environment to push anti-immigrant policies—cloaking the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Now is the time to prevent a serious resurgence of the greening of hate.