Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right party PVV, or Party for Freedom, talks to the media after a meeting with speaker of the House Vera Bergkamp, two days after Wilders won the most votes in a general election, in The Hague, Netherlands, on Nov. 24, 2023.
Geert Wilders, the anti-Islam populist who won the Dutch election in November, is best known for attacking the Muslims who comprise just over 5% of the Netherlands’ population as human “scum” whose “backward religion” amounts to a “retarded culture” based on the teachings of a “pedophile” prophet. Voters rewarded his pledges to outlaw mosques and end immigration to Europe’s sixth-largest economy by electing his party to the largest bloc in Parliament.
In its 46-page election manifesto, his far-right Freedom Party promised to stop “wasting billions on useless climate hobbies” and send “all” the “climate measures” to curb planet-heating emissions in the flood-prone nation “straight into the shredder.”
But as Wilders scrambles to moderate his stances in hopes of forming a coalition with enough center-right parties to net the votes needed to actually govern, the likely next prime minister of the Netherlands will need to quit denying the reality of climate change. If he can pull it off, he would become the first far-right leader to take power there since the end of World War II.
Tom Middendorp, the Netherlands’ former defense chief, thinks he’s the right man to persuade Wilders to begin taking planet-heating emissions seriously. And he may just start with what he saw last week on a trip to Iraq.
The retired Royal Netherlands Army general traveled across the Middle Eastern nation, where the Dutch military recently deployed more troops to help the NATO mission fighting terrorist groups like the so-called Islamic State, and saw a powder keg forming. Drought and war had driven thousands of farmers from their land and into cities like Mosul, where water was growing scarce and unrest was worsening.
“Desperate people who don’t know how to sustain their families don’t have many choices,” Middendorp told HuffPost in a wide-ranging interview by phone Tuesday morning, just days after he returned home and a month after he published the English version of his new book on the security threats global warming poses, “The Climate General.”
“One choice is you turn to criminality, which is now flourishing. Another choice is you join an extremist party, for which these fragile areas where droughts are becoming more severe are breeding grounds,” he said. “The other choice is you migrate to better areas.”
Retired General Tom Middendorp speaks during a press conference in the Hague, the Netherlands, on March 17, 2014.
The United Nations counts nearly 110 million people worldwide displaced from their homes due to conflict or disaster, including 30 million refugees and more than 5 million asylum-seekers. Of the nearly 4 million immigrants to the European Union last year, 264,000 qualified as “irregular entries” who arrived at the 27-nation bloc’s borders by land or boat. While that number represents less than 7% of total migrant flows to the continent, it’s a nearly 40% spike from 2022.
By 2050, the World Bank estimates at least 216 million people will be forced to flee their homes as climate change renders once-fertile lands in Africa, Asia and Latin America inhospitable.
“Those are enormous numbers,” Middendorp said. “They won’t all come to Europe or the Netherlands. But whatever it will be, it’ll be much more than we’re facing now.”
It’s a sign, he said, of how global warming “aggravates the problems we’re already facing.”
“That should be a reason Wilders should take climate change more seriously,” Middendorp said.
Far-right leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have long railed against climate change as ploy by left-wing treehuggers to force unpopular restrictions on consumers in the rich capital countries as a sort of collective punishment for the centuries of burning fossil fuels that added most of the greenhouse gas to the cumulative carbon mess in the atmosphere.
Like former U.S. President Donald Trump, the hardliners leading right-wing parties in Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom have for years downplayed or rejected the need to transition to energy systems that don’t generate large volumes of heat-trapping pollution as a byproduct.
But French far-right leader Marine Le Pen responded to a wave of Green Party victories in the 2019 European parliament elections by promising to remake Europe into “the world’s first ecological civilization,” insisting in an allusion to Nazi blood-and-soil rhetoric that “nomadic” people “do not care about the environment” as “they have no homeland.”
The Tata Steel steel mill close to the North Sea coast and port of IJmuiden on Oct. 5, 2023, in Velsen. Tata steel is one of the major polluters in the Netherlands in terms of CO2, nitrogen and heavy metals such as lead and mercury.
A month later, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany’s Berlin youth wing called on the far-right party’s leaders to quit denying climate change.
The following year, in a sign of thawing between the traditionally left-leaning environmentalists and the far right, Austria’s Greens joined a coalition government with an anti-immigrant party.
While Republicans in the U.S. are campaigning on repealing the clean-energy subsidies President Joe Biden enacted, the Trump-aligned former attorney general of Arizona sued the Biden administration in 2021 on the grounds that failing to enact draconian border security harmed the environment by bringing in immigrants prone to polluting. The influential right-wing broadcaster Tucker Carlson has aired segments accusing immigrants of “dirtying” the U.S. with litter.
If Trump wins the White House again this November, Middendorp said, keeping the incoming Dutch government’s climate goals on track may not be the biggest problem for Europe’s emissions.
“If there’s a big player like the U.S. saying, ‘We don’t want any agreement on climate change anymore,’ it’ll be very hard to come to global solutions,” he said. “It will really slow down the whole process.”
But the Netherlands forged much of its country by engineering waterways and dykes to remake previously underwater areas into farmland.
“We’ve been struggling with the sea and the climate for centuries. It’s the story of our life. We know how to adapt to sea-level rise, to storms, to flooding. We know how to survive in that. And we also know the importance of doing it,” Middendorp said. “Wilders also knows that. Wilders knows he needs to protect the country against the effects of climate change. If he doesn’t, he will lose voters.”
The Freedom Party platform acknowledges as much, noting that “when conditions change, we adapt” through “sensible water management, by raising dykes when necessary and by making room for the river.” But the manifesto called demands to cut planet-heating emissions in a country as small as the Netherlands “hysterical.”
But Middendorp said the far-right leader will take the concerns of the military seriously.
“I’m not an environmentalist. I’m not an activist. I’m a professional looking at projections and the signs,” he said. “I look at this from a security perspective. And a security perspective is a perspective Wilders respects.”