Earlier this year, the leader of Germany’s ascendant far-right AfD party slammed opponents for “degenerate fear-mongering” on the environment and warned against turning Europe into “a deindustrialized settlement covered in wind turbines.” In the Netherlands, Thierry Baudet led his nationalist Forum for Democracy to the largest vote share in March elections while railing against “climate change hysteria.” And when the young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg set sail for New York in August, the self-proclaimed “bad boy of Brexit,” Arron Banks — a businessman who funds hard-line Brexit champion Nigel Farage — hinted darkly that he hoped the 16-year-old would never arrive, posting on Twitter that “freak yachting accidents do happen.”
Right-wing populist parties now on the rise across Europe are elevating opposition to climate action into a new culture war issue, American style. Some, like the Alternative for Germany, or AfD — which holds the third-largest number of seats in the Bundestag and is better known for its strident anti-immigrant views and antipathy toward Muslims — overtly reject climate science. Others say they accept it, but dismiss calls for action as overblown hysteria, arguing that carbon-cutting measures are unnecessary, unaffordable, or pointless in the face of a problem so vast.
Either way, climate is increasingly becoming a potent new political hot button as other nationalist issues — most notably Europe’s refugee crisis — have receded somewhat this year. The assault on climate policy fits neatly into the populists’ favored people-versus-the-elites messaging framework. And by disrupting consensus on the need to act, their pot-stirring threatens to weaken the ambitions of a continent that historically has sought to be a global climate leader, just as it seeks to hash out its emissions reduction and renewable energy goals for the coming decades.
The rhetoric the populists employ has long been part of the discourse in the United States, but was until recently relegated to the fringes in Europe, where established parties on both the left and right have, for the most part, at least given lip service to the need to sharply reduce carbon emissions.
Right-wing populists now hold a quarter of the seats in the European Parliament.
“There’s definitely a resurgence of climate science denial in Europe, there’s no doubt about it,” said Mat Hope, editor of DeSmog UK, an investigative journalism site that has reported on the issue. Far-right parties have long held such views, but recent electoral wins mean they now have much bigger megaphones — and the ability to influence policy. “Before, they were outsiders looking in,” Hope said. “Now they’re on the inside.”
Their success has come as Green parties have also gained ground. Such polarization increasingly characterizes European politics, said Bernhard Forchtner, an expert on far-right environmental rhetoric at the University of Leicester. The populists say they are responding to other parties’ growing focus on climate, as well as take-to-the-streets movements like the recent climate-action school strikes and Extinction Rebellion, whose protests shut down swaths of central London in April and again this month.
The populists argue that international climate agreements are “driven by a liberal cosmopolitan agenda, that they harm the little man, that it’s a new kind of religion with Greta [Thunberg] as the new pope. [The populists] can lament the loss of sovereignty” they perceive in multilateral cooperation, Forchtner said.
Those are themes the populists have sounded to powerful effect on other issues. As a complex problem that must be grasped intellectually, and that requires a global response, climate is in many ways a perfect bête noir for nationalists who excel at emotionally charged communication, Forchtner said.
Right-wing populists now hold a quarter of seats in the European Parliament, and are part of governing coalitions in eight European countries, an analysis by the Berlin-based climate think tank adelphi found. Given their numbers, populists’ votes within legislatures are less consequential than the gravitational pull they exert over mainstream conservatives. Their influence “isn’t on policy and legislation, it’s on the parties who make policy and legislation,” Hope said. “The main power of these [far-right] parties is to drag the center more towards their position.” And for Europe that could mean a softening of emissions-reduction targets and a weakening of the continent’s push for more renewable energy.
In an analysis published before the populist parties expanded their presence in the European Parliament in May elections, adelphi found they accounted for nearly half of that body’s votes against climate and sustainable energy policies. The think tank examined votes on tighter carbon dioxide limits for heavy vehicles, energy efficiency, and renewable power initiatives, and updates to Europe’s emissions trading system, among other issues.
Some saw populist pressures at work when European Union President-elect Ursula von der Leyen, after winning her new job in July with promises of a “European Green Deal,” then watered down plans to strengthen a 2030 carbon-cutting target. Hope said it was a perfect illustration of a new dynamic: With Greens and right-wing populists both flexing their muscles, von der Leyen “was forced to say something [on climate]. But at the same time, what she was saying wasn’t actually that good.”
Green parties made historic gains in Swiss Parliamentary elections this month, while voters in Umbria, in central Italy, handed a landslide victory to the far-right League in regional balloting a week later. The simultaneous rise of the Greens and the far right continues a decades-long trend of European politics growing increasingly polarized, Forchtner said. “It has certainly accelerated more recently,” he said. “Society has become more plural, and old party loyalties are fading away.”
That shift was on vivid display last weekend in Thuringia, a state in the former East Germany, where the hard-left Die Linke party and the AfD grabbed the largest and second-largest share of the vote, respectively, pushing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats into third place. The AfD also scored a second-place showing in two other eastern states, Brandenburg and Saxony, in September. But because the Greens also performed well in Brandenburg, the right’s rise would probably not threaten the state’s planned shift away from coal mining, Forchtner said.
The push and pull between Greens and the populist right “is a complex picture,” said Matthew Lockwood, a senior lecturer in energy policy at the University of Sussex. Both are more likely to win legislative seats in continental Europe, where proportional voting systems enable many parties to convert popular support into representation in legislatures, than in Britain, where the winner-take-all system tends to freeze out all but two or three dominant parties. What’s more, the Greens’ intent focus on climate can give them an advantage when wrestling over policy with right-wing populists, for whom it is one of several priorities, Lockwood said.
Contrarian climate arguments fit well with mainstream conservative parties’ appetite for regulatory rollbacks.
In many cases, contrarian climate arguments fit well with mainstream conservative parties’ appetite for regulatory rollbacks. For Britain, Brexit offers the chance to break free of the EU’s regulatory power and make its own rules. Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he wants to maintain the highest standards, but in renegotiating an exit deal he downgraded from a binding to a non-binding pledge that Britain’s regulations in areas including climate and the environment would remain closely aligned with the EU’s after Britain’s departure.
“That’s an early indication of how we expect this to go,” Hope said. Many analysts believe Johnson’s Conservatives will jump at the chance to turn post-Brexit Britain into a loosely regulated, low-tax haven. “That’s really the endgame — massive market deregulation,” Hope said.
With national elections looming, Johnson must woo supporters of Farage’s Brexit Party, which last spring won almost a third of the vote and 29 seats in the UK’s European Parliament elections. Farage has called it strange to “obsess” over carbon dioxide, and his party includes a number of politicians who reject climate science.
While immigration remains a political hot button across Europe, it is cooler than it was at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016. So populists “are looking for a new subject to polarize,” said Stella Schaller, a climate expert at adelphi. “They’ve mastered the tools of drama, emotionalization, personalization.” The recent attacks on Greta Thunberg have demonstrated those strategies.
“The language they’re using is strong — speaking of ‘eco-dictatorship,’ ‘climate hysteria’ or ‘deindustrialization,’” continued Schaller. “Those are emotional words that reach people at the gut level. We live in volatile, uncertain times with huge inequality, so these narratives meet fertile ground.”
Theo Wolters, the Netherlands-based chairman of the European Climate Realist Network, an umbrella group for organizations that argue climate science is unsettled and warming may bring benefits, said EU officials were inflating climate fears to justify further consolidation of political power in Brussels.
“This whole framing has been going on for 20 years now, [that] the end of the planet is near,” Wolters said. “The simple people, the uneducated people, they are fed up with it, they don’t believe it anymore.” Wolters added that he spoke for himself and not necessarily his network.
Many of his group’s supporters, he said, “see their grandchildren are depressed and afraid of the future because Greta Thunberg said we are going to die. You are depriving a whole generation of a positive outlook on life, and they have to be sorry they are alive.”
It is not unusual for populists to embrace a “green patriotism” that supports conservation at home.
Right-wing populism’s European rise is just one strand of a global story. From Donald Trump to Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, populists are channeling a potent brew of nationalism and conspiracy theorizing to push back against global cooperation on climate. In Australia, voters handed an unexpected victory this year to a conservative coalition that called on the support of what its leader termed the “quiet Australians.” The coalition has embraced coal and argued that the electric vehicle targets of their opponents amount to “a war on the weekend.”
The anti-immigrant Finns Party last April became the second-largest contingent in Finland’s legislature after a campaign in which one of its candidates warned that aggressive environmental policies would “take the sausage from the mouths of laborers,” an echo of Trump’s false claim that the Green New Deal would do away with cows — and hamburgers.
Sakari Puisto, a Finns Party lawmaker, struck a milder note in a phone interview. Finland’s other parties, he said, are competing to be the most radical on climate. “We think that the climate issue is very important,” but want to be cautious about policy steps, he said. “It really comes back to what is realistic and fair.”
In a policy paper, the party emphasized the need to care for “beautiful lakes and forests, clean air and nature.” It is not unusual, experts say, for populists to embrace a sort of “green patriotism,” supporting conservation at home — sometimes couched in romanticized rhetoric — while opposing international action on climate.
Wolters, the “climate realist” network chairman, predicted the culture-war intensity of Europe’s climate debate would only intensify. “I see both sides getting stronger, and the clash will follow, and has already started in my view,” he said.
Such conflict could make consensus on climate action harder to achieve. Schaller said emotive language spurs fears of change and undermines the respect and social cohesion necessary for constructive debate — and action. But populists’ eye-catching, sometimes alarming arguments may be less consequential than the decisions of those who actually hold power, she added.
“We see that conservative parties do pick up this rhetoric,” Schaller said. “It’s important to not only speak about right-wing populists, but also those forces in the center, and their lack of ambition. Because it’s still the center that decides what’s happening.”