Perhaps the 234 scientists behind this week’s landmark climate assessment had hoped that their report—published during a summer of deadly flooding, wildfires, and heat waves—would act as a wake-up call, one that would unite the world’s governments and parties.
But political consensus on the issue of climate change, much like the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, is unlikely to be achieved: Although most mainstream political parties have at the very least acknowledged the reality of human-induced climate change and the need to implement sweeping new policies to address it, several populist parties continue to reject the scientific consensus. Even those that accept it tend to oppose mainstream solutions, including multilateral efforts to address the problem.
Europe, which has experienced some of the summer’s worst climate disasters, offers a preview of the populist right’s next political battleground. What has emerged so far is not a change of heart but, rather, a shift in tone. Populist parties have traded outright denialism for the position that climate policy, like that of immigration and the coronavirus pandemic, represents yet another top-down elite agenda that stands to hit ordinary people, particularly those in the working class, the hardest.
If this line of argument sounds familiar, that’s because it is. In recent years, right-wing populists have positioned themselves as Europe’s staunchest defenders—against immigration and threats to national sovereignty; against pandemic restrictions and the influence of global institutions; and against what they regard as national governments’ hysteria over climate change, which populists have described as “degenerate fearmongering” at best and “totalitarian” at worst.
This isn’t to say that Europe’s populist right is united in its opposition to climate change. According to a 2019 study by Adelphi, an environmental-policy think tank based in Berlin, only two of Europe’s nearly two dozen right-wing populist parties—Hungary’s far-right Fidesz and Latvia’s National Alliance—explicitly support the scientific consensus on the climate crisis. But among the others, differences exist. Some, including the far-right Alternative for Germany and the Dutch Party for Freedom, reject the idea of anthropogenic global warming, whereas others, such as France’s National Rally and Spain’s Vox, have begun to advocate their own brand of nationalist environmentalism—one that supports local policies to tackle climate change but simultaneously rejects international agreements aimed at doing the same.
In practice, this means promoting conservation at the local level (through policies such as favoring local consumption and preserving limited resources) while repudiating international-led initiatives such as the Paris Agreement. In the case of Vox, it has meant advocating to preserve Spain’s “natural heritage” on the one hand and opposing efforts to rein in the country’s carbon emissions on the other.
The populist right’s about-face on climate is partly driven by politics. As voters become more attuned to the threats posed by the climate crisis, the repercussions of which are already being felt in countries such as Germany, Italy, Greece, and Spain, some of Europe’s populist parties have been forced to change tack. Vox, which once dismissed climate change as a hoax, has since promoted its own version of environmentalism as an alternative to what it describes as the “green religion” of the left. France’s National Rally has experienced a similar transition in recent years, from the climate skepticism of its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, to the identity-based environmentalism of his daughter, and the party’s current leader, Marine Le Pen.
Populist parties realize that “there are diminishing returns in playing the denialist card,” Catherine Fieschi, a political analyst who tracks dissent against climate policy in Europe, told me. Unlike issues such as immigration or the European Union, climate change simply isn’t as divisive in Europe (something that can’t be said for other parts of the world, including the United States). Until recently, it wasn’t considered a top priority for voters.
Even parties that haven’t explicitly changed course on climate change have found ways to incorporate the issue into their worldview. Climate change, after all, fits neatly within the populist narrative of the “pure people” versus the “corrupt elite.” In the populist right’s telling, green policies such as fuel taxes and decarbonization incentives represent an elitist attack on the lives of ordinary people. “Populists have been very good at saying, ‘We’re not just going to protect you from climate change,’” Fieschi said. “‘We’re going to protect you from an elite that doesn’t give a damn about the cost that climate policy is going to take on you.’”
Beyond the economic argument is another classic from the populist arsenal—the anti-expertise argument. According to Ralph Schroeder, a co-author of a recent study from the Oxford Internet Institute on the link between climate skepticism and support for right-wing populists, populist rejection of climate science “is not so much correlated with economic hardship that it may impose,” but rather with the belief that “experts shouldn’t tell us what to do.”
But perhaps the most cogent argument populists are beginning to make about climate change is one that they’ve been pushing for much of the last year: that this is another example of the establishment trying to restrict people’s basic freedoms. “It’s all the more easy to do in the wake of the pandemic,” Fieschi told me, noting the restrictive measures imposed by European governments to curb the spread of the coronavirus, many of which have been met with protests. “What [populists] are saying is ‘This is the thin end of the wedge, this pandemic thing. Now they’re going to really curtail your freedoms.’”
The biggest challenge facing this populist argument, however, is time—something that, as the United Nations climate report made clear, the world is in short supply of. Extreme weather events are becoming more common; urgency to tackle global warming will grow. While populist arguments against “climate hysteria” may provide temporary reassurance, they are no substitute for real policy solutions. For people displaced by worsening fires and floods, blaming elites will offer little comfort.