The first polls are in. The upcoming European Parliament elections could deliver up to 25 percent of seats to Euroskeptic right-wing populist forces like Italy’s League party, France’s National Rally (formerly the National Front), and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland. With such parties already members of governing coalitions in seven European Union member states, influencing national and European policy agendas, the risk to climate-change policy is evident.
According to a new report, seven of 21 right-wing populist parties in Europe explicitly question climate science, while 11 take either no stand or an inconsistent approach. During the last two legislative terms, the majority of right-wing populist parties voted against every EU climate and sustainable-energy policy proposal.
Meanwhile, the consequences of inaction — already growing in severity in many parts of the world — are beginning to bite in Europe. Last summer’s extreme droughts contributed to forest fires in Greece, Portugal, and Sweden, and crop failures in the Baltics, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and Scotland. Fish suffocated in the Rhine river. The economic losses, particularly in agricultural production and domestic maritime transportation, amounted to billions of euros.
These are mere previews of what is to come if aggressive action is not taken urgently. Yet, rather than addressing the climate challenge, right-wing populist parties are seeking to win support by stoking existing frustrations with the ‘ruling elites’. This is exemplified by the United Kingdom’s 2016 vote to leave the EU and, more recently, the violent Yellow Vest protests in France.
The populists’ narratives, however, often reflect a misdiagnosis, willful or otherwise, of Europe’s condition. Yes, inequality has risen sharply, but that is not a result of excessively left-wing policies. The real problem is divisive economic thinking that treats competition as the defining characteristic of human relations.
The populist habit of demonizing all progressive policies, including those meant to advance sustainability, will only do more harm. But so will disregarding all of the populists’ criticisms of climate policy. Despite their manipulative framing, these criticisms often reflect legitimate concerns.
One cannot dispute, for example, that the climate debate so far has been largely technocratic, often neglecting social realities. But by reinforcing the impression that climate action is a ploy to benefit the elite, populist rhetoric has exacerbated distrust of governments, multilateralism, and even science, thereby eroding the very foundation of effective action.
Mainstream political parties, and proponents of climate action more generally, must do a better job of understanding why populists’ criticism resonates with so many. In particular, they must acknowledge that, without proper management, efforts to advance globalization and tackle climate change can carry high, and unfairly distributed, costs. That is precisely the message that the Yellow Vest protests, which were triggered by a fuel-tax hike that was not embedded in a broader social-reform or redistributive strategy, were supposed to send. In order to rebuild trust, policymakers should discuss trade-offs and acknowledge uncertainties more transparently.
To some extent, this message is already being heeded. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the proposed Green New Deal in the United States, and the ‘just transition’ movement all aim to ensure that climate strategies are not just effective, but also fair and embedded in holistic policy frameworks. But more should be done. For example, Europe-wide energy cooperation should stress diversification and grid integration to benefit peripheral regions and poorer segments of society, as well as the reduction of energy imports.
Even as we take into account legitimate criticisms, however, we must push back against the destructive effects of populist narratives, which are often characterized by fear-mongering and opportunism. This will require proponents of climate action to promote alternative narratives that foster enthusiasm for genuine political and social change. They must persuade voters that climate action will become a means of raising living standards, advancing social justice, ensuring a healthy environment, modernizing the economy, and increasing competitiveness.
Right-wing populist parties may well gain ground in May’s European Parliament elections. But that does not mean that climate action must fall by the wayside. The key to success will be for those who recognize the vital importance of climate action to advance robust, credible strategies centered on social and economic fairness. If placed at the core of a new European political narrative, a just climate transition could help Europe to escape the populist trap.
Stella Schaller is a project manager in the field of climate diplomacy at adelphi, a Berlin-based think tank.
Alexander Carius is Founder and Managing Director of adelphi.