Drought and Fires XV: Umatilla National Forest, Washington State, 2006 © Sayler/Morris
The Right Wing’s Relationship to the Issue of Climate
AfD, Ukip or FPÖ: right-wing populist parties stand out because of their statements regarding the reality of climate change. Is there an overall pattern? In a recent study, Alexander Carius and Stella Schaller have researched the attitudes of the European Right on matters of climate change. They talk about the motives and arguments of these parties in an interview with 42 Magazine – and highlight how the protection of climate needs to change so as not to provide them with further ammunition.
Mr Carius, Ms Schaller – right-wing populists attract negative attention with sceptical and hostile opinions in the current debate about climate protection. Why does this part of the political spectrum tend to frequently doubt climate change?
Alexander Carius: This is predominantly tied to the belief of having easy answers to complex questions. Many right-wing populists dispute basic physical facts, doubt man-made climate change, and question climate science as a whole. To them, science is elitist, a conspiracy. They do not address the socio-economic ramifications of man-made climate change but instead they broach the issue of an allegedly negative impact on the national economy and low-income households. Mainly though, they avoid any public discourse which exposes the facts. Finally, their strong nationalist perspective is in conflict with the necessary multilateral actions. In general, climate politics is a surface onto which they can project their nationalist, anti-democratic, and non-liberal worldview.
In a recently published study you researched the positions of European right-wing populists towards the climate. What did you find out?
Stella Schaller: Right-wing populist parties and their positions towards climate politics can be divided into three groups. The first one is made up of climate change deniers and sceptics. They discredit the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, deny the anthropocentric part of climate change and spread, at times, strange ideas, for example that climate change is being caused by cosmic rays. The German AfD belongs to this group, as does the British Ukip and the Sweden Democrats. A second group, consisting mostly of right-wing populist parties does not have a political climate program and their statements are erratic. In this group, statements in election programmes often contradict the statements of their press spokespersons and party leaders. A third group accepts man-made climate change. The Hungarian Fidesz party and the Latvian National Alliance are part of this group and they are involved in radical right-wing marches against minorities. Half of all right-wing populist members in the European Parliament vote against climate and energy laws.
How do you explain the right-wing populist’s ideological differences towards climate change? For example, what distinguishes Fidesz from the AfD?
S: The different levels have various causes. For example, when right-wing populist parties are part of the ruling government their positions are more moderate. Parties from countries with a small carbon-footprint take up far less extreme positions towards climate topics. The Fidesz party has been in charge of the government since 2010. They have had a lot of time to develop climate political positions and pragmatic approaches. Also, Hungary runs on a mix of energies derived from a lot of gas and nuclear energy and hardly any coal, which makes the country’s ecological footprint good. This is similar in the case of the National Alliance in climate-friendly Latvia. Climate protection is fairly unchallenged, the issue cannot become as politically charged there, as in an economy which relies on coal. In Germany the prices for energy have risen because of the energy crisis – that obviously works in favour of parties like the AfD which are trying to pin the public against elites.
C: The Hungarian Fidesz and the Latvian National Alliance show the discrepancy between a climate-friendly attitude on the one hand and anti-democratic and non-liberal politics on the other. The latter undermines what climate politics are supposed to be: strong, globalised, scientifically and socially motivated. In the best case, they ought to be modern and based on ecological and transformative change. That is what most populists seem to fear, because they have no place in such a world.
In your research, Fidesz and the National Alliance form a minority in light of their climate-friendly attitudes. How do other parties argue when they oppose climate protection measures?
S: On the one hand, they claim that climate change has a negative impact on the economy because of energy prices rising. Also, low-income households are disproportionally more impacted. Additionally, the parties utilise arguments in favour of environmentalism: solar and wind plants are supposedly destroying cultural landscapes and lead to the death of birds and the destruction of forests. Lastly, the parties argue that climate protection measurements in Europe would have no effect due to rising emissions in China and India. Parties which doubt the connection between carbon emission and climate change think that national climate politics are pointless. Arguing that low-income households are more afflicted by a carbon tax is in general neither a populist nor a right-wing argument. Sociological reservations are to be taken seriously and democratic parties are increasingly recognising their role in such matters – as can be witnessed in the current debate.
C: Socially unfair consequences of climate change protection measures are utilised by both left and right-wing parties. We saw the repercussions through the example of the yellow vests movement in France: If a carbon tax were to be introduced there it would economically impact poorer households and the rural population disproportionally, compared to the rest of the country. These parts of the population rely on personal vehicles and are unable to fall back on public transport. There are solutions to this issue. For example, Sweden and Switzerland purposefully utilise tax cuts or reduced health insurance contributions to partially give revenues from carbon taxes back to low-income households.
“When climate-political measures aren’t embedded in a whole anthology of socio-political provisions, they are less likely to be accepted”
To what extent should this become the norm?
C: When climate-political measures are no longer embedded in a whole anthology of socio-political provisions, they are less likely to be accepted by society. This mistake is often contrived when climate politics are being constructed, showing a weakness in the implementation of the Paris climate agreement. We cannot try to only adjust one point or another – we have established the goal of living in a carbon-free world, so we have to move away from fossil energies like coal or oil. This means that the way we produce goods and consume them, the way we built, how we eat and how we get around has to change in its entirety. This change can only be successful when the solutions have an appeal to the majority. That is precisely where populists – right and left wing – see their opportunity. The issue of social unfairness has the potential to be instrumentalised, but it is not an unsolvable issue. A carbon tax, for example, is just one method which can be utilised for climate protection. We have to research what consequences which measures have on each other and how they can be cushioned with social policies.
In certain contexts, even climate sceptics will support renewable energies.
S: There is a number of parties – for example, the FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria) and the Rassemblement National – who are considerably sceptical towards climate issues but still support renewable energies because they understand the economic advantages. The production of modern technologies in one’s own country can create new jobs and reduce the dependence on foreign energy imports. This is the idea of energy self-sufficiency. For example, Marine Le Pen said: We do not want to depend on energy imports from Saudi-Arabia which always tend to come with an ideology. In 2018, the FPÖ, in cooperation with the Austrian People’s Party had presented a strategy to achieve 100% renewable energies while modernising their economy and cleaning up the air.
“Energy and climate politics are only effective across border”
But is that not a contradiction? On the one hand, these parties claim that renewable energies are expensive and bad for the environment but on the other side they understand it as an economic opportunity…
S: These parties engage in a “green patriotism” which goes into two different directions. On the one hand, many parties argue against climate protection measures in the name of the environment. The assumption is that the further development of solar and wind power plants will destroy cultural landscapes. They utilise a romanticised nationalism, often even explicitly nationalist rhetoric. The idea of “I want to protect the environment” only goes as far as the national border. This is too short-sighted because climate change does not only endanger the local flora and fauna. On the other hand, they support the expansion of renewable energies on the basis of national economic interest.
C: In general, the term “green patriotism” is nothing bad, it just tends to be corrupted when used. Essentially, what is meant is the action to stand up and protect your own environment’s nature and biodiversity, as well as healthier and cleaner living environments. In our globalised world, this does not really work because of how energy and climate politics are only effective across borders. Nonetheless, protecting climate globally only works when ambitious politics are being pursued on a national level which includes the conservation of nature and landscapes, as well as dealing with contradictory politics.
What do these contradictions mean for the political climate debates?
C: We need this discourse. When we build wind farms it will inevitably lead to a change in landscape – that is why we discuss the advantages and disadvantages of onshore and offshore wind farms. None of our political climate protection measures is uncontroversial. Climate politics are not a technological but a socio-political approach which requires the testing of various models. We are bound to make more mistakes in climate politics. We are bound to experience further contradictions, for example, when trying to replace private transport solutions with electric vehicles. This will not lead to a decrease in traffic density as long as we do not implement other forms and concepts of mobility. The path to a low-carbon economy will not be free from contentions and controversies. But that is what democratic processes are for.
What would be the best way to approach right-wing parties in this debate?
S: Right-wing parties and their often manipulative arguments should not be the focus. What is important is to expose their positions to be able to present the voters with alternatives. Our study has shown that a big part of right-wing populist parties is without a concept for climate policy. Over the past few years, climate science has understood its capability and need to be a whole lot more involved in socio-politics. When facts about the climate are clearly communicated, climate science can point out more distinctly the advantages of climate politics towards competitiveness and energy autonomy. Economy and society, as well as jobs, need to be modernised to allow the transformation into a carbon-free economy. Over the course of the next few years, we need to shape the complete renewal of our industry.
“We have to act now and way more radically than we are at the moment”
How can we achieve this?
C: This process needs to be organised by the parties from within the democratic array. Climate politics is social policy; climate politics is modernisation policy. Social policy, as well as modernisation policy, are both part of climate politics. They only work when we grant certain concessions to the politically disadvantaged – for example, in Germany over the withdrawal from coal-powered energy. We have to give the citizens who are still employed by the coal industry and, by extension, the following generations reasonable alternatives in terms of occupation and life perspectives.
Climate risks are issues which only arise after some time. We have to act now and way more radically than we are at the moment. In Germany, the coal commission, a commission created to bring about changes in the national system, has submitted a few proposals, highlighting the need for massive investments. For this we can utilise the potential of our society.
What potential do you mean?
C: The transition to other energies and the withdrawal from coal energy are favoured by distinct majorities in all German polls. The latest poll has shown that 80% of all citizens are for the withdrawal from coal energy. We have to use this kind of political support more. The question is: How do I design the transition; how do I make it interesting? The transition is going to be difficult – people do not like change, especially not when they are confronted with utterly new concepts of production, consumption and mobility. The European parties have to shape this process and supply it with ideas. This process of creating a future needs to be directed by utilising the strengths of a well-established science community and a strong civil society. We have just started one of the biggest societal projects ever. I believe if this succeeds, the question of right-wing populists continuing to take a strong stand will not matter anymore.
The political scientist Alexander Carius is CEO of the Berlin think tank adelphi. He is researching issues such as climate change and democracy and advises, among others, the EU Council and the German government.
Stella Schaller is an expert on climate matters and works for the think tank adelphi. She is the head of projects dealing with climate protection and climate diplomacy. Her focus lies on the combination of sustainable development and peacekeeping within the area of climate diplomacy.