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The far right, Europe and climate change

From disengagement to outright denial, the rise of radical-right parties could prove a major stumbling block to tackling climate change in Europe

The current growth of the radical right as a political force has dramatically changed the landscape in Europe. This has been a worrying development commonly analysed through the lens of harm to minority groups, as well as international institutions and to egalitarian values.

However, increasingly alarming evidence of rapid climate change highlights another perspective of this harm: not just on communities but on our globe as well.

Be it Donald Trump’s dismissal of the Paris Agreement (which unites all the world’s nations in a single agreement on tackling climate change), to accelerated deforestation under Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, or pro-diesel campaigns by the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, the danger posed by the radical right to national environments is damaging enough. Given the borderless nature of climate change, their positions pose a risk to the globe as a whole, too.

The radical right in Europe holds a range of perspectives on climate change. These go from complete denial to narrowly-focused ‘localism’. Only a minority accept the scientific consensus around climate change, and few propose concrete action. For the majority of the European radical right, climate change is an overlooked issue.

Worryingly, these radical-right parties often oppose transnational collaboration and multilateral agreements, which they generally consider to impede national sovereignty. As such, the rise of the radical-right weakens transnational institutions at a time when they are needed the most to tackle the climate change threat.

From disengagement to denialism

The research hub into climate change denial at Chalmers University in Sweden states:

“Climate change denial [is] strongly linked to right-wing nationalism.”

Likewise, a February 2019 report by the German climate think tank Adelphi found that a large majority of the populist radical right in Europe espouse ideas that are in conflict with the scientific consensus of the ongoing, human-induced climate change now taking place. Unsurprisingly, most radical-right parties also have a negative track record in the European Parliament in terms of voting for policies aimed at mitigating climate change, as do both incumbents and opposition in national parliaments.

The Adelphi report splits European radical-right parties into three categories here:

  1. Denialists who reject the scientific consensus
  2. Disengaged parties and those that express some scepticism to climate change
  3. Those supportive of mainstream climate science

Seven parties directly deny the scientific consensus on human-induced climate change, while only three can be said to support the evidence for climate change.

Germany’s AfD is one of the principal climate deniers among the radical-right parties in Europe. With its 11 seats in the European Parliament, it is also one of the fastest growing radical-right parties on the continent. The party made claims such as: “CO2 is not a pollutant but an indispensable component of all life,” in its 2017 federal election programme.

Despite lacking the momentum of AfD, UKIP’s representatives from the UK have also pedalled conspiracy theories on climate change and quoted unscientific sources on the topic.

A 2018 report by UKIP MEP John Stuart Agnew argued that “human activity played no part whatsoever” on climate change. A video posted on the official UKIP Facebook page in April 2019 was hashtagged “#ClimateHoax” and in it former cash-for-questions disgraced MP, Neil Hamilton, now leader of UKIP in Wales, exclaimed:

“Let’s wake up and wise up, there is no climate change problem.”

Outside of Europe, Donald Trump has similarly expressed conspiratorial ideas on global warming. In 2012, he tweeted:

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

Since taking office the President has continued to make climate change-denying claims and casting doubt on mainstream science, accusing climate scientists (in October 2018) of having a “political agenda”.

However, what characterises most of the radical right is a lack of engagement with the issue of climate change. Many completely lack, or have only minimal outspoken positions, in the area and often express their ideas inconsistently on the issue. This includes some of the largest radical-right parties in Europe, such as National Rally (the former Front National) in France, as well as Italy’s party of governing coalition, Lega, and Poland’s governing right-wing Law and Justice party.

Victor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary is one of few radical-right political parties that has supported climate legislation in the EU, as well as acknowledged the global nature of the issue. Orbán has spoken out in favour of the Paris Agreement, a rarity among radical-right leaders. However, at a national level Fidesz has done little to advance positive change.

However, there remains a level of divergence between the parties in how they frame the issue of climate change beyond these categories. They mobilise a variety of arguments to support their course of action (or lack of it): from opposing climate action because of its supposed harm to the economy – or for its disfigurement of natural landscapes – to climate action’s potential impact on ‘national sovereignty’.

Economically wasteful

One of the arguments mobilised by radical-right parties against climate change is the idea that policy changes will be harmful for the economy, or discriminate against those people the parties see as their core voters. This is one of the most frequently used narratives by both climate deniers and sceptics.

Variations of these arguments include opposition to taxation, especially on fuel, and how such taxes will be detrimental to a majority of the people. This is akin to a line popularised by the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protest movement in France, which says that while politicians and climate activists “talk about the end of the world, we’re worried about the end of the month.” Investments in policies that might limit global warming are also pitted against other issues such as immigration and security.

Germany’s AfD, which frequently posts climate-denying content on its Facebook page, summarises:

“The plans for a CO2 tax are, above all, a burden for the middle class and the economically weakest citizens. […] This pseudo-ecology is a poison for the economy that is meant to ensure our prosperity.”

The radical-right Sweden Democrats argued similarly, after the Swedish government announced plans to increase spending aimed at lowering the use of fossil fuels in transport:

“The government has just presented the largest investment in environment and climate in Sweden’s history. At the same time, we have striking healthcare staff, a police force that is on its knees and rampant costs for migration and integration. And of course, increased income tax.”

Anti-elitist populism is often part of these core ‘economic’ arguments too. Social media campaigns by the AfD, for example, have highlighted the supposed hypocrisy of liberal and cosmopolitan elites (commonly made out to be the ‘enemy’) for using air travel while calling on others to limit their contributions to CO2 emissions.

Localism

There is a form of climate discourse that selectively focuses on the national context while disengaging from transnational cooperative projects, and expresses opposition to climate action more generally. This ‘localism’ instead favours local environmental conservation.

Although some localist ideas can be effective in their own context, it is the selective application of environmentalist rhetoric and its use to advance nationalist ideas that is problematic.

Localist rhetoric mobilises environmentalist arguments in selective contexts to advance protectionist and nativist goals. It also ties in with national romanticist and conservative views commonly held by the radical right, seeking to preserve a romanticised past rather than creating a sustainable future. This rhetoric allows a party to stay consistent with anti-globalist ideas while appealing to a broader audience.

Wind power is opposed by several radical-right parties for its supposed damage to the environment as well as its unsightliness.

The ultra-right nationalist Vlaams Belang in Flanders said that wind farm decision makers ignored the “impact on the open landscape, the environment and the quality of life of local residents,” while the AfD’s party programme says that wind power “destroy[s] the picture of our cultural landscapes and are a deadly risk for birds.”, for example.

In France, the National Rally’s 2019 European election manifesto argued for localism as a way to preserve the national environment and create jobs in France. Jordan Bardella, the party’s first candidate on its European Parliamentary list and vice-president of the party, argued that:

“Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet.”

He proposed to limit emissions by stopping most imports. The party has not voted in favour of any climate proposals in the EU between 2008 – 2018, according to the Adelphi report.

At least at a superficial level, these economic arguments contradict the common position that climate action is a waste of resources. It shows that the positions of the radical right on climate change are not completely uniform.

Anti-globalism

The economic protectionism inherent in localism also highlights another belief that is held by a majority of radical-right parties: that climate change is a cause advanced by liberal, progressive elites.

As outspoken anti-globalists, many radical-right parties have adopted rhetoric that says climate change is a globalist project aimed at weakening the sovereignty of the nation state. 

Mistrust of mainstream science is, of course, also what climate change contrarians as well as deniers hinge their argument upon. This provides another overlap between climate conspiracy theorists and the far right. Moreover, the contrarian aspect of climate denial or scepticism brings out why far-right politicians might seek to pursue policies which prevent action on climate change. Populist radical-right political leaders around the world have made contrarian, brazen rejection of the mainstream a central part of their rhetoric.

The opposition to international organs like the EU and UN by the radical right is well documented. The many rejections of the Paris Agreement by radical-right actors show that they are hostile to international cooperation. A statement on the Paris Agreement by the Austrian Freedom Party said:

“Sovereign states decide what they want to do with regard to climate change. […] The elite are laughing here while rubbing their hands. They will benefit from these climate action plans.”

The idea of national elites being beholden to international actors such as multinational companies, as well as transnational organs, is central to the radical right – and climate rhetoric is no exception.

Looking ahead

The radical right is not solely to blame for inaction on climate change. The current British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has expressed denialist views on climate change numerous times, calling it in 2015 a “primitive fear without foundation”.

However, climate change scepticism and denial is a widely-held position among radical-right parties and thus adds another level of threat to the already worrying rise of radical and far-right movements across the world. Given the urgent need for climate action, the opposition to international cooperation led by much of the radical right, exemplified by their critique of the Paris Agreement and even denial of the issue itself, is deeply harmful.

There are some small glimmers of change, though, which might prove cause for hope.

After a disappointing result at the 2019 European elections, Germany’s AfD faced internal criticism from within its own youth wing, with calls for the party to rethink its climate denial position and its support for the coal industry if it wanted to win the youth vote.

Even this, though, could highlight another potential threat, with the far- and radical-right parties potentially falsely adopting climate change rhetoric in order to capture younger and more mainstream voters, advancing intolerance in the name of climate action.


Patrik Hermansson is a researcher for HOPE not hate. You can find him on Twitter.

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